The year is 2031. Two friends, Steve and Tina, enter a café. Smiling at the waiter, Tina orders an oat milk latte for herself and an apple juice for Steve. Gently yet assertively, the waiter replies: “Madam, unfortunately we don’t have coffee right now but I can offer you our premium coffee alternative instead. If you haven’t tried it, it is convincingly similar. And sir, the apple juice is the hand-pollinated variety, 150ml. Are you happy with that?” Steve and Tina nod, resigned to what’s coming. “That will be £31.70, please. Take a seat and we will bring them over.”
This is an edited excerpt from the Minus Pollinators project by Max Fraser and Freddie Yauner, commissioned by Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Manifesting as a mobile drinks kiosk, it proposes a dystopian future where taken-for-granted items that require pollinators – such as coffee and fruit juice – have been severely affected following a catastrophic decline in insect populations in the 2020s.
Such was the story’s impact on Gill Perkins, CEO of Bumblebee Conservation Trust, that she chose to tell it at her Pollen to Plate workshop at RHS Tatton. “About 84% of crops grown in the UK depend on insect pollination, which contributes over £600 million per year to the UK economy – this was in 2015, so it could be up to £800m now. Across the EU, it’s €14.2 billion,” Gill explains. “There is a huge disconnect between our food and how it gets to our plates.”
She stresses that what bees offer is a “free service”. If the population of pollinators continues to decline, the cost of pollinating fruit and vegetables will rise significantly. According to Friends of the Earth, hand-pollinating British crops has been estimated to cost £1.8 billion annually. Once again, nature shows us that its systems are already best-practice – and cost-effective. Consider the hexagonal shapes that form honeycombs; they’ve been borrowed by humans to give strength to all sorts of structures, from children’s building blocks to bridges.
For Gill, it’s vital that we understand the nuance in the decline of bee populations so that we can better act on the solutions. There are more than 270 species of bees in the UK, 24 of which are bumblebees – two have already been lost to extinction, with another two classed as endangered. We’ve also lost about 50% of solitary bee species. But the honeybee is not at risk. In fact, globally-managed stocks of honeybees have increased by 45% since the 1960s, putting pressure on wild bees as they compete for pollen and nectar. This is a particular problem in London, Gill argues, due to the proliferation of domestic hives in gardens and rooftops.
But the biggest threat to bumblebees continues to be the large-scale changes to our countryside and the pressure on land to build. Bumblebees only feed on flowers and 97% of flower-rich meadows have been lost since 1937, according to the Trust. “We import 70,000 boxes of bumblebees every year into the UK,” Gill explains. “Honeybees are really good at collecting pollen per bee, but the bumblebee, with its furry coat, is much better at spreading it – bumblebees are the great pollinators.”
A good friend of Anabel Kindersely, the co-owner of Neal’s Yard, Gill is a supporter of the brand’s Save the Bees campaign, which is calling for a total ban of the bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticide. In 2018, the UK government followed the EU in banning three neonicotinoid pesticides, but in 2022, it went against its own scientific advice and lifted the ban to protect sugar beet crops.
At a Bee Symposium in June this year, Anabel brought together environmental experts and industry leaders to discuss the effects of these pesticides and subsequent actions we can take to fight against them. The panel explained that the toxicity of neonicotinoid pesticides used today are 7,000 times more damaging than DDT – an insecticide banned in the 1990s due to its adverse environmental effects and potential human health risks. To put this into context, just a single teaspoon of neonicotinoid pesticide is enough to kill 1.25 billion bees.
Vote with our wallets. As individuals, we hold tremendous power to drive change and we have a responsibility to make informed purchasing decisions. On its website, Bumblebee Conservation Trust argues that, whilst agriculture accounts for 70% of the UK’s land area, it is not farmers who are to blame. “Pressure from supermarkets and ultimately from consumers – for perfect, unblemished crops, for ever-increasing yields, for the cheap food that pushes farm-gate prices significantly below the unit cost of production – is driving farmers towards agricultural intensification, towards increased chemical inputs (pesticides and fertilisers), and, increasingly, out of business.”
Support organisations that are helping to drive systemic change. Add our names to government petitions, such as Save the Bees, and support with monetary donations, if we can.
Maximise our gardens, whatever their size, by providing food and habitat for bees. Gardens cover over one million acres in the UK and Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a section on its website dedicated to gardening for bees.
Take part in survey works to help monitor the activities of bees species, detect warning signs and take action.
And remember: bees are not the only pollinators. It’s a huge team effort, with butterflies, moths, beetles, ants, and flies all working together to protect biodiversity and ensure a harmonious ecosystem for every one of us.