Climate Change


Climate Podcast: Why are bees and wasps important?

Why are bees and wasps so important? Join host Helen Czerski this week as she dives into why insects are so critical to our ecosystem, how the climate crisis is impacting them and what the long term impact will be. Helen is joined by Dr Tim Newbold and Dr Seirian Sumner from UCL Division of Biosciences as they debate why wasps are as important as bees, and why and how we need to protect them both.


UCL Minds  0:02  
We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.

Seirian Sumner  0:09  
to lots of people, the idea that they can have any control over this catastrophic position that we're in with climate change is just seems so remote,

Tim Newbold  0:20  
there will be fewer winners in tropical areas. So the impacts of habitat loss and climate change are much greater in the tropical parts of the world.

Seirian Sumner  0:31  
If we had a planet full of Darwin's, I don't think we'd be in the situation that we are in now.

Helen Czerski  0:36  
This is Generation One from University College London, turning climate science and ideas into action. Hello, and welcome to Generation One. I'm Helen Czerski, a physicist and oceanographer here at University College London. Now, these podcasts are all about looking at climate change. From a really broad perspective, we're looking not just at the impact of climate change, but also what we individually and as a society can do better in the future, and also some of the big decisions that come with the situation we're now in. And of course, we're speaking to many of the brilliant people both here at UCL and beyond, whose expertise is shaping the debate. 

I think that one of the most beautiful things about the Earth system is the way that incredibly large and very tiny all have their role to play. There's the perspective that considers billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and huge volcanoes and the vast Amazon rainforest. But then you can also zoom in and see that raindrops and the poo from tiny ocean creatures and the call of a forest frog also matter. And down there in the small stuff buzzing around the wildflowers crops and perhaps your garden or balcony is our subject for today, the B. Two of my UCL colleagues will be joining me today to share their enthusiasm for these fascinating creatures, and also to update us on why they matter so much for biodiversity and what the future holds for them. But before I introduce my guests, I just want to take a moment to remind you how you can get involved in the podcasts and also in UCL climate work and campaigns. We've got a website, which is ucl.ac.uk, forward slash climate, hyphen, change. And there you'll find all kinds of news and research and practical information about how things that you do can make a difference. And we'd also love it if you'd rate and subscribe this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from, and tell everyone we always like you know, share all the good stuff. That's what we're all about. So we're also on Instagram and Twitter hashtag UCL generation one and you can comment there, tell us what you think we'd love to get your emails with not just comments, but also suggestions for future topics. And our email address is podcasts with an s@ucl.ac.uk. And if you want you can send a voice note and if we can, we'll include it in a future episode.

UCL Minds  2:57  
You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Helen Czerski  3:06  
Imagine a warm summer day in the countryside, a view of fields and woods bathed in sunlight streaming down through a clear blue sky. The only sound is the gentle rustling of wind and the trees and the chirping of birds. And then a distinctive bus which stops abruptly as the bee finds a source of food. It's easy to take this for granted summertime bees which are just always there, along with the availability of honey for your toast in the morning. But bees aren't just a nice feature of the landscape. They're essential pollinators, helping a huge proportion of our food crops to reproduce, and they're a critical part of a healthy ecosystem. But bees have been having a tough time recently. And the horrifying recent drop in big numbers really matters both to the earth and for us.

I'm about to explore all of that with our two guests for today and they are Dr. Tim Newbold from UCL Biosciences department. He's here in our UCL studio. Tim is a specialist in biodiversity and has co authored a recent study about the alarming decline in the numbers of insects and especially bumblebees. And on the line is our colleague, Professor Seirian Sumner, also from the biosciences department. And Syrians research focuses on the facets of biodiversity, which one's accounts for insects behaviour, and how that influences their ecology and resilience to environmental change. So thank you to both of you very much for joining us. We should begin at the beginning. We're going to be talking about bees mostly but Tim, why should we care about bees,

Tim Newbold  4:46  
bees are tremendously important, particularly as pollinators. So many of the foods that we eat are pollinated by bees, tomatoes, nuts and chocolate,

Helen Czerski  4:58  
all the important things So is that just done by wild bees or because I hear a lot about commercial bees these days?

