This ostensibly strange thought came to me as I was cycling up to Westminster early on Wednesday morning. Pollinators were on my mind because I was heading up to the Houses of Parliament for the launch of Buglife’s grandly titled Pollinator Manifesto. A lord, an MP and a Cambridge research scientist were due to speak to the assembled breakfasters about the parlous state of Britain’s insects as manifested in the well documented declines in our native bees, wasps, hoverflies and various other key flower pollinator groups.
Pollinators are important, not just because they fertilize a few wild flowers to produce seeds, but because they have a potentially measurable financial impact in industrial agriculture. Major international farming industries around orchards, soft fruits, almonds, legumes and, of course, garden flowers, rely on these insects to take pollen from one flower to the next to ensure the crop
There has recently been a move to put a financial tag on wildlife, trying to encourage the free market economy to take it seriously. I think the adage goes along the lines of: if you don’t value it, why should you worry about it and why would you bother to protect it. Sadly value often has to mean monetary wealth rather than spiritual worth, but money talks to many people. With newspaper headlines about colony collapse disorder of honeybees and the mass disappearance of bumblebees, the market (and the politicians) have finally started to think about these diminutive creatures, and the possibility that they may not always just be there to carry out their free service for farmers.
Part of me worries that by promoting pollinators, other less commercially significant insects might be seen as irrelevant, less worthy of support and understanding. It’s all very well getting the farmers, the public and the politicians in favour of helping out the poor pollinators, but what about all the other less well known specks of animated matter flitting about in the disappearing and dwindling countryside? Just because something is not a pollinator species, will it be viewed as a second-class organism?
This kind of pick-and-choose favouritism, though, already exists, particularly in the world of insect conservation. Large charismatic species like butterflies, dragonflies, bumblebees and stag beetles are already promoted as flagships. Luckily, the proposals to help the beleaguered pollinators will also benefit the wider insect community.
It’s all down to the state of the environment. Lord de Mauley (Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Natural Environment and Science) was not able to attend the meeting, but Barry Gardiner (Shadow Minister, Natural Environment and Fisheries) spoke enthusiastically on parliament’s serious view of pollinator decline and the consultation recently launched to garner ideas and suggestions. Lynn Dicks (that Cambridge researcher I mentioned) captured the necessary environmental state for recovery in a single word: “resilience”. This is a key concept in conservation, even more fundamental than “sustainability”, because it brings with it the idea of a world that can cope with knocks — a strong and vibrant environment, not one barely surviving in meagre scattered nature reserves, which are easily snuffed out.
To get the pollinators working the broader countryside has got be healthier — it has to be unpolluted by pesticides, it has to be reunited not fragmented, it needs to be interlinked by real natural corridors (‘bee lines’ in Buglife jargon), it needs to have wild flowers reinstated, and especially it needs people to be aware that habitat degradation is occurring, and that insects of all sorts and inclinations (not just pollinators) are suffering major losses, both in terms of numbers and in terms of species diversity, because of human actions in the environment.
It was at this point, having noticed that most of the pains au chocolat had gone from the buffet table, that I started to craft my epic simile about cyclists. You see, cyclists travel about, just like pollinators. And just like bees, cyclists are flagship road-users, highlighted because of low carbon dioxide emissions and personal fitness benefits. Like bees, cyclists are vulnerable, not to population collapse perhaps, but to sudden left turns by concrete lorries, so they need safe friendly routes (like bee lines) to encourage them. They need air free of pollution from both neonicotinoids and exhaust fumes, so they can go about their business without being poisoned. They need forage zones (or at least places to park their bikes) which are secure and open. They need drivers (and pedestrians) to be aware of them, on the look out for them, respectful of them even. In effect they need a pleasant varied non-industrialized road system that is suited to diverse users, not just motorists. Just like the bees need a resilient varied interconnected environment suited to the diverse needs of wildlife, not just farmers.
If you’ve made it this far through my rambling discourse, well done, and thank you. It may still need some work. I’m not going to cycle in a black and yellow fluffy jumper quite yet.