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Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and pollinators

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is committed to supporting biodiversity, and that includes pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, bats, moths and beetles.

At our two sites at Kew Gardens and Wakehurst, a number of horticultural staff are involved in caring for honeybees, and many more are beekeepers with hives at home. Both gardens provide homes to many species of bumble and solitary bee, in addition to honeybees. At Kew we have supported a number of researchers studying various aspects of bee biology and behaviour – for example a recent study of winter feeding and behaviour changes in Bombus terrestris due to changing climate patterns.

What we're doing at Wakehurst

At Wakehurst we are working with the UK’s only Professor of Apiculture, Francis Ratnieks, as part of The Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Health and Wellbeing and have created a purpose-built research facility, along with a bee garden, observation hives and interpretation for the general public. The five year programme aims to breed disease resistant honeybees, study the impact of stress factors and occurrence of bee pests and pathogens.

Using science to guide our activities

We seek to use science to guide all of our activities and the current plight of pollinators as a whole is one such area of study in which Kew staff are involved (Vanbergen and the Insect Pollinators Initiative, 2013). The area of insect-dependent crops grown worldwide has tripled in the last 50 years and researchers are clear that managed honeybees alone can’t meet this demand – and even if they could, reliance on a single species for the majority of pollination would be very risky – so we need to ensure a diverse and healthy population of pollinators for a diverse and healthy planet.

The situation is, regrettably, not as simple as some suggest. There is no single factor affecting pollinators and contributing to their decline – rather there are a number of stressors including intensified land use, habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, pests and pathogens, non-native species, forage nutritional quality and pesticides. Research has, until recently, tended to look at single factors in isolation but there is increasing recognition of the need to consider multiple pressures and involve collaborators from different disciplines to understand how these factors collectively affect pollinators such as bees.

Protecting and developing our Living Collections

Under the Heritage Act 1983, and as a World Heritage Site, we have a duty to protect and develop our Living Collections, some of which are very rare, with a responsibility to manage our plants to ensure they are healthy and available for vital research and conservation work. This means that we occasionally use pesticides – though we prefer to rely on cultural and physical methods and biological control agents. Chemical use tends to be restricted to nursery areas and under glass, where conditions can favour development of pests and diseases and we try and employ an integrated pest management system. We use very few chemicals in outside areas.

As far as possible we manage these outside areas to maximise biodiversity, keeping many areas as long grass to provide food and habitat for many species of flora and fauna. We have to balance this approach with the need to maintain and present certain iconic, historic landscapes in their modern setting where we keep the grass shorter, but even in more formal areas we prefer to see clover, dandelions, daisies and other plant species growing amongst the turf grasses, which in turn support more biodiversity. Beyond the walls of Kew Gardens and Wakehurst we are involved in restoring UK grassland habitats that are vital for supporting a variety of insects, birds and other animals. 

When pesticides are used, this is often dictated by health and safety concerns – for example we may be dealing with pests which pose a public health nuisance – and sometimes this is dictated by law. For example, if there is an outbreak of a plant pest or pathogen which is deemed a serious environmental or economic threat and is therefore listed as a quarantine organism, such as oak processionary moth, then treatment will be prescribed by the relevant plant health authority (in England, the Food and Environment Research Agency or the Forestry Commission). This is issued in the form of a legal document called a statutory notice. As a country, it is crucial that we have effective options to deal with outbreaks of introduced pests, diseases and invasive species. Without these options, there are potentially significant economic and environmental costs (in 2010 a Defra-funded study estimated the cost of invasive species to the UK economy alone to be £1.7bn pa).

Whilst there are clearly still gaps in our understanding, we can all work right now to support pollinators by improving how we manage the landscape; work to minimise the impact of pesticides; combat pests, diseases and invasive species and share relevant knowledge and experience. We all need to be more mindful of the impact that our choices and activities have on our environment – collectively and individually.

References

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