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Insects that visit flowers, including honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, hoverflies, beetles, butterflies and moths, are very important to plants. They are collecting food (nectar and pollen) for themselves, but while moving between flowers they carry pollen from one flower to another. This transfer of pollen is called pollination. It is essential for plant sexual reproduction.
Staple crops (e.g. cereals) that provide the vast majority of human foods are wind- or self-pollinated. However, at least one third of the total volume of global agricultural produce relies on insect pollination to some extent. Insect-pollinated crops include many fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, coffee and oilseed rape (canola). These provide vital nutrients (e.g. vitamins) and variety to human diets worldwide, while in some developing countries insect-pollinated crops provide crucial subsistence calories and nutrients.
Insect pollination is also important to the reproduction and persistence of many wild plants that, in turn, underpin a wider and more complex network of animal and plant life. Pollination is therefore an important process in maintaining healthy and biodiverse ecosystems.
See About Pollinators for more information
Are pollinators declining?
Pollinating insects face multiple threats. Pests, diseases, invasive species, intensive land-use and environmental changes such as habitat loss and climate change all create problems for them. Evidence is mounting that these threats may be leading to declines in numbers of pollinators, pollinator species or the ranges of individual species.
Currently no single factor seems to be driving pollinator losses. The causes are likely to be complex and involve interactions between different pollinators and the various environmental pressures, pests and diseases affecting these insects. See Pressures on Pollinators for more information.
Loss of pollinators is of great concern, both for nature conservation and for our ability to feed a growing human population set to reach 9 billion by 2050. See Ecosystem Function and Ecosystem Services and Human Health for more information.
The Insect Pollinators Initiative funds research to help pollinators
The Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI) provided up to £10 million to fund research between 2010-2015 into the causes and consequences of insect pollinator decline and to inform efforts to do something about it. Nine projects were funded.
The IPI is jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust, under the auspices of the Living With Environmental Change programme. The funders came together because innovative research was urgently needed to provide a solid evidence base with which to inform new policies and approaches to reduce threats to pollinator insects.
Multidisciplinary and systems-based research are playing a key role in furthering our understanding of this complex problem. The diverse nature of the funding partners has brought together top UK and international researchers from a range of disciplines with different skills. These include high-throughput genetic sequencing and the latest techniques in epidemiological and ecological modelling, alongside existing expertise in the pollinator research community.
Researchers funded under the IPI have engaged from the outset with policymakers, NGOs, farmers, growers and other businesses in the agri-food industry who have an interest in insect pollinators. By establishing a strong network of people the IPI aims to ensure that the outcomes of the research can be effectively applied to addressing the various pressures on pollinators.See Pollinator Conservation and Beekeeping for further information.