Tim Newbold  5:07  
Yeah, so a lot of crops can be pollinated by commercial bees. But we also know that while bees are very important, and particularly while bees can be important to step in when something goes wrong with with commercial beehives, so, you know, there's been all these problems in in recent years, for example, with colony collapse disorder, and causing major losses of honey bee hives. And so for pollination, to be able to continue into the future, and really need those wild bees to, to provide that sort of insurance effect.

Helen Czerski  5:38  
So we should make a point really strongly at the start here, which is that obviously bees are part of natural ecosystems. And they're important because they do lots of things in nature. But from our point of view, a huge proportion of our food system, our food supply system depends on bees to help these crops reproduce. And if we didn't have the bees, those crops just wouldn't grow.

Tim Newbold  5:57  
Yes, absolutely. So lots of people have shown that where bees are lost that the the yields of crops are much lower. And it's and it's many of the things so so if we look at the sort of the big staples of our diet, the things that give us calories, many of those don't need animal pollination, or bee pollination. But it's many of the things that bring variety to our diets. So

Helen Czerski  6:22  
Seirian, there's something I want to be clear on from the start, which I think is often quite confusing, which is that there's more than one species of B. And some of them do look a little bit like wasps. And so could you just set out for us, you know, major bee species and perhaps what the difference between a bee and a wasp actually is?

Seirian Sumner  6:41  
Yeah, the certainly what more than one species of bee I think there's about 22,000 species of bees, which is incredible. And as Tim says they are really important pollinators. But there are actually over 100,000 species of wasps. So there was definitely outdoing the bees in that in in species numbers. As you said, there are big there are lots of bees that look a bit like a wasp, and vice versa. And that's no surprise because actually, bees are evolved from wasps. Bees are simply wasps that have lost the ability to hunt prey, and converted their diet from feeding or feeding their brood of insect protein to feeding off pollen. So So bees are just wasps that have forgotten how to hunt. But the main difference between A B and A wasp in terms of their morphology is that wasps tend to have this very constricted Wasp waist. Some some wasps, I like to refer to them as a kind of like the supermodels of the insect well, because they've got this extraordinarily long, thin waist, whereas bees tend to be a bit stumped here a bit fatter and more rotund. The other way to spot Teller was from a bee is that bees tend to be a bit hairier. The main characteristic is has it got this kind of Wasp waist.

Helen Czerski  7:59  
So we're not just talking about bumblebees here. I mean, that's because the bumble bee is this sort of classic big, fat, hairy thing, basically, very easy to identify. But there are the things that the flying things cover a wide range of types and sizes.

Seirian Sumner  8:14  
Yeah, and in fact, there are some bees that look a bit very much like wasps. In fact, this time of year, in the spring, early spring in the UK, you'll see lots of insects appearing and some of those some of those bees actually there's hardly any wasps around at the moment, but there are some bees that look just like wasps. They're no milder bees and they've got the yellow and black stripes they're actually look completely hairless. They've even got a slightly constricted way. So to all intents and purposes, they look like a wasp.

Helen Czerski  8:44  
Okay, we've given everybody some food for thought when they're out and about and they some see something they think it'd be. I'd like to get a from both of you something about why insects matter, you know, the popular image of an ecosystem is full of fluffy things with big eyes, basically, you know, rabbits and pandas and tigers and big things. If you talk to an ecologist, they tend to see ecosystems in terms of bacteria and insects. But we don't hear very much about what the insects are doing. Tim, perhaps first, what are the insects doing in an ecosystem?

Tim Newbold  9:17  
So just to pick up on the the pollination example, again, you're looking across all of the animals that pollinate and most of these are insects, people have have estimated that the pollination of our food crops that these insects provide and and other animals is in the order of hundreds of billions of dollars every year to the world economy. And you know, we know that insects play other roles like recycling of nutrients, they are predators of pests within our agricultural systems. And you know, many, many other things. Soil insects and other invertebrates are tremendously important. But very understudied.

