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Drone surrounded by worker bees. © INRA, MORISON Nicolas

Scientists flying to the rescue of bees

Super-pollinators and the ecology of foraging

It is a magic moment: a pollen grain germinates, and the pollen tube it emits enters the pistil of a flower to fertilise it. This is evolution on the march, a promise of incredible genetic innovations. More prosaically, it announces the appearance of a fruit within the next few months. But for this pollen grain to move from the stamen (male part of the flower) to the pistil (female), it has probably travelled on an insect, which is very likely to be the fur of a bee. 84% of cultivated species in Europe are dependent on pollination by insects. Good pollination can increase yields and improve crop quality, hence its economic importance. A study carried out by the INRA Joint Research Unit for Bees and the Environment (PACA Research Centre) and published in 2009, estimated the worldwide value of this "pollination service" as being €153 billion. In France, it may represent €2.8 billion. Honey bees really do not know what they are worth!

Pollination requirements are far from being met. France has around 1.3 million hives, but needs three times that number to guarantee the pollination of all its crops. At a time of a declining bee population, these figures therefore require more determined action to ensure their protection.

Updated on 03/27/2017
Published on 05/01/2014

An infinity of pollinators

A bumble bee on a purple milk thistle flower. © © INRA, MORISON Nicolas
A bumble bee on a purple milk thistle flower © © INRA, MORISON Nicolas
Worldwide, about 225,000 flowering plant species are pollinated by 200,000 species of animals, in the forefront of which are the Hymenoptera (bees, wasps), Diptera (flies), Lepidoptera (butterflies) and Coleoptera (beetles). These pollinators contribute to the survival and evolution of 80% of plant species. In tropical regions, bats and birds also assure the transport of pollen. And the wind should not be forgotten, as it is responsible for pollinating about 10% of plants which include rice, barley and rye.

Let’s not forget wild bees!

Around 20,000 bee species can be found throughout the world. In France, there are around 1000 species, which include nearly 50 species of bumble bee. Most of these are solitary and inoffensive, and are currently also displaying signs of a general decline. It would be wrong to ignore their ecological importance. Sampling campaigns performed in agricultural regions have shown that one wild bee is found for every two domestic honey bees. In addition, pollination by wild bees complements that achieved by their domestic fellows. Indeed, it is the diversity of their morphologies and behaviours which increases the chances of pollen reaching its target. In other words, the pollination achieved by wild bees could not be replaced effectively by as many domestic honey bees.

A wild bee nesting site in an urban area © MORISON Nicolas

Urbanbees: wildlife in towns

The Urbanbees programme, managed by INRA and carried out in partnership with the association Arthropologia based in the Lyon conurbation, is seeking to encourage the presence of wild bees in urban and periurban areas. Towns harbour extraordinary biodiversity which should be exploited. This programme, which started in 2010, is implementing a plan to manage this biodiversity by introducing specific facilities (bee hotels, bare earth areas for their nests) and trying to render the maintenance of open spaces less aggressive to pollinating insects. This may therefore benefit the 240 species of bees that have been observed in the urban and periurban areas of the Lyon conurbation! www.urbanbees.eu

Box for collecting wild bees © GUILBAUD Laurent

Bee collectors

In Avignon, INRA possesses the largest living collection of bees in France, or 50,000 specimens representing more than 580 species, from the smallest (Nomioides, 3 mm long) to the largest (Xylocopes, or the Carpenter bee, which is 3 cm long).