Is organic farming better for bees?

Bee in flower_275_184

Organic farms have on average about 30 per cent more species than conventional farms, and nearly 50 per cent more pollinator species, according to a review of studies from across the world by Swedish, Swiss and UK university researchers. But does this mean organic farming is better for wildlife or indeed bees?

It does not consider how many individuals of each species are present (this is ‘abundance’). And while it breaks the occurrence data down into functional groups (groups of species doing the same job, like decomposers, predators, pollinators etc.), because abundance data is not considered, it is not possible to determine from this study whether or not an organic farming system is any better for a function, like insect pollination, than a conventional farming system.

The research, which estimates the overall effect of organic and conventional farming on wildlife, also stops short of determining what the causes are behind the differences. But we can make reasoned guesses, for example with over 75 per cent more plant species on organic farms it is not surprising to find a greater range of pollinator species.

So does this research say organic farming is better for wildlife or indeed bees? Being pedantic, it doesn’t even mention bees, just pollinators, so it would be wrong to say this study shows benefits for bees.

As for wildlife (and in fairness, pollinators), if you are just collecting species and are looking to increase that number, then yes, this research says organic farming methods would have a beneficial role to play.

But generally speaking conservation of wildlife is about building sustainable populations – it is about abundance, not about occurrence. And in that context, this research does not show that organic farming is better for wildlife.

With insect pollinators, the current debate, which will hopefully be captured and tackled under the National Pollinator Strategy due to be out for consultation later this month, is less about occurrence and more about abundance – do we have enough pollinators to do the pollination job we need them to do within our crops and countryside? When considering what new research might or might not tell us – it’s this background that we need to bear in mind.