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Unsung pollinators – time to celebrate our flies, beetles and wasps

In the UK it is estimated that a staggering one in every three mouthfuls of food depends on pollination. Pollination is an essential process for many staples of our veg gardens and supermarket trips, including apples, tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries. Added to this, many other native plants, such as wildflowers, trees and shrubs, are also reliant on pollinators.

When we think about pollinators, often what will come to mind are bees and butterflies, maybe moths as well, but these aren’t the only insects with a claim to the name.

Flies, beetles and wasps don’t have the profile of bees and butterflies, but they are also important pollinators. And like bees and butterflies they are threatened by our changing environment. The conversion of woodland and wildflower meadows into agricultural land, widespread use of pesticides, and impacts from invasive species and climate change have all contributed to declining populations of most native insects.

Mapping this decline of our unsung pollinators is particularly challenging as they are hard to tell apart, or are viewed as pests despite their value in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Fortunately, to help scientists understand what’s happening to our pollinators, and to take action to support them, you don’t have to be able an expert - Naturehood is here to help.

Completing the Me & My Naturespace and Naturespace Challenge surveys gives our researchers at Naturehood information about the type of features you have to support wildlife in your space and the species that benefit from them. We also have simple resources to help you take action as a household and with local groups, so it’s a way to connect with your neighbours too.

Flies and hoverflies

Because they are such a common sight a fly can be easy to dismiss. In fact, the UK has around 7,000 different species of fly. This diversity means that there is also a great variation in their habitats, lifestyles and diets.

Many feed solely on exposed fluids and small solids, like pollen grains, helped along by a sense of taste based not just in the mouth, but also their legs.

Some flowers use this to their advantage. Species like cow parsley mimic the smell of urine in order to attract flies that wouldn’t typically visit flowers. In doing so they raise the chance of pollen being passed to another flower from their species.

Other species of fly, including hoverflies, are less driven by the smell of the flowers and more by their tempting offer of nectar to feed on.

Flies are more likely than bees and butterflies to venture out into windier, colder conditions and so are particularly important in alpine and coastal environments. Recent evidence suggests that the population decline of  pollinators living in uplands is particularly steep, as high as 55%, potentially due to a great impact from climate change in these areas.

Beetles

Beetles can be pollinators in a couple of different ways.

In a similar way to bees, vegetarian species like the thick-legged flower beetle go from flower to flower to feed on nectar and pollen. Unlike bees, they are commonly found fulfilling this role in darker, damper environments like our forests and woodlands.  

Another way that beetles pollinate flowers is with a more carnivorous mind-set. Species like the common red soldier beetle enjoy nectar and pollen, but as they rove in pairs between flowers they are more interested in smaller visitors like aphids. On their travels they inadvertently transport  pollen and so the flowers that have been their hunting ground get to benefit too.

Wasps

The nemesis of many a summer picnic, wasps are a familiar foe when it comes to jam sandwiches and fizzy drinks.

Generally, wasps are predatory – they catch and eat smaller insects, like caterpillars and greenfly. But there’s  a reason why they are interested in your sweet treats – wasps can be pollinators too.

To keep our ecosystems functioning healthily it’s important that wasps are around. As generalist pollinators they can benefit a number of different flowering plants and so definitely earn their pollinator stripes. However, their role as predators shouldn’t be overlooked either, especially as their catch in the UK is estimated at a whopping 14 million kilograms each summer.

What can I do to help these unsung pollinators?

Naturehood has loads of great opportunities to help all kinds of pollinators.

Contributing to our research is a fantastic way to map the challenges facing this group, as well helping to figure out the most effective solutions.

Join our thriving community and share with us what it is you’re doing and the questions you have. You will also meet likeminded people so that together we can achieve more than any of us could individually.

Many of the actions that we can take in our own spaces (gardens, balconies and allotments) will benefit a full range of pollinators.

If you’re still using pesticides, stop now! These harsh chemicals have decimated all kinds of insects and there are a number of alternatives to explore, head to the Naturehood platform to find out more.

Another action that helps all kinds of pollinators is having a good mix of native flowers on offer. You can ensure there’s a diversity of plants by having a mixture of different colours, shapes and sizes of flower. Planting up a flower bed or a window box is a great way to do this, but just by stopping mowing your lawn through May you are likely to see a carpet of dandelions and daisies springing through.

Our unsung pollinators will also benefit from having hedgerows, log piles and even patches of bare ground to shelter in (lots more info on the Naturehood platform). Having a mosaic of these features, as well as flowers in your space will help to transform our landscape by providing vital stepping stones.

When your neighbours join in the impact of your features is amplified, which is why if you are already taking part in Naturehood it’s so important to share the project and the plight of our unsung pollinators.

By James Winder, Naturehood Coordinator

References

https://www.buglife.org.uk/resources/state-of-nature-report/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-08974-9

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-do-wasps-do.html

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