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£10M initiative launched to tackle bee and pollinator decline

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21 April 2009

Up to £10M is to be invested to help to identify the main threats to bees and other insect pollinators, under a major project announced today.

Pollinators – including honey and bumble bees, butterflies and moths – play an essential role in putting food on our tables through the pollination of many vital crops. These insects are susceptible to a variety of disease and environmental threats, some of which have increased significantly over the last five to ten years. Climate change, in particular warmer winters and wetter summers, has had a major impact on pollinators.

As a result, the numbers of pollinators have been declining steadily in recent years, with the number of bees in the UK alone falling by between 10 and 15 per cent over the last two years.

To gain a better understanding of why this is happening, some of the UK’s major research funders have joined together to launch an important new research programme.

The biggest challenge will be to develop a better understanding of the complex relationships between biological and environmental factors which affect the health and lifespan of pollinators.

The funding will be made available to research teams across the UK under the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership, the major initiative by UK funders to help the UK respond effectively to changes to our environment. This is a joint initiative from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Defra, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said:

"Aristotle identified bees as the most hard working of insects, and with one in three mouthfuls coming from insect-pollinated crops, we need to support bees and other pollinators.

"I announced in January that Defra would put an extra £2M into research funding, and I am delighted our partners have agreed to boost this to up to £10M.

"This funding will give some of Britain’s world-class researchers the chance to identify the causes of the decline we’re seeing in bee numbers, and that will help us to take the right action to help."

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive:

"We are facing a fundamental problem with the decline of bees and other pollinators. They have an absolutely crucial role in pollinating many of our important crops. Without effective pollination we will face higher food costs and potential shortages. This programme will help us to understand why numbers have decreased and the steps we could take to reverse this. Complex problems such as this require a modern systems biology approach, a strategy at the core of BBSRC's vision. This will also feed into BBSRC's wider food security research programme which aims to deliver the science necessary to provide the nutritious and affordable food we need for the future."

Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of NERC:

"Through the Pollinator Initiative, the LWEC partners will address what is a complex multidisciplinary problem. We need to conduct research that will help us to understand the links between bees and other pollinators and the range of environmental factors that affect them in various ways. This research will provide vital insights into why there has been a steep decline in these insect populations in recent years and help us to find solutions to the problem."

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust:

"It is extremely important that we move swiftly to understand and try to reverse the decline in the populations of bees and other pollinating insects. The devastating effect that this decline may have on our environment would almost certainly have a serious impact on our health and wellbeing. Without pollinating insects, many important crops and native plants would be severely harmed."

Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary of the Scottish Government:

"It is vital that we increase our understanding of the issues affecting populations of bees and other pollinators such as wasps, butterflies and beetles and in particular whether these are due to climate change. The impact these insects have on our rural industries, such as the soft fruit sector, and on plant biodiversity across Scotland cannot be under-estimated. Any reduction in numbers could have catastrophic consequences not just for our environment but also for our economy. I welcome this initiative and am confident the results of the programme will enhance our knowledge and help prevent further declines in bee numbers."

Elin Jones, Minister for Rural Affairs of the Welsh Assembly Government:

"Honeybees and other pollinators are vital for local food production, which is the key to environmentally sustainable farming. By working with the other partners in this initiative Defra have shown their commitment to safeguarding the population of the honeybee in the UK."

The funding programme will be administered through BBSRC. The NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology will provide post-award coordination for the programme and contribute special expertise in long-term and large-scale ecology that will strengthen the research effort.


Notes to editors

Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) is a collaborative partnership involving the UK research councils, business and policy-making organisations and was launched on 18th June 2008. LWEC will invest £1Bn over five years in programmes to address national and international needs arising from the pace, magnitude and extent of climate and other types of environmental change. It has about 20 active lines of research in train already.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

About Defra

Defra is the UK government department with an overarching challenge to secure a healthy environment in which we and future generations can prosper. As we build a low carbon, resource efficient economy, Defra helps people to adapt to changes, deals with environmental risks and makes the most of the opportunity we now have to secure a sustainable society and a healthy environment. Research and analysis is at the heart of good policymaking at Defra. Every year Defra spends around £300 million on research, which includes a range of social and natural science disciplines. These activities provide evidence for decision-making, help us find new policy solutions and help us to identify and tackle future issues.

About NERC

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £400M a year from the government's science budget, which is used to provide independent research and training in the environmental sciences.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600M each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.

About the Scottish Government

The Scottish Government provides funding of around £70M on an annual basis towards a wide range of environmental, biological and agricultural research. A large proportion of this research is carried out by the Macaulay, Scottish Crop, Rowett and Moredun Research Institutes as well as Scottish Agricultural College and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. It also supports the Fisheries Research Services and the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency and the scientific work of SEPA and SNH. More information on the Scottish Government research programmes can be found at

About the Welsh Assembly Government

The Welsh Assembly Government’s role is to exercise functions devolved to Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government is responsible for most of the issues of day-to-day concern to the people of Wales, including the economy, health, education, local government and rural affairs. The Welsh Assembly Government supports the countryside and rural communities, encouraging the sustainable management of agriculture and the environment. For further information please visit

External contact

Kirstie Maier, Press Officer, Defra

tel: 0207 238 6092

Craig Brierley, Senior Media Officer, The Wellcome Trust

tel: 0207 611 7329


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299