In 2012, butterflies in the UK experienced their worst year on record with 52 out of 56 species in decline, according to the Butterfly Monitoring Service.[i] The summer of 2013 provided some respite for them, with six species showing an increase in population. These figures were still below average, however, and since the monitoring scheme began in the 1970s, over half of all the butterfly species in the UK have declined, many significantly.[ii]

Butterflies are considered indicators of environmental change and their decline can be seen as evidence of wider environmental problems.[iii] Butterflies are not the only insect pollinators under threat. Many bee species in the UK are also disappearing, and it was recently revealed that during the winter of 2012-2013, Britain’s honeybee population decreased quicker than elsewhere in Europe; of the 17 countries surveyed, only Belgium’s bees fared worse.[iv] Working alongside the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the European Commission has initiated a ‘red list of polluters’ to fully comprehend the situation facing them.[v]

Of all the species found on earth, at least 80 percent are invertebrates.[vi] Many of these are considered critically endangered by the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, a ‘barometer of life’, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2014. The most recent Red List in 2013 contains approximately 70,000 different species.[vii] There are more endangered species on the list today, than on previous lists, and between 1996 and 2013 there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of species threatened with extinction.[viii] Although many are rarely seen, these small invertebrates are the foundations to life on earth. As the charity Buglife argues, with regards to living on a healthy planet, ‘invertebrates are far more important than we are’.[ix] A third of all the food we eat is pollinated by insects yet since 2010, the UK has seen a 45 percent loss of commercial honeybees.[x]

Two-thirds of the pollen collected by honeybees from European fields is contaminated by a mixture of up to 17 different pesticides, claims Greenpeace. Their study, ‘The Bees’ Burden’, included 100 samples from 12 countries, with a total of 53 different chemicals detected.[xi] Campaigners had limited success last year, when the European Union (EU) legislated to control the use of certain insecticides, over concern about the possible effects on bee populations across the continent.[xii] In December, the European Food Safety Authority warned about neonicotinoid insecticides which were thought to affect the human nervous system and also identified as harmful to bees.[xiii] An attempt to ban these insecticides failed to pass last March after several nations, including Britain, declined to support it. In July the EU voted in favour of additional measures to be placed on the use of the insecticide Fipronil, to protect bees in Europe. This will restrict the number of crops that this insecticide can be used on. The regulations came into effect on 31 December 2013.[xiv] It remains to be seen how effective this will be.

In 2009, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs introduced the ‘Healthy Bees Plan’ to ‘ensure a sustainable and productive future for beekeeping in England and Wales.’ This five-point plan sought to protect bees against pests and diseases and uphold good standards of apiary to ensure the sustainability of honeybee populations.[xv] With about 40,000 beekeepers in Britain today looking after colonies of 200,000 honeybees, the disappearance of these important creatures might not be obvious to those of us venturing outdoors in summer, yet it could have catastrophic consequences for agriculture.[xvi]

A YouGov poll from February 2013 found 68 percent of those questioned were against the use of pesticides until they had been proved that they were safe for humans, animals and bees.[xvii] The government’s National Bee Unit ‘supports the beekeeping industry and addresses any biosecurity threats to the sustainability of bees and apiculture.’ Within this unit is the Bee Health Inspectorate which investigates beehives to check for signs of disease. Recently the government launched the Bee Action Plan, to save British bees, consulting the public between March and early May about the National Pollinator Strategy (NPS). This is a government-led initiative to protect pollinators.[xviii] In March, Friends of the Earth issued a briefing about the NPS, the final report of which is due this summer. In highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the Strategy, the briefing notes that it ‘must include new ways of helping farmers to achieve extensive habitat creation of good quality’ and a reduction in the levels of pesticides used. ‘Reversing the decline of bees’, say the organisation, ‘is not easy and more research is needed’. This is not an excuse for inaction, however.[xix]

In 2011, EU Member States endorsed the European Commission’s ‘EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020’, which provided a framework for biodiversity policies across the continent. Across the EU, this Strategy called for biodiversity losses to be halved by 2020, and those degraded should be restored as far as possible. Britain proposed a new biodiversity plan that same year, which advocated a more integrated approach to conservation. The results of the first National Ecosystem Assessment were also included, which claimed 30 percent of the services provided by ecosystems in the UK are in decline.[xx] In 2012, the European Union produced a booklet Life and Invertebrates Conservation detailing the varied invertebrates which reside on the continent and the dangers posed to them.[xxi]

With several groups, such as Buglife and Butterflies Conservation, taking action to encourage the public to be more aware of the problems facing pollinators, there is some hope for the future. Some Westminster politicians have recently moved in favour of saving these important creatures.[xxii] The charity Buglife also recently launched its ‘Pollinator Manifesto’, which set out seven principles and twenty-seven actions to halt the decline of UK pollinators.[xxiii] Although some of the measures of the NPS will help them, as Friends of the Earth argue, more is still to be done. The future for these insect pollinators remains uncertain.