Surviving plants and insects are tougher than we think

Insect pollinators that have survived the impacts of agricultural intensification may have a greater ability to resist future environmental changes than previously thought, a new study has found.

Pollination by insects, particularly bees, is vital to food production and humans because it affects the yield or quality of 75% of globally important crop types, but in recent years there has been increasing concern about the long-term stability of this service due to widespread declines in some species.

Despite the negative impacts of agricultural intensification on plants and insect pollinators, researchers at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the University of Reading found the species that remain in parts of the UK with a higher proportion of farmed land are more likely to survive a variety of potential environmental changes.

However, the research, published in the Ecology Letters journal, suggested that was because these landscapes have already lost their most vulnerable species, retaining those insect and plant species that are more able to take whatever is thrown at them.

The study drew on six million records from more than 30 years of citizen science data from thousands of volunteer naturalists, relating to sightings of species and visits to plants by pollinators such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies. The latter records enabled researchers to identify 16,000 unique interactions between plants and pollinators across Great Britain and, for the first time, the extent of how these ‘ecological networks’ vary with different types of landscapes across the country.

John Redhead of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the lead researcher of the new study, said: “We think the plants and pollinators that remain in these landscapes represent the toughest species that can handle the stresses of intensive agriculture – the vulnerable ones are already long gone.

“This means that they’re also able to cope with many future changes, so although we hear about reported declines in our wildlife, this may buy conservationists some time before we start to see the remaining plants and pollinators in agricultural areas really suffer.”

The plants that have survived intensive agriculture include common weed species like brambles and thistles, which can cope with increased soil fertilization and reduced water availability. Meanwhile, the insects that have fared better are ‘generalist’ pollinators that can feed on a wide variety of plant species, including crops and weeds, plus can cope with fewer and more scattered floral and nesting sites.

The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Professor Tom Oliver of the University of Reading, one of the co-authors of the paper, says: “It is good news that the catastrophic loss of all species is less likely, but we still need to work hard to restore biodiversity to give these ecosystems the best chance under growing threats of climate change and pollution.”

Here are some examples of species who have either declined or survived under agricultural intensification:

Losers:

  • Shrill carder and brown banded carder bees
  • Arable plant species such as corn marigold, corn buttercup and cornflower
  • Traditional meadow species such as horseshoe vetch, common rockrose and harebell.
     

Winners:

  • Common bumblebees
  • Classic weed species such as bramble, cow parsley, spear thistle
  • Non-native species like buddleia.

Contact information

For interviews and images, please contact Simon Williams, Media Relations Officer at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK. Tel. +44 (0) 7920 295384, 01491 69227. Email. simwil@ceh.ac.uk

Lead author

John Redhead, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK. Email johdhe@ceh.ac.uk

Paper information

Potential landscape-scale pollinator networks across Great Britain: structure, stability and influence of agricultural land cover. John W. Redhead, Ben A. Woodcock, Michael J.O. Pocock, Richard F. Pywell, Adam J. Vanbergen, Tom H. Oliver. Ecology Letters. 2018. DOI: 10.1111/ele.13157

Funder

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We co-ordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

Research institution information

Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK
The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is the UK's Centre of Excellence for integrated research in the land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. CEH is part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), employs more than 450 people at four major sites in England, Scotland and Wales, hosts more than 150 PhD students and has an overall budget of about £35m. CEH tackles complex environmental challenges to deliver practicable solutions so that future generations can benefit from a rich and healthy environment.  http://www.ceh.ac.uk        Twitter @CEHScienceNews

University of Reading
The University of Reading is rated as one of the top 200 universities in the world (THE-QS World Rankings 2009) and is one of the UK's top research-intensive universities. The University is estimated to contribute £600m to the local economy annually. It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities which was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. https://www.reading.ac.uk         Twitter @UniofReading

Science areas: 

Primary Issues: