Monitoring schemes to count pollinating insects could help save species and protect UK food security, and provide excellent value for money, researchers have found.

The study led by the University of Reading and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), found the costs of running nationwide monitoring schemes are more than 70 times lower than the value of pollination services to the UK economy, and provide high quality scientific data at a much lower cost than running individual research projects.

Insect pollinators, such as wild bees and hoverflies, are under threat from many factors including habitat loss and climate change, and understanding where and why they are declining is essential to better target efforts to protect them. National pollinator strategies for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have highlighted monitoring as a priority for government action, but need to compete with other funding needs.

Dr Claire Carvell of UKCEH, a senior author of the new study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, says: “Monitoring bees and other pollinators is challenging due to the sheer number of species involved, the difficulty in identifying them and the shortage of specialist skills needed.

“This research has been instrumental in helping design a world-leading Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS) for the UK which combines both professional and volunteer involvement, and generates data for research and policy that we can’t really accomplish with standard research grants. And at a lower cost too.”

Dr Carvell is coordinator of the UK Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership, involving institutes, government agencies and wildlife charities, which runs PoMS. The scheme aims to provide much-needed long-term data on UK pollinators and the role they fulfil in supporting farming and wildlife. It oversees both 10-minute counts (FIT Counts) of insects by members of the public in their own gardens and local spaces, and surveys of a network of 1km squares by trained volunteers. Scientists from UKCEH and partners liaise with the volunteers, and collate and analyse the data, as well as filling in the gaps where squares are not yet allocated to volunteers.

Value for money

The study calculated how much it would cost to run various types of monitoring scheme for 10 years, with differing levels of volunteer and professional involvement. These ranged from £6,000 a year for a volunteer scheme collecting counts of insects visiting flowers from 75 sites, up to £2.7m a year for a fully professional scheme to monitor pollination and yields at 800 sites.

Citizen science is invaluable in providing information at scales that would not otherwise be practical, and the study suggests that combining the strengths of both volunteers - who are often highly skilled - and professionals is the most effective way of monitoring pollinators.

It found a well-designed pollinator monitoring scheme could provide data to answer eight key research questions, including the impact of climate change and whether farmland conservation measures are working, for at least 33 per cent less cost than a series of separate studies funded by traditional grant schemes.

Pollinator images

FIT Counts involve recording the insects that visit a 50cm x 50cm area over a 10-minute period. Pictured are a solitary bee (Andrena nitida) and hoverfly (Chrysotoxum festivum)  Pictures: Katty Baird/Nadine Mitschunas/Martin Harvey

The study also calculated the potential loss of yield of insect-pollinated crops grown in the UK, including apples, berries, beans, oilseed rape and tomatoes, if declines in species were not addressed. A 30 per cent decline in pollinator numbers over 10 years would cost more than £188m per year in lost crop yield.

The authors say therefore that well-designed monitoring schemes, collating valuable data on pollinator numbers in order to inform effective conservation measures, provide excellent value for money.

Dr Tom Breeze of the University of Reading, who led the study, says: "Pollinating insects are the unsung, unpaid heroes of British farming, but we know many species need help. Our analysis shows that large-scale and long-term pollinator monitoring schemes can be cost-effective and add tremendous value to food security and wider scientific research.”

Appreciating nature

The number of FIT Counts submitted to PoMS has more than doubled in 2020. Some 1,800 counts were submitted between April and September this year compared with 809 during the same period in 2019, and Minister for pollinators, Rebecca Pow MP, says there has been an increased appreciation for nature in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

She adds: “The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS) is an excellent way to inspire people to take action to protect our pollinators. Our pollinators may be small, but they play a key role in our ecosystem, and this scheme creates world-leading evidence helping us to better understand their status. It’s tremendously positive to see the UK government and devolved administrations, research institutions and the public working together to understand these essential and precious creatures.”          

Professor Helen Roy of UKCEH, a co-author of the pollinator monitoring value study, says: “It is incredibly exciting to consider the benefits to people and nature achieved through the implementation of the Pollinator Monitoring Scheme. Volunteers can play a critical role in gathering much-needed data from across Britain while increasing everyone’s understanding of these important and much-loved insects.”

The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme is an excellent way to inspire people to take action to protect our pollinators - Minister Rebecca Pow

Further information

The research was undertaken as part of the UK Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership (PMRP) - which is co-ordinated by UKCEH - and also the Global Food Security programme as part of the Resilient Pollinators project. PMRP is jointly funded by Defra, the Welsh and Scottish governments and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The project partners are UKCEH, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, British Trust for Ornithology, Hymettus, University of Reading, University of Leeds and the Natural History Museum. They work with volunteer networks across the UK such as the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) and the UK Hoverfly Recording Scheme.

The study involved authors from organisations in the partnership, including Claire Carvell, Martin Harvey, Nick Isaac, Jodey Peyton, David Roy and Helen Roy from UKCEH.

Breeze TD et al. 2020. Pollinator monitoring more than pays for itself, Journal of Applied Ecology. DOI: 101111/1365-266413755