What is pollination? Pollination is the means by which plants reproduce, and relies upon the transfer of pollen between flowers of the same species. Most plants cannot set seed without being pollinated. Pollination is achieved by a number of means, including wind and water, but a large proportion of plants rely on insects to pollinate their flowers. Insect-pollination is generally a lower-cost option for plants as it is more accurate and species do not have to produce the same volumes of pollen as those relying on wind dispersal.
Who does it?
Say pollinator, and the humming of bees often springs to mind, but around the world pollination is actually carried out by a range of species including a wide variety of insects, along with bats, birds and mammals. In the UK the majority of pollination is carried out by bees (wild solitary bees and bumblebees, as well as domesticated honeybees), flies (including hoverflies and bee-flies), butterflies, moths, wasps and beetles.
Why is pollination important for food production?
Wild insects pollinate our food for free and improve many crop yields. It is estimated that 84% of EU crops (valued at £12.6 billion) and some 80% of wildflowers rely on insect pollination. This makes pollination a vital service upon which agriculture depends. In order for pollination to work well, a diverse community of insect pollinators is required and a greater variety of wild pollinating insects will lead to an improvement in the quantity and quality of pollination.
Important crops pollinated by wild insects
Many crops can be pollinated by wind or insects, but studies have repeatedly shown that pollination by insects improves seed setting; resulting in higher yields and better quality products. Commercial crops that benefit from visits by wild insect pollinators include:
- Oilseed rape is pollinated by short-tongued insects including hoverflies and honeybees, as well as bumblebees. Insect pollination increases the number of seeds produced and the oil content of these seeds – increasing overall yield.
- Field beans are most easily accessed by long-tongued bumblebees. Pollination by insects increases pod set, helping pods ripen faster and producing more beans per pod.
- Strawberries produce open-fronted flowers visited by solitary bees, hoverflies and bumblebees. Pollination by insects results in more successful fruiting, with larger, firmer fruits that have a longer shelf life.
- Tomatoes, aubergines and peppers require ‘buzz pollination’, which relies on bumblebees and some solitary bee species producing vibrations using their flight muscles, to dislodge the pollen. Pollination by these ‘buzz pollinators’ increases the number and size of the fruits produced.
- Apple pollination is carried out predominantly by solitary bees and honeybees. Pollination by insects increases the quantity of fruit produced and also its quality (size and shape), which can have a bearing on its market value.
How can farmers and landowners help wild insect pollinators?
To restore healthy populations of wild insect pollinators we need to address the factors that have contributed to their decline. This includes managing and restoring existing natural habitats, and importantly, looking for ways to link these together using flower-rich corridors such as field margins and hedgerows.
Land managers and farmers have a great opportunity to help reverse the fortunes of wild insect pollinators and in turn safeguard pollination services in to the future. In England, the Countryside Stewardship programme can provide payments to farmers for good management of the land. This programme includes a Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package, which has a combination of options that have been targeted to provide the essential resources required by wild insect pollinators. This includes payments to farmers for implementing measures such as planting flower strips, managing woody habitats and providing areas of shelter such as tall vegetation and over-winter stubble. Financial support may also be offered to farmers and land managers through similar schemes in Wales (Glastir), Scotland (Scottish Rural Development Programme) and Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme).