Letter | Published:

Historical nectar assessment reveals the fall and rise of floral resources in Britain

Nature volume 530, pages 8588 (04 February 2016) | Download Citation


There is considerable concern over declines in insect pollinator communities and potential impacts on the pollination of crops and wildflowers1,2,3,4. Among the multiple pressures facing pollinators2,3,4, decreasing floral resources due to habitat loss and degradation has been suggested as a key contributing factor2,3,4,5,6,7,8. However, a lack of quantitative data has hampered testing for historical changes in floral resources. Here we show that overall floral rewards can be estimated at a national scale by combining vegetation surveys and direct nectar measurements. We find evidence for substantial losses in nectar resources in England and Wales between the 1930s and 1970s; however, total nectar provision in Great Britain as a whole had stabilized by 1978, and increased from 1998 to 2007. These findings concur with trends in pollinator diversity, which declined in the mid-twentieth century9 but stabilized more recently10. The diversity of nectar sources declined from 1978 to 1990 and thereafter in some habitats, with four plant species accounting for over 50% of national nectar provision in 2007. Calcareous grassland, broadleaved woodland and neutral grassland are the habitats that produce the greatest amount of nectar per unit area from the most diverse sources, whereas arable land is the poorest with respect to amount of nectar per unit area and diversity of nectar sources. Although agri-environment schemes add resources to arable landscapes, their national contribution is low. Owing to their large area, improved grasslands could add substantially to national nectar provision if they were managed to increase floral resource provision. This national-scale assessment of floral resource provision affords new insights into the links between plant and pollinator declines, and offers considerable opportunities for conservation.

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This research was supported by the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI) ‘AgriLand: Linking agriculture and land use change to pollinator populations’ project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Wellcome Trust, Scottish Government, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) under the auspices of the Living with Environmental Change partnership: grant BB/H014934/1 (http://www.agriland.leeds.ac.uk). Land Cover and Countryside Survey data are owned by NERC – Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (http://www.countrysidesurvey.org.uk).

Author information

Author notes

    • Mathilde Baude
    •  & Mark A. K. Gillespie

    Present address: Collegium Sciences et Techniques EA 1207 LBLGC, Université d’Orléans, F-45067, Orléans, France (M.B.); Department of Science and Engineering, Sogn og Fjordane University College, 6851 Sogndal, Norway (M.A.K.G.).


  1. School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Life Sciences Building, Bristol BS8 1TQ, UK

    • Mathilde Baude
    • , Nancy Davies
    •  & Jane Memmott
  2. Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1UJ, UK

    • Mathilde Baude
    • , Nancy Davies
    •  & Jane Memmott
  3. School of Biology, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • William E. Kunin
    •  & Mark A. K. Gillespie
  4. Fera Science Ltd., Sand Hutton, York YO41 1LZ, UK

    • Nigel D. Boatman
    •  & Simon Conyers
  5. NERC Center for Ecology & Hydrology, Bailrigg, Lancaster LA1 4AP, UK

    • R. Daniel Morton
    •  & Simon M. Smart


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The study was conceived by W.E.K. and J.M. The field survey was carried out by M.B. and N.D. with the help of J.M. The data were compiled and analysed by M.B. with suggestions from W.E.K., J.M., S.M.S., R.D.M. and M.A.K.G. Vegetation data from the Countryside Survey database were extracted by S.M.S. Agri-environment scheme data were provided and analysed by N.D.B. and S.C. The national maps were generated by R.D.M. All authors discussed the results and contributed during manuscript writing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mathilde Baude.

The floral resource database will be made available from the NERC Environmental Information Data Centre (http://dx.doi.org/10.5285/69402002-1676-4de9-a04e-d17e827db93c and http://dx.doi.org/10.5285/6c6d3844-e95a-4f84-a12e-65be4731e934).

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Tables 1-10 and Supplementary references - see contents page for further details.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 11

    This file contains Supplementary Table 11, which shows plant traits, flowering phenology, flower density, nectar productivity at the flower scale and nectar sugar productivity at the vegetative scale for the list of 260 species.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 12

    This table contains a reference list for flower-visiting insects of the four main nectar providers nationally. It lists sources and data used to investigate the visiting insects of the main nectar providing plant species (Extended Data Table 2). This combines published and unpublished plant-pollinator interactions data from Memmott’s group and a review of literature of insect species visiting flowers of Trifolium repens, Calluna vulgaris, Cirsium palutre and Erica cinerea.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Table 13

    This table contains a reference list for published sugar potential values in kg/ha /year. It lists sources and data used to compare our nectar values (in kg/ha cover/year) to those found in literature (Extended Data Figure 6g). Published values of sugar potential are available for 128 species at the time of writing. Where values were available from more than one source, an average was calculated. Where values were given only as honey potential in the literature, these values were multiplied by 0.8 to give sugar potential. This ratio has been reported in the majority of the published sources (References 1, 5-17).

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