The Surprising Pollinators of the British Summertime

Photo by Ja Kubislav on Unsplash

You know, it’s kind of funny. We think we’re so advanced as a species, so untouchable and the “apex” predator. We take so much for granted. Something we take for granted, probably more than anything else, are insects. More specifically — pollinating insects.

Why is pollination important?

We rarely think of pollination. We go about our daily lives in blissful ignorance of the flat out hard work the tiny little insects of this world are carrying out. Insects often travel from plant to plant, dropping pollen along the way. Also, cross-pollinating with another plant of the same species allows for greater diversity in any new plants. This genetic diversity helps plants develop resistance to diseases and pests, and to evolve to changing conditions.

DAERA say that 1 in 3 bites of food we eat was created by crops pollinated by insects. We’re so lucky and we don’t even know how lucky we are. There’s a stigma surrounding some of the more widely known pollinators. People are fearful of them, or think they are aggressive. This is mostly untrue. When we hear the word pollinators, many of us probably think of honey bees. But you might be surprised to know there are over 1500 species of insect pollinators in the UK, some estimates put that figure at 4000 and above and there are some species that you would not expect to find on this list. Here’s a few of the UK’s pollinators that you might see out and about this Summer and if you do, remember how important they are and give them some space to do their important work.

The Bumblebee

Photo by Kristine Tanne on Unsplash

Did you know, there are a whopping 24 different species of bumblebee in the UK (25 if you include the reintroduced Short-haired bumblebee). That’s pretty wild. When we think of bumblebees, what springs to mind is probably one of the most popular and widespread species — the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee (pictured above). All bumblebees are excellent pollinators and in fact, according to Rod Macfarlane of Buzzuniversal they are 2–4 times more effective pollinators per bee than honeybees.

Some other types of bumblebee you might see this Summer:

  • White-tailed bumblebee
  • Garden bumblebee
  • Red-tailed bumblebee
  • Early Bumblebee
  • Tree bumblebee
  • Heath bumblebee
  • Common Carder bee
Photo by Kris-Mikael Krister on Unsplash

The Honeybee

Contrary to the bumblebee, there is just one single species of honeybee in the UK, although this species has different types known as “races” of honeybee. The Dark European Honeybee is the only one native to the UK. The honeybee makes up an estimated 5–15% of pollination in the UK, according to The Wildlife Trusts.

Silver Y moth -Copyright MaxPixel: https://www.maxpixel.net/photo-6602274

Silver Y Moth

One of the most surprising pollinators in the British countryside are moths. Specifically the Silver Y, named so after the silvery Y mark on each wing. The Silver Y is a migratory moth, seen from Spring through to late Summer usually in abundance and quite common. Though it’s not clear cut, moth pollinators such as the Silver Y are thought to be on the decline due to increased light pollution across all continents, according to the UNEP study titled We are losing the “Little things that run the world”.

An interesting study written about in this article in the Smithsonian had much to say about the pollination carried out by moths in comparison to bees.

Once a month, the researchers surveyed moths at night and bees, hoverflies and butterflies during the day. They swabbed 838 moths, 632 solitary bees, wasps, butterflies and hoverflies, and 1,548 social bees, such as honey and bumble bees, for pollen to figure out which plants the insects visited and how often.

The study found 45.5 percent of the moths were dusted with pollen from 47 different plant species — including seven plants that bees tend to ignore, the researchers report in the journal Biology Letters. The solitary bees, hoverflies, and butterflies visited 45 plant species, and the social bees tallied 46 plant species.

By sheer numbers, the social bees rightly earn their reputation as super pollinators. However, Walton notes in a statement, honey bees, bumble bees and their ilk “preferentially target the most prolific nectar and pollen sources.”

European Hoverfly

Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

Hoverflies are prolific pollinators. It is known that hoverflies visit and pollinate up to 72% of global crops. There are over 280 species of Hoverfly in the UK alone. As adults, they feed exclusively on nectar and pollen, making them incredibly efficient pollinators. Many people mistakenly think Hoverflies are wasps and can harm them, but nothing could be further from the truth. The reason that this “true fly” with no sting is commonly mistaken for wasps or bees is probably one of the most interesting facts about Hoverflies.

They’re a brilliant living example of Batesian mimicry (named after H W Bates who first described it in 1862) and often mimic bees or wasps (insects that taste unpleasant and have stinging defences) to avoid being targeted by predators that prey on regular flies without such ingenious evolutionary gifts.

Photo by Gaston Roulstone on Unsplash

Pollinators are on the decline

Sadly, pollinators in the UK are on a steady decline and it goes hand in hand with the loss of diverse wildflower-rich grassland habitats. The UK has lost 97% of it’s wildflower habitats since the 1930’s, a figure that’s extremely hard to fathom. This is due to rapid human expansion of cities and towns but also things like agriculture using pesticides — often recklessly (1)(2)(3)(4).

What can you do to help?

One of the best ways you can help pollinators, is to grow a wild garden. I personally let my garden grow however it wants, I don’t care for a nicely mowed lawn with some bedding plants. I love to see the buddleia attracting the butterflies and bees and the blossom trees and the tall wild grasses. It’s fantastic for the environment. There’s plenty more you can do, such as planting wildflowers in a section of garden and keeping that area wild if you don’t want the whole garden wild. Another great idea if you don’t have a garden, is to plant wildflowers or nectar-rich flowers in a windowbox. A wonderful company called “Just Bee” Honey offers free packs of bee-friendly seeds (just pay 99p shipping!) and also offers delicious, bee-friendly, organic honey. You can also download a Wild Bee Action Pack from The Wildlife Trusts. Be cautious about our pollinators, they’re doing some important work.

I hope I’ve inspired you to go out and get involved. If I have, I’d love to hear from you! 😄

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