Helen Czerski  9:55  
Seirian, did you get anything to add on what these insects are all up to?

Seirian Sumner  9:59  
Yeah, so I think from the Wasp perspective, and I'm always trying to stick up for the wasps, we are very much behind where the bee world the bee scientists are. So people like Tim, they're researchers kind of bouncing off an enormous body of work. But then, that it's such a bias research market and that the bees have been so well studied in that respect to the detriment of other organisms, other insects like wasps. But what we do know is that wasps are really important in regulating the populations of other insects and arthropods. And we know this purely based on there were no one's actually, you know, there are very few studies that have actually bothered to try and look at it. But we know that they must be important because they are predators. So that could be anything from your yellow jacket picnic Wasp, which will hunt anything that moves basically, it'll Hunter Caterpillar, or fly a weevil, your jam sandwich. And then you've got the parasitoid wasps, which actually of all the wasps that have been studied in the terms of their value to us on the planet, I think the parasitoid wasps are definitely the best studied. And so parasitoid wasps lay their eggs in on other organisms, but they weren't but they don't build a nest. So they will just seek out a caterpillar or a beetle larva under some bark, and they will insert their ovipositor, which has an egg laying sheath through the bark into the caterpillar or onto it and lay their egg. And then, at the same as with the solitary wasps, that egg will hatch into a larva, and then it'll eat. That's caterpillar. And so in doing that, those parasitoid wasps are are helping moderate these populations of insects. And that has been capitalised by on by us by humans and by agriculturalists. And what the what some, in some parts of the world there are these huge factories that will farm parasitoid wasps, such that at the right time of year when the pests get too difficult, too high, they will release these parasitoid wasps into their fields. And the parasitoid wasps will do their business by laying their eggs in the pests. And in doing so they help control the populations of pests, which is brilliant is that spider control, and that's using natural enemies to kill pests, which is much more, which is a much more sustainable method of farming than using lots of chemicals.

Helen Czerski  12:21  
So we've got this picture of a very complicated set of interactions rarely this, you know, these insects are right in there and everything that's going on in ecosystem. So now we're gonna get to the depressing bits, which is, which is, you know, oh, hooray for bees and wasps. And now we're gonna get to the depressing bit. But Tim, you've had the job recently of investigating threats to bees and other insects. So just perhaps, first of all, give us a broad picture on insects, how are insects doing? And then how are the bees doing?

Tim Newbold  12:47  
Yes. So in a study that came out, just just last week, we were interested to look across a lot of different insects. So you know, Seirian already mentioned how bees get a lot of attention said of butterflies in the insect world. But we were interested to try and bring together as much information as we could from across many, many different insects. So beetles and bugs, wasps, and also many of the other really obscure groups that many people may not even have heard about. So so we got these sort of two really big environmental changes that are going on habitat loss, mainly from agriculture. And of course, now climate change. And we were interested about how these two threats come together, and impact in insect biodiversity. And so we put together this, this really big data set using data from all across the world. And what we found was that were intensive agriculture intensive farming, combines with substantial recent climate change, that we saw losses of around half of the number of insects that we would expect to see in natural habitats where there hasn't been climate change.

Helen Czerski  14:00  
And over what period of time has been that decline.

Tim Newbold  14:03  
People haven't been collecting insects samples over long periods of time. And so what we had to rely on for, for this work was taking a sort of a snapshot of what's going on today. So we were looking at places that have seen these threats and comparing them with places that haven't seen these slats. And what we see is that, you know, in those cases, in the most impacted areas, we're seeing these losses of around a half of the numbers of insects. So we don't, we can't really sort of put a specific timeframe on those declines.

Helen Czerski  14:39  
That is a lot of insects that aren't there. What is it? That means there are fewer insects and then what effects does it have if you only have half as many insects?

