This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Bees and flowering plants are co-evolutionary and date back to the Cretaceous period more than 100 million years ago. Since the beginning of this partnership—in which bees offer pollination services while plants provide resources like nectar and pollen—these two life forms have driven each other’s incredible diversification. It is estimated that 60-80% of all flowering plants depend upon insect pollination, with bees being the most predominant and efficient group (Ollerton et al. 2011). Their pollination services are essential to 35% of agricultural crops, with an annual estimated market value of USD 235–577 billion worldwide. Ongoing pollinator loss—primarily through unsustainable land practices, climate change and habitat destruction—threatens to produce grave economic, social and ecological impacts.
Solitary leaf cutter bee building its nest. Video: A.Amtoft / Habeetats
The European honey bee has long been credited with most agricultural pollination, and social bees in general have tended to dominate our cultural awareness, centering as it does on hives and honey. Less attention is given to the pollination services of—and threats to—solitary bees that make up more than 90% of the 20,000 bee species worldwide, of which an estimated 40% are currently at risk of extinction. Not only do they account for the majority of the world’s bee species, wild and managed solitary bees alike are also recognised as effective pollinators for many economically important crops. When comparisons to honey bees were made, native solitary bees were found to be more efficient pollinators of certain crops, and to have the potential to significantly enhance crop yields with their pollination services (Kline and Joshi 2020).
Solitary bees should be integral components of any biodiversity and conservation efforts. At Habeetats, we believe that because bees and flowering plants are codependent, they are best kept alive in multiple and geographically dispersed Living Pollinator Banks. The starting point for our idea of a pollinator bank network was the recognition that centralised conservation efforts, like the “Doomsday” Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, are in danger of being rendered useless in a world without pollinators. A person would effectively need to hand pollinate several thousand flowers a day to do the work of ONE solitary mason bee!
Habeetats learning environment for monitoring the effects of climate change on pollinators, AV Mijoe Landfill, Copenhagen. Image credit: A. Amtoft / Habeetats
A Global Network of Distributed Pollinator Bank Nodes with native solitary bees offers a far more efficient, substantive (and endearing!) means of supporting biodiversity by embracing an idea central to reconciliation ecology (Rosenzweig 2003). In effect, this means that while we cannot revert to unmodified natural environments, we can manage and design our surroundings in ways that are beneficial to the cohabitation of a greater variety of species (Ibid.).
Conservation efforts can be fruitfully combined with research and community building, too. Our nesting shelters are designed to create an interactive learning environment, with the hope that bringing people closer to bees will help spark the interest and commitment that are the foundation of relationships of care. The layers of the nesting shelter can be separated to observe the cells inside, remove pests and parasites and harvest cocoons to be shared with nearby community nodes.
We have set up nesting shelters in a landfill, a restaurant garden, a nature reserve, art spaces and historical sites, and have started conversations about bees with artists, farmers, chefs, researchers and city officials. Our current project in Vantaa, Finland integrates an experimental learning environment in which the effects of climate change on solitary bee populations can be explored by participants in a community garden. Our goal is to support bees in a variety of locations and to inspire people to do the same.
Landscape management is a key component in making this possible. Habitat destruction and land management practices are the primary drivers of pollinator decline. Apart from providing nesting sites, urban planners need to consider the availability of floral resources. It is of course important to cultivate a diversity of plants, including native species, but equally management practices should support their availability to bees. For example, we can implement regulations prohibiting hedges from being cut before they flower, thus making sure that pollinators can make use of them in bloom.
Mason and Leafcutter Solitary Bee Cocoons, Habeetats HQ, Copenhagen, Denmark. Image credit: A. Amtoft / Habeetats
For 200,000 years we have comfortably inhabited environments shaped by bee and plant collaboration. Now, even if we survive on a planet ravaged by climate change and extinction, we stand to lose the landscapes that we have long ago come to think of as home. But new landscapes, habitable to a diversity of species, can be created with appropriate knowledge and care. One way of making this possible is funding bee conservation initiatives that deliver on a scale aligned with that of seed banks, thus bridging the gap between bee and plant conservation.
Resources for further reading:
Want to learn more about wild and managed solitary bees and how to manage them sustainably? Pick up a copy of Bee Pollination in Agricultural Ecosystems (2008) or dive into Dave Goulson's ameliorative book Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse (2021).