The SPRING project has established an EU-wide monitoring system for pollinators
21 September 2021
Insects have an important function for both ecosystems and the economy. Almost 90% of flowering wild plants worldwide depend at least partially on pollination by animals. And more than 75% of all crops also need pollinators if they are to produce a high yield and good quality. But what about these important helpers? Where are their populations threatened? And what can be done about it? So far, there has been a lack of systematic inventories in Europe that can provide answers to these questions. A new project called SPRING (Strengthening Pollinator Recovery through Indicators and monitoring) now aims to remedy the situation. SPRING is testing different approaches in European-wide pollinator monitoring which will impact the related recommendations for eLTER standard observations. An international research team coordinated by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) is working on an EU-wide census of pollinators.
Apart from honey bees and perhaps a few butterflies, there were hardly any insects with “celebrity status”. Even though many species play an important role as pollinators, they have largely flown under the radar of public awareness. However, in the meantime, interest in these animals has also increased considerably in both the societal and political sphere. That’s because it’s becoming increasingly clear that without these species, there is a threat of massive damage to both ecosystems and the economy. Accordingly, the initiative for a better survey of Europe’s pollinators did not come from scientists but rather from the EU Parliament.
“Most parties agree that we need more indicators for the state of biodiversity in Europe”, says UFZ biodiversity researcher Prof. Josef Settele. What about the biodiversity of a region? Are there already creeping losses that could lead to serious problems? So far, this can be seen in only a few, well-studied groups of plants and animals such as birds or butterflies. But this previously incomplete picture will soon take on new facets. This is because SPRING will help establish an EU-wide census of pollinators.
The concept for an (EU Pollinator Monitoring Scheme) was published by an international group of experts in 2020. The SPRING project, which has a budget of €5 million, will carry out part of this census by 2023. Nineteen research institutions will be involved in the project, which is coordinated by Prof. Josef Settele from the UFZ and Dr David Roy from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Wallingford, UK.
“We will use the butterfly monitoring that already exists in many European countries as a blueprint for surveying pollinators”, explains Settele. For Germany, the UFZ launched this Citizen Science project in 2005 together with the Gesellschaft für Schmetterlingsschutz e.V. (GfS). Since then, volunteers have been walking fixed routes in the summer months and counting the butterflies spotted. The same principle is now used to survey butterfly occurrences every year in numerous other countries in Europe.
However, Denmark, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia still do not have such a programme. This will change within the framework of SPRING. Together with local nature conservation organisations, the project team will first look for volunteers and coordinators for the individual countries and then develop or translate identification aids for the species found there. From next year onwards, the butterfly hunt can really get underway.
However, Europe’s flowers are by no means pollinated only by butterflies; other groups of insects actually play a much greater role in this respect. So which insects must be recorded as a minimum in order to obtain meaningful data on the situation of pollinators? Which methods are suitable for this? What is the minimum area that needs to be examined? And what will the entire project cost? “In order to better assess all this, we will develop and test a kind of minimal programme for meaningful monitoring as part of the project”, says Settele.
There will be a separate concept for each EU state. In up to 24 test areas per country, the project staff will use various methods in order to assess the diversity of pollinators. Similar to butterfly monitoring, volunteers will also count wild bees and hoverflies on defined routes. It is also being investigated how effectively the diversity of pollinators can be assessed using various traps. “Based on our experiences, we will develop recommendations on how the individual countries can best continue their monitoring”, explains Settele.
However, in order to make all this work, the pollinator census needs enough qualified supporters. “Anyone who knows of initiatives that are already involved in recording insects is welcome to contact us”, says Settele. Based on his experiences with butterfly monitoring, he is optimistic that even amateurs can learn to distinguish many of the species with a little practice. However, in some cases this is not so easy. After all, in Germany alone there are around 560 species of wild bees, including bumblebees. And only few people can confidently identify a larger proportion of these species. In order to change this, the project team plans to offer online materials and training courses on bee identification. There are also plans for an app that can assign the correct name to the insects via image recognition.
In addition to expanding butterfly monitoring and testing the minimum programme, SPRING also has a number of special searches in the works. For example, the Netherlands has started an initiative that will use a combination of simple traps and sophisticated image recognition technology to track moths. “We also want to test this in Germany with the active participation of farmers”, says Settele. “Our Dutch neighbours have already had good initial experiences with this”.
After completion of the SPRING project, Europe will then have a good chance to get a better overview of its service providers up and running. “We hope that we can persuade most European states to carry out such monitoring”, says Settele. “This is the only way we can assess in the medium term where we are doing well in terms of pollinator protection and where we are not”.
Prof. Dr Josef Settele
Head of the UFZ Department of Conservation Biology & Social-Ecological Systems