Tim Newbold  14:48  
Yeah, so you know, what was really important in this study is how these two threats work off each other, making each other worse and we you know, I think there are a number of reasons why that that happens. So, one is that when we He turned natural habitats into farmland, the local climate gets hotter and drier. And so you notice, you know, if you go for a walk on a summer's day, you come out of a patch of woodland into a bit of farmland, you'll feel the temperature go up, you know, you can see that that the land is drier. And so this is adding on top of so all the sort of the big scale climate change that we know is happening, the sorts of local climate changes are adding on top of that. And the other thing is that, we know that with climate change, animals and plants need to move towards the poles of the earth, and they need to move up the slopes of hills and mountains to move to the cooler conditions that they can that they can handle. And if you're having to move through landscapes that are now covered with farmland, that's much harder than that, when it was all for most animals and plants that then when it was all natural habitats.

Helen Czerski  15:55  
And what difference does it I mean, it sounds like this wasn't specifically in your study. But if you take away half the insects from a landscape, what what are the consequences?

Tim Newbold  16:04  
Likely very important, we have we talked earlier about, you know, all the many things that insects do. For many of those things, we don't have a very good understanding of you know, if you take out half the insects, then this is what will happen, we have a better idea for pollination. And we think that, you know, if you lose half the insects, then evidence suggests that we will see reductions in in the yields of all of those those crops that we know depend on insects for pollination. But for many of the other things, you know, we don't, we don't have a very good understanding, safe to say, because we know how important insects are that that impact will be very important. Because the impacts can be so huge, we need to be taken precautionary approach, we, you know, we need to be very careful with messing around with ecological systems in this way.

Helen Czerski  16:55  
And so you study insect behaviour, and that also is impacted by climate change. How does that work?

Seirian Sumner  17:03  
Yeah, that's a really good point. So climate change is affected. As Tim said, the habitats change is really affecting insect behaviour, lots of insects are obviously declining. But there are the interesting ones, I think, are the ones that are showing resilience. So where they're able to somehow adapt or modify their behaviour, such that they can survive in that new new environment. And one of the traits of behaviour and why it's so important, potentially could be sort of like the silver bullet of, you know, Can something say the insects or indeed any other organism is that its behaviour is so responsive, it's very plastic. And so we like to refer to it as the sort of the front line interaction with the environment. So, if you have a behaviour is, you know, it responds immediately to a change in your stimulus around you. So if organisms are able to adapt, adjust their behaviour, such that they can respond in a way that means that they can either avoid whatever the the climate change issue is, or that they can adapt such that they can survive with it within it, then that's a really powerful tool. So one example of that is not so much in insects, but in the laying time of egg laying with birds. And there's some fantastic datasets, because obviously, birds are really well studied as well that they show that the time at which birds are laying eggs is getting earlier. And that is partly because it's warming, but the planet, the environments warming, but also the food of the insect of the bird, which are insects are also shifting their phonology such that they're emerging earlier in the season. And so, you know, we've been talking about the impact of on ecosystems. And it is understanding the insects is critical to you know, how the insects are going to respond to climate change, and all that fantastic work that Tim's group has been doing is so critical in understanding the knock on effects to all the other organisms within that ecosystem.

Helen Czerski  19:06  
So I'm interested in the public response to all of this. So So Tim, the, you know, this recent report and previous reports, you know, they get a lot of press coverage, which actually is really positive, I think, because they're not pandas, their little insects that perhaps people don't think, you know, many people I think, would think you when they think of an insect, which isn't really fair to the insect. But do you notice, have you noticed a shift in the public attitude to this? Are people taking insects more seriously now?

Tim Newbold  19:35  
Yes, absolutely. You know, I think I think people are now realising all the things that insects do for us, and it's been really encouraging to see over the last few years how the public have really got on board with this research about insect declines and you know, really understanding why it matters for us.

