Strategic pollinator conservation, English style

This blog was created as part of the original Valuing Nature Network (2011-2014)

The National Pollinators Strategy for England came out yesterday for consultation. In it, the Government outlines what it will do to help pollinators over the next 10 years.

Essentially it boils down to three things that are new:

• Provide targeted Government guidance on how to help pollinators
• Fund research to start filling in some glaring knowledge gaps
• Implement a new pollinator monitoring scheme from 2016.

The overall strategy seems to be: “Encourage everyone with an interest in pollinators to continue what they are doing or take extra steps, and make their activities more effective by promoting actions that are likely to work.”

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) must be applauded for developing policy in this area, and for taking the time to do it with everyone who is interested in pollinators on board. Such a strategy would be unlikely to achieve much without the widespread support from many players, because its success depends entirely on voluntary engagement and action by others. There is no additional regulation. There are no commitments with clear targets to do things that will directly help pollinators, such as creating flower-rich habitat, reducing overall pesticide use or its impacts.

Is this approach inevitable?

Pollinators present a real policy challenge. They are a very diverse group of insects providing an economically and culturally important service. The group, as loosely defined in the draft strategy, includes about 1,500 different insect species. Each has different habits, different needs and contributes differently to the services. Some groups are definitely in decline, or have been in the last 60 years, but we don’t know exactly to what extent the economic and cultural services to humans have been or could be impacted by these declines. Neither do we know exactly how different threats to pollinators interact, or which specific threats would reverse the decline if they were removed. Would declining bumblebee species such as the red-shanked carder bee spread back through central England if we just planted more flowers, for instance? Or would it take a reduced load of deformed wing virus, which could be transferring from managed honey bees in some areas (Furst et al. 2014), to re-populate their former range? The answers to such questions are likely to be different in different places, and for different species.

Given this complexity and uncertainty, perhaps a flexible, overarching, strategy that informs and directs action by multiple non-Government actors is the best approach. It is easy to appreciate how difficult it would be to secure direct investment or commitment to new regulation on such uncertain grounds. The most important thing is to make sure that as new knowledge emerges, it directly informs the guidance and those delivering advice. This, I hope, will be achieved through a Defra-led ‘knowledge exchange network’ to be implemented in 2016.

One big assumption

Recently, I published a paper with Atte Moilanen from University of Helsinki, in which we show how to analyse and compare high level conservation strategies such as this (Moilanen et al. 2014). Our method, called ‘structured analysis’, involves looking at the fundamental characteristics of a strategy. For example, which groups have to act? Are they able to act? What happens if you roll this out on a large scale?

In some ways, the National Pollinator Strategy would probably measure up well under structured analysis. It identifies the actors, and provides a way to empower each group, with information on what to do and at least one mechanism for doing it (agri-environment schemes, Integrated Pest Management, plant labelling schemes and so on). It recognises the data deficiencies and tries to address them through research and monitoring.

But it has an underlying assumption that concerns me. The Strategy relies on the long term motivation of everyone involved, to continue taking action for pollinators. Right now, there is great concern about pollinators, partly due to recent discoveries of declines in wild bees, butterflies, moths and honey bees. Many conservation organisations and businesses are running campaigns. What happens to the National Pollinator Strategy if this public interest is eclipsed by another issue? What if on-going research finds that the economic risks from pollinator decline are not as serious as they first seemed? 

The Strategy has an answer for this. Defra aims to ‘Refresh its commitment’ in 2019, after five years (see page 14). This means re-visiting the evidence and identifying additional policy actions needed to strengthen the response. For me, it is the most important part of the strategy document. I hope everyone interested in seeing pollinators thrive in the long term will hold Defra to it. 

These thoughts will be discussed at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology, in the House of Commons on Thursday 19 March 2014.

You have until 2 May to respond to the consultation on the National Pollinators Strategy:


Furst, M. A., D. P. McMahon, J. L. Osborne, R. J. Paxton, and M. J. F. Brown (2014). Disease associations between honeybees and bumblebees as a threat to wild pollinators. Nature 506:364-366.

Moilanen, A., J. Laitila, T. Vaahtoranta, L. V. Dicks, and W. J. Sutherland (2014). Structured analysis of conservation strategies applied to temporary conservation. Biological Conservation 170:188-197.