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When did bees begin to disappear in Britain?

Bombus terrestris visiting a passion flower in a British garden.
[Credit: Jeff Ollerton]

All over the world, the number of bees and other insects that pollinate plants has shrunk in the last half-century. Scientists think there are probably a lot of different reasons for this, including destruction of land and plants that bees use. Now a new study suggests that bees in Britain began disappearing more than 100 years ago when people there began to change how they farmed.

Jeff Ollerton from the University of Northampton and his fellow scientists were able to figure this out by looking at the records of a historical club called the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society. Members of this club liked to watch all kinds of pollinating insects and write down where and when they saw them. The scientists used more than 500,000 of these notes written since the 1850s, looking for the last time a certain species of bee or wasp was mentioned. They used this information to figure out when a species went extinct, and then tried to match up these extinctions with other things that were going on at the same time in Britain.

Most of the insect extinctions happened between the early 1920 and late 1950s, probably because Britain was turning more of its wild land into farms to feed hungry people during World War I and World War II. When wild land and plants disappear, bees don't have as many things to eat or places to live. But the scientists also found out that bees started disappearing as early as the late 19th century. Back then, farmers were making other changes. They stopped letting their farm fields fill up with wild plants now and then, and they also started using a lot more bat poop (guano) from South America to fertilize their fields. Both of these changes might have led to fewer wild flowers--and fewer pollinators.

In their study in the 12 December issue of Science, Ollerton and the other researchers say that pollinator extinctions seem to have slowed down in Britain since the 1960s. This might be because a lot of species have gone extinct already, or it might be because efforts to protect these valuable insects are working.