Helen Czerski  19:54  
So keep waving the flag for insects. So when it comes to so both of you, perhaps Seirian. And first, you know, we have these stresses from climate change, which can take many forms, you know, floods and droughts and weather changes, you know, whether that's not in the place it normally is, and all sorts of other things. Is the solution to this is this is the way to take care of insect populations just to, you know, stop climate change happening, which we would all like to do for lots of reasons, or are there specific things that we can do to help insects?

Seirian Sumner  20:23  
Well, that's quite a hard question. I think if we knew the answer to that, we would? Well, I think we do know the answer is that we have to stop the way that we're living and stop being quite so. So obsessed with consuming, but I think to lots of people, the idea that they can have any control over this catastrophic position that we're in with climate change, is just seems so remote, you know, people just don't feel that they have the power. And everybody's doing that little bit to recycle and, you know, grow wildflowers and their garden and stuff. But people feel slightly powerless, really, that it's just too, it feels like it's too big a thing. And I think, you know, there's a big movement at the moment to sort of change that and to make people think about what they can do and every little bit counts. And I think one of the most valuable things that many people have at their disposal is their own gardens. And you know, even if they haven't got a garden, they will have a window where they could put a window box out or a roof where they could put plants or have green roofs and we'll put up insect houses. As Tim says, We've come a long way in the last few years in how people respond to insects and people's perceptions of insects. But it is still very blinkered, you know, people absolutely love bees, and they love butterflies, but anything beyond that, they have to be a slightly peculiar person, if they like, you know, they will openly admit that they love beetles. And God forbid that they would ever admit that they like wasps,

Helen Czerski  21:57  
Darwin was a big fan of beetles, you know,

Seirian Sumner  22:00  
Indeed, indeed, and Darwin is obviously an it was an exceptional person. And if we had a planet full of Darwin's, I don't think we'd be in the situation that we are in now. But I think you know, that we have doing fantastic things for bees, we are, you know, you go to any old garden centre, you and you're stumbling over aisles full of bee hotels. And these are all fantastic things. But they are they come with caveats. So for example, you know, B hotels, they look, they're designed to look really pretty and beautiful, and engaging. So you want to have them in your garden, which is obviously really important. But maybe one thing we should be encouraging people to do is to put out different types of different smaller different types of bee hotels or bundles of sticks in different parts of your garden so that the insects can use your garden in the way that they would want to use a habitat and have their territories and have their nesting sites. But then the other thing that really frustrates me is that we have this no mow May which is fantastic. And I live in a rural village in in Oxfordshire, and they you know, my neighbours and everyone churchyard so they go crazy for this, no-mow May and they let everything grow. And it's just really beautiful. By the end of May, it's just absolutely gorgeous. And then comes the first of June, and everybody knows their lawns. And you know, all that good work is gone. Because you know that those sorts of insects have taken up residence in that fantastic overgrown, beautiful lawn, they've started laying their eggs or provisioning and or growing, and then they get killed. They just, they just get mowed down.

Helen Czerski  23:34  
So Tim, Seirian there has laid out things that you know, individuals can do, but a lot of this is about society. So from the point of view of a system, you know, a country that has to make decisions, what can our country or our government or our systems do to make life better for insects?

Tim Newbold  23:50  
Yes, so yeah, fundamentally, we we need our governments to take action on climate change, and take action on habitat loss, because our recent research is showing that climate change is very important, but it's not happening in isolation. And unless we tackle both climate change and habitat loss, then, you know, we're not we're not going to get anywhere close to solving the problem. And I think there are very encouraging signs that, you know, governments are now taking this this seriously. And just to pick up on on a really good point that that Savion made actually around how some insects are better able to adapt to the things that we're throwing at them. One of the really important things that's emerged in my recent work is that there will be fewer winners in tropical areas. So the impacts of habitat loss and climate change are much greater in the tropical parts of the world. And these are areas that have often been overlooked in previous big studies of insect biodiversity. And so, at the same time, you know, many of those foods that we consume, and we're flying them in from from tropical country. So yeah, I think the other thing that we can do You know, Sally and make some really great points about how we manage our gardens. The other big thing that we can do as individuals is to make sensible choices when we're shopping. So think about when you're picking up that tropical mango or or whatever it is in the supermarket. Maybe we can reduce the amount of food that we're bringing in from tropical countries. If we are buying those those sorts of foods, then looking for sustainable certification looking for things like shade grown coffee, for example. And that you can make could make a really big difference.

