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EU-funded project protecting pollinators

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Two new studies have been published as part of an EU-funded project that aims to find ways to conserve Europe's pollinators and ensure they continue to deliver pollination services to crops and wildflowers.

The project, titled STEP ('Status and Trends of European Pollinators'), is supported in part by a EUR 3.5 million funding boost from the European Commission under the 'Environment' Theme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Europe's pollinators, like honeybees and wild bees as well as a plethora of other insects, are in serious decline. Losing this part of the continent's biodiversity would have serious economical implications as wild bees and insects play a huge part keeping crops productive - with 84% of European crops requiring insect pollination. A loss of European pollinators would in turn have serious implications for food security.

STEP, which began in 2010 and is set to run until 2015, is coordinated by Dr Simon Potts from Reading University in the United Kingdom, and brings together researchers from 20 research institutions in Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

'The STEP project is helping us better understand the causes of pollinator declines including habitat loss, climate change, diseases, invasive species and pesticides. Early results suggest that it is a combination of several of these pressures on pollinators that have resulted in the massive losses of wild bees and honeybees. Our long-term goal is to develop ways to manage our landscapes so that we can safeguard our wild pollinators so that they can continue to provide pollination services, which benefit everyone in Europe,' comments Dr Potts.

One of the recent published studies as a result of STEP research suggests that honeybees may not be as important to pollination services in the United Kingdom as was previously thought. Writing in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, the study authors put the long held assumption that honeybees played an integral role in pollination to test.

'Pollination services are vital to agricultural productivity in the UK. As of 2007, 20% of the UK's cropland was covered by insect pollinated crops like oilseed rape and apples. For decades now we have assumed that honeybees have been providing the majority of pollination services to these systems but have very limited evidence to base this assumption on,' says Tom Breeze, lead study author.

By comparing the number of hives present in the United Kingdom with the number research suggests is required to optimise crop yields, the researchers found that the country possesses at best only a third of the honeybees it supposedly needs. When they compared this statistic to the situation in the 1980s when the country possessed 70% of its requirements, scientists began to question what other species may be providing pollination services in the United Kingdom.

'You would think that such a severe deficit in honeybees would cause massive loss of crop productivity,' says Dr Potts. 'However, examining yields of these crops since the 80's, they have just kept going up. While some of that is down to better production systems, other species have probably stepped in to fill the gap left by honeybees.'

The second STEP research study found that many fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals essential for a healthy human diet, are heavily dependent on bees and other pollinating animals.

The new study, published in PLoS ONE, shows that animal-pollinated crops the world over contain the majority of the available dietary lipid, vitamin A, C and E, and a large portion of the minerals calcium, fluoride and iron. Any threat to these animal pollinators therefore has obvious implications for human nutrition.

The team's findings show that in the global crop supply, several key vitamins and other nutrients related to lower risk for cancer and heart disease are present predominantly in crops propagated by pollinators. These include carotenoids lycopene and á-cryptoxanthin, which are found in brightly coloured red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. Other important antioxidants, including several forms of vitamin E and more than 90% of available vitamin C are provided by crops that are pollinated by bees and other animals. Key minerals for the development of bones and teeth can be found in crops produced with pollinators.

In terms of how much the animal-pollinated crops in the study depend on animal pollinators, the scientists found some variation did exist, with many able to propagate via alternative mechanisms, such as wind or self pollination. However, despite this ability the team believe that up to 40% of some essential nutrients provided by fruits and vegetables would be lost if it was not for the work of pollinators