Edinburgh Impact

Protecting our pollinators

​​​​​​​Found across almost every continent, bees have been pollinating plants for millions of years, but their numbers are dwindling. University of Edinburgh research is working to halt their decline.

A bee on a yellow flower

By Charlotte Davidson, Publications Officer, Communications and Marketing

Bees, and pollinators in general, are vital for our world. The ecosystem service of pollination is essential for the continuation of natural ecosystems, and central to the productivity of many human crops. However, populations of many bees and other pollinators are shrinking.

Professor Graham Stone is Professor of Ecology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. His work, with Damien Hicks and others, has led to key changes in biodiversity strategies and impact across Edinburgh and beyond.

Understanding the significance of pollinators, and working to identify solutions to protect and support them, is vital to the future health of the planet.

A sharp decline

Recent years have seen a steep decrease in the number of pollinators found across the globe. New diseases, urbanisation and an increase in farming and pesticide use have all contributed to the drop.

Dwindling numbers of pollinating insects can lead to huge sustainability challenges, including threats to human food production and increasing risks that fragile ecosystems will collapse. Beyond that, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment estimated the production value of insect pollination in the UK to be £500,000,000 per annum based on the economic value of the crops produced.

A collaborative approach

Professor Stone was a founding member of the Urban Pollinators: ecology and conservation project – a collaboration between academics in Edinburgh, Bristol, Leeds and Reading to understand and improve the health, abundance and diversity of pollinating insects in each city and the surrounding area. The project was the first of its kind in the world to look across a range of urban areas in the UK and share results.

The Urban Pollinators team in matching t-shirts
The Urban Pollinators team

The Urban Pollinators project set out to investigate which habitats are home to which pollinating insects, focusing on cities, farmland and nature reserves. It then went on to compare different urban habitats such as parks, allotments, graveyards and industrial sites, to identify those that provide the most food for pollinators (flowers, and the nectar and pollen they contain) and support the biggest pollinator populations.

Finally, the work looked to how these spaces can be improved to encourage biodiversity in cities and reverse some of the negative effects urbanisation has had on pollinator populations.

St Andrews Square in the sun
Edinburgh has many greens spaces across the city

Local solutions

Many solutions proposed as a result of the study are easily achievable, and have the potential to undo years of damage. One simple approach, quantified in the study, is to simply allow the populations of common urban flowers such as dandelions to grow. A second is to convert parts of some city parks into wildflower meadows – which are nectar and pollen rich – essentially, pollinator restaurants.

The findings of the research coincided with Professor Stone's involvement in the Edinburgh Living Landscape initiative (ELL), a collaboration between the City of Edinburgh Council, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Edinburgh and Lothian Greenspace Trust and the University, that is managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The project works to include nature in as many urban neighbourhoods as possible across the city.

The research also had a huge impact on local policy and strategy. The Parks, Greenspace and Cemeteries team within Edinburgh City Council implemented several successful biodiversity enhancing projects due to Professor Stone’s work.

As a direct result of this research, more investment in the creation and maintenance of wildflower meadows led to one tenth of Edinburgh’s parkland being turned into wildflower meadows between 2014 to 2016, 78 of which were part of the Edinburgh Shoreline Projects, another part of the ELL initiative.

a wildflower meadow at Crammond
One of the wildflower meadows at Crammond

Policy changes included banning herbicides in parks and reducing mowing from fortnightly to once a season. This has the double benefit of increasing the nectar and pollen available for pollinators from wildflowers such as dandelions, while at the same time saving £200,000 in maintenance costs per year.

It also led to the inclusion of beekeeping in the allotment policy, encouraging bees to be kept in areas with rich potential for biodiversity.

Informing policy

It’s not just the local area that has benefitted from this work. In 2017, as a part of the Biodiversity Route Map, the Scottish Government launched a Pollinator Strategy, which has been influenced by Professor Stone’s research. 

His work was also referenced in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) 2016 report on Pollinators, Pollution and Food Production, which was formally endorsed by theUnited Nations Environment Program for the Convention on Biological Diversity. As a result, it has influenced strategies in numerous countries including the UK, France, the Netherlands, and Brazil.

In 2020 Professor Stone’s research was also used in two European commission reviews, and detailed information on implementing best practice for policy makers and land use practitioners on how to adapt urban areas to effectively support pollinators, as well as ways to reverse pollinator decline.

Other Scottish councils are now beginning to implement their own approaches to urban greenspace management. The Scottish Borders Council and Dundee Council have both launched their own biodiversity plans using information from Stone’s work.

Seeds of change

Professor Stone has also worked closely with Scotia Seeds, who specialise in providing seeds of native Scottish wildflower plants, to create a specific urban pollinator seed mix. Taking into account the different growing seasons of plants, has resulted in the Urban Pollinator Seed Mix, a combination that provides nectar and pollen for as long as possible through the year.

A wildflower meadow in Crammond
Another of the Crammond wildflower meadows

The Urban Pollinator Seed Mix contains 22 wildflower and 6 grass species, including plants that flower throughout the spring and summer and enough grasses to provide substantial food throughout the season. The seed mix is now sold throughout Scotland to local authorities, community groups and hundreds of gardeners - alongside a coastal seed mix too.

Broader benefits

The benefit of working with wildflower meadows is that they have well documented positive effects for human health and wellbeing, as well as providing food and drink to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. And even after the flowers have passed, the meadows provide a banquet for seed-eating birds such as gold finches and green finches.

A pollinator on a daisy

Professor Stone is proud of his work, but he’s keen to stress there’s more to be done: "Of all the projects I've been involved in, the Urban Pollinators Project has been the easiest to explain and justify to non-scientists. This is probably because it is pretty clear that if we improve the world for pollinators, we improve it for many other species – including humans! The feedback I get from people when we are out working on the meadows is the most positive and life-affirming I have ever had, and it's great to be doing something that genuinely makes people happy.

"In the longer term I would like to see the principles we have developed applied to larger areas across cities and towns in the UK and elsewhere – starting with University of Edinburgh green spaces! It is not always easy to see how we can reduce or eliminate negative impacts of human activity, but improving urban habitats is a really good example of where, with a little investment and imagination, we can make things much better."