Helen Czerski  25:34  
Well, I'll just finallly from the for both of you. Are there any common sort of misconceptions we're about to run out of time, but I'm curious about whether there are any sort of popular myths about bees and insects more generally. And wasps, I'm sure for seryan. Are there any sort of things that you'd like to put on the record to correct why you've got the opportunity now? Seirian first, perhaps? 

Seirian Sumner  25:53  
Well don't get me started briefly. You know, wasps are what's the point of wasps, I get asked that all the time. And everybody understands that bees are important for pollination. And I think my one liner is that wasps are nature's pest controllers. And in a world without wasps, we would have to use a lot more nasty chemicals, which would have detrimental effects on the wider biodiversity of the planet.

Helen Czerski  26:16  
Okay, well, I hope everyone listening is now convinced about wasps. Tim, what about you.

Tim Newbold  26:21  
I think I'll pick up on the threats again. So, you know, I think there's been this misconception even in scientific communities, that habitat loss is the thing that we're facing right now. And climate change is sort of a problem for the future. But we're already seeing in our research that climate change is having these really profound impacts on on insect biodiversity. So we've got to get a handle both on climate change and habitat loss in order to solve the insect biodiversity declines

Helen Czerski  26:49  
Two very strong messages to finish on. So thank you very much to both of you. Anyone listening can find out more about both Tim and Seirian's research on the UCL biodiversity Department website. Thank you. Thank you.

UCL Minds  27:02  
You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Helen Czerski  27:09  
We're just about to get marks roundup of all the climate news stories that you need to know about this week. But just before that, just want to spend a moment to encourage you to get involved in the podcast and UCL climate work. You can find all about that@ucl.ac.uk forward slash climate hyphen change, so you can write and subscribe to the podcast. We'd love it. If you do that. Do send us some feedback. Send us comments and questions to the email address podcasts@ucl.ac.uk and do connect to us on Twitter and Instagram. But now it's time to join Mark Maslin for the climate news roundup.

Mark Maslin  27:49  
Here is the climate News for the week starting the 16th of May 2022. Just announced the EU is aiming to bolster renewables and energy savings goals as part of their 195 billion euro plan to end its dependency on Russian fossil fuels by 2027. In other news, UK buildings are directly responsible for about quarter of the UK carbon emissions, and a new standard be UK net zero carbon building standard is being launched by industry, also led by the Church of England's Pension Board and the university superannuation scheme. A dozen UK pension funds with a collective 400 billion pounds in assets are joining forces to support climate transition in emerging markets. While around the world, Brazil is planning to create an internal carbon market and to speed the process up rather than wait for legislation to be approved by Congress. They're going for presidential decree allowing a much quicker move towards the development of the market. And intense heatwave is sweeping through northern India with temperatures hitting a record 49.2 degrees Celsius. Now this is the fifth heatwave to hit Delhi since March. And also the world weather attribution report has found that climate change did indeed increase the rainfall that caused the devastating floods in South Africa last month. These were the worst floods over 60 years and left the more than 430 people dead 10s of 1000 displaced and millions of dollars worth of damage.

Helen Czerski  29:36  
That's it for this episode of generation warmth from UCL turning climate science and ideas into action. Thank you very much indeed to my guest, Dr. Tim Newbold and Professor Sierian Sumner. And don't forget to leave a comment and raters wherever you get your podcasts. The next edition of this series of generation one from UCL will be available next Wednesday when my co host Mark Maslin will be talking about apps there's little bits of software on our phone that help us do things inform us about the world, and perhaps can make a difference in the actions we need to take around climate change. So listening to hear more about that, but for this week, goodbye.