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Vanishing pollinators: Urban expansion directly linked to decimation of butterfly and bee populations

Bustling regions in the midst of urban expansion are notoriously inhospitable to numerous forms of wildlife and pollinators.

In a first-of-its-kind global analysis, scientists from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have found that urban expansion is particularly detrimental to the survival of butterflies and certain wild bees

The findings, published in the journal Ecology Letters, highlight the urgent need for conservation measures in our ever-growing cities.

Rapid urbanization has emerged as a global phenomenon. It casts an ominous shadow over a wide variety of animal habitats.

Pollinators are coming under enormous pressure from stressors associated with urban expansion. These stressors include a reduction in plant diversity and a surge in environmental pollutants. Light pollution and air pollution are major contributors.

“There are many studies that have examined the relationship between urbanization, pollinators and pollination performance and have found negative effects,” explained Dr. Panagiotis Theodorou from MLU.
However, because these studies are complex and time-consuming, researchers have typically limited them to specific regions or cities.

To address this knowledge gap, Dr. Theodorou and his team collaborated with researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They conducted a comprehensive examination of how urban growth impacts pollinators and their critical role in pollination.

The researchers analyzed data from 133 individual studies that spanned all continents except Antarctica. This analysis painted a global picture of the predicament of pollinators.

Butterflies are particularly vulnerable to urban expansion

The evidence points to an unsettling trend: “As urbanization increases, the abundance and biodiversity of many pollinators decrease,” said Dr. Theodorou. Among the various pollinator species, butterflies seem to be the most affected by urban expansion. 

“Butterflies are particularly susceptible to changes in their environment. They depend on very specific plants for their nutrition and larval development. Since these are found less and less in cities, the populations of many butterfly species are also declining,” explained Dr. Huan Liang from Wuhan Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

Wild bee populations are struggling from urban expansion

Furthermore, early spring pollinators that rely on nectar and pollen of early flowering plants are suffering substantial population declines. In particular, wild bees that nest in the ground are struggling to find suitable breeding sites within urban confines. However, wild bees that nest above ground, in cavities or artificial structures like insect hotels, appear to be less impacted.

Despite the downward trend in pollinator numbers, the scientists observed that pollination performance was not necessarily compromised. This is a positive sign because pollination performance is a critical factor for ecosystem health and human food security. Honeybees and bumblebees seemed to be compensating for the reduction in other urban pollinators. 

“Honeybees are very productive and are kept by hobby beekeepers in many places,” said Dr. Liang. However, this silver lining is not without its clouds. As honeybees may displace other native pollinators and potentially transmit diseases, their dominance in urban settings can have unintended negative impacts.

Insights for sustainable urban development

This groundbreaking study underscores the importance of conserving biodiversity in our cities. It also provides valuable insights for sustainable urban development. One of the significant findings is that cities with a wider diversity of flowers tend to host more diverse and abundant pollinators. 

“If we design our cities better in terms of what they offer to pollinators, we can at least compensate for some of the negative consequences of urban growth,” said Dr. Theodorou. 

This research was partly funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. The insights gained from this study could potentially inform urban planning strategies. This would ultimately help create cities that balance human needs with those of the natural world.

More about pollinator decline 

Pollinator decline refers to the phenomenon of dwindling populations of pollinator species. These include bees, butterflies, birds, and bats, among others. These species are crucial to the survival of ecosystems and human food production. They facilitate the reproduction of many plant species.

The alarming rate of pollinator decline has been linked to a variety of factors. These include habitat loss, climate change, pesticide exposure, diseases, and invasive species.

Habitat loss

Urban expansion and agricultural intensification often lead to the destruction or fragmentation of natural habitats. This process reduces the availability of food and nesting sites for pollinators, thereby threatening their survival.

Climate change

Changes in climate can disrupt the synchronized timing of flower blooming and the active period of pollinators. This desynchronization can result in less food for pollinators and fewer pollinated flowers.

Pesticide exposure

Many pesticides, particularly a class known as neonicotinoids, are highly toxic to pollinators. Even sub-lethal exposure can affect a pollinator’s ability to forage and reproduce.


Pollinators can be affected by a range of pathogens and parasites, which can decimate their populations. Managed honeybees, for example, can spread diseases to wild pollinators.

Invasive species

Non-native plants or animals can outcompete local species for resources, disrupt habitats, or introduce new diseases, all of which can impact pollinators.

The decline of pollinators poses significant risks to biodiversity and to human food production. Globally, about 75% of food crops depend at least in part on pollination.

This makes pollinators incredibly vital to global food security. Therefore, strategies such as habitat conservation, reduction in pesticide use, and promoting biodiversity in agricultural and urban environments are critically important in addressing pollinator decline.


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