Why weeds matter to pollinators

Pollinators are vital to humans in many ways

They help us farm food crops, boost our wellbeing by helping natural environments thrive, and help combat climate change as part of the lifecycle of CO2-absorbing plants.

It’s been estimated that without bees it would cost UK farmers a massive £1.8 billion a year to pollinate crops [1]. Since 1900, we have lost 13 species of bee in the UK [2] alone, so it’s more important than ever to protect our pollinators.

What you might not know is how important weeds are to pollinators. They rely on weeds, many of which are the UK’s best wildflowers, for shelter, food and nesting sites.

We may want our lawns to look pristine, our farmland to produce as much food as possible, and our flowerbeds to be weed-free, but weeds are a vital part of the natural environment. In fact, many native weed species are adapted to perfectly fit with the feeding and breeding habits of native UK pollinators.

Burnet moth on Knapweed

A pollinator is something that carries pollen from one plant, or part of a plant, to another, fertilising the plant and allowing it to reproduce.

Here in the UK, there are around 1500 species of pollinators, including butterflies, moths, wasps and bees. Pollination is a mutually beneficial interaction, so while plants are able to reproduce, many pollinators are able to get their food from plants: using pollen as a source of fats, minerals, vitamins and protein, and nectar as a source of carbohydrates.

Coffee beans

If this pollinator network collapses, a huge number of living things will feel the effect.

Wild pollinators in the UK are more productive than domesticated honeybees [3], so our farming industry would suffer. Areas such as Africa, South and Central America and the Caribbean rely on wild pollinators even more than we do, so imports of staples like coffee and chocolate would also be affected.[4]

According to The Bee Coalition pollinators “are responsible for every third mouthful we eat” and play a huge part in producing food containing “essential nutrients, such as fruits, beans and vegetables”.

Field of oilseed rape

By encouraging single-species food crops, by removing weeds and creating a monoculture, humans are threatening the survival of pollinators.

Colonies of bees feeding from pollen provided by a single type of food crop are at higher risk of disease, or even being wiped out completely. A 2010 study [5] showed that bees fed with pollen from a single species of plant (a monofloral diet) produced fewer bacteria-fighting antiseptics than those fed from a variety of sources.

Bees struggling to maintain energy levels whilst fighting illnesses resulting from a monofloral diet are hungrier, and have to use up yet more precious energy travelling further to forage. Traveling greater distances gives these bees more opportunity to come into contact with harmful pesticides.

Pesticides are used to remove weeds. They are chemicals used to maximise crop yield by destroying unwanted organisms.

Pesticides can enter the food chain though, poisoning insects and the animals that eat them. They rarely discriminate between the invertebrates they damage, which unfortunately includes pollinators.

Caterpillar on stinging nettles

Weeds also provide vital habitats for pollinators to live in, giving their inhabitants shelter from the elements and safe nesting sites to lay their eggs.

The durability and resilience of weeds allows them to grow nearly anywhere. This makes them a reliable home for pollinators. Emi Murphy, a bee campaigner for Friends of The Earth, wrote in 2018 that “habitat loss is one of the biggest threats bees face”, urging people to use this as motivation to “get a bit lazy in the garden… and allow things to grow wild” [6].

It has also been suggested that because native pollinators and native weeds have evolved alongside one another, their adaptations allow for a streamlined relationship with one another. [7]

For example, bladder campion (Silene vulgaris) gives off a clove-like scent at night attracting moths able to reach into the flower tube with their long tongues

Bladder campion wildflowers

Some weed species least appreciated by gardeners, such as chickweed (Stellaria media) and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), bloom at times of year where there is very little food available for pollinators. Because of this, they can be an invaluable food source, and prevent bees from going hungry in early spring or autumn.

Our back gardens are therefore crucial in the efforts to help maintain pollinator numbers, especially when we consider that private gardens in the UK account for an area one fifth of the size of Wales. [8]

Research by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) concluded that “while gardens will never replace species-rich, semi-natural habitats, they are still a useful complement to such habitats” with regards to promoting UK native species [9]. In recent years, popular pollinator-friendly wisdom has advised gardeners not to mow their lawn in early spring (so as not to destroy early-flowering weeds), nor to remove autumn-flowering ivy (Hedera helix).


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This entry was posted in Collyweston, Environment, nature, Outdoors, wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

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