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Decisive STEP in safeguarding Europe’s pollinators

Completed in January, the STEP project has considerably advanced our understanding of trends affecting pollinator populations in Europe, while suggesting concrete measures to help safeguard the most important species.

Did you know that three-quarters of the world’s food crops and 90% of wild plants depend on pollination to thrive? If insects like bees, whose population is declining because of various environmental stressors, were to disappear, the damage in terms of biodiversity, food security and economic growth would be immeasurable. Food products as ubiquitous as coffee and chocolate would become memories of the past, which partly explains why some of the planet’s most renowned scientists have been hard at work trying to curb this trend. For the STEP team, taking on this challenge can only be done with sufficient information on the extent and nature of the decline, which species we need most and why, and the main drivers impacting population levels. ‘The STEP project is helping us better understand the causes of pollinator declines including habitat loss, climate change, diseases, invasive species and pesticides. Early results suggest that it is a combination of several of these pressures on pollinators that have resulted in the massive losses of wild bees sand honeybees,’ explained Dr Potts, coordinator of STEP, a few months after the project started. Now completed, the project announced this week the publication of the ‘Climatic Risk and Distribution Atlas of European Bumblebees,’ where climate change is identified as one of the main threats to this group of pollinators. The report, latest in a series of over 50 STEP publications, expands on the likely consequences of different scenarios of global warming for the years 2050 and 2100. It underlines that as many as 14 and 25 species are projected to lose almost all of their climatically suitable areas under the intermediate and most severe scenario respectively, and that strong mitigation strategies will be needed to preserve this important species and ensure the sustainable provision of pollination services. To each problem its solution ‘The STEP project has generated a substantial body of knowledge on how to conserve pollinators, safeguard the pollination of crops and better understand how to mitigate against threats,’ says Dr Potts. One of these solutions, presented in a DG Research article last month, would consist in covering crop land margins with a mix of flowers to attract pollinators and help them colonise new spaces. The team observed a 500% growth in pollinator abundance thanks to this initiative. Communications was also a big part of the STEP plan, with awareness campaigns having been organized in schools and supermarkets across Europe. The team also actively participated in international events and initiatives pursuing similar objectives. The project released a final brochure containing its main recommendations in January. It includes a Red List of European Bees to help direct conservation efforts at the national and continental level, as well as a set of tools and methodologies to help with future monitoring and assessment of both pollinators and the services they deliver and support planners and decision makers in managing the wider landscape. For the team, European decision makers should now focus on developing robust scientific evidence to underpin policy and practice measures aiming to safeguard our pollinators.

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