It’s become a tradition (ok, only for the past two years, but a tradition has to start somewhere!) for me to post a version of this festive blog entry. I’ve updated the stats for 2013. Hope you enjoy it.
Christmas! A time to relax and enjoy ourselves, to share time with family and friends, and to unwind during the cold and gloom of winter. Whatever your faith, or lack of it, Christmas should be about taking a break and reflecting on the year that has passed. We’re helped in that respect by the ceremonial seasonal trimmings: the Christmas tree, strings of flashing lights, baubles and tinsel. So while you’re kissing a loved one under the mistletoe, admiring that glossy holly wreath, or tucking into your Christmas dinner, spare a thought for the insects.
“What in Saint Nicholas’s name” you are asking ”have insects got to do with Christmas?!” Well, like the turkey, we’d be stuffed without them: they play an essential part in providing us with the things we associate with Christmas. If we had no flies, wasps, bees and other bugs acting as pollinators there’d be no berries on your mistletoe or your holly. Kissing and admiring would be a less festive affair and that’s just for starters. These insects also pollinate many of the vegetables, herbs and spices on your plate, as well as some of the forage that went to fatten your roast bird or tender joint of meat. Not to forget much of what went into the nut roast that’s feeding the vegetarian relatives.
The economic value of insect pollination in the UK was estimated by the recent National Ecosystem Assessment to be about £430 million per year. In fact this is a huge under valuation because the labour costs alone of paying people to hand pollinate those crops would run into billions of pounds. This sounds far fetched but it’s already happening to fruit crops in parts of China. The answer is to encourage wild insects, not artificially managed honey bees, because collectively the former are far more abundant, and often more effective, as pollinators. Their diversity is an insurance against losing any one species in the future. The NEA’s valuation is also too low because it only deals with commercial edible crops, and does not include those we grow in our gardens and allotments. It also does not take account of ornamental crops such as mistletoe and holly, both of which are dioecious species, which is to say that individuals are either male or female, rather than hermaphrodite as are most plants. This means that the plants cannot self pollinate and insects are absolutely vital to their reproduction and to the production of the decorative berries we so value (a holly wreath without berries is just a big spiky doughnut, in my opinion).
Whilst researching the economic value of the annual mistletoe and holly crops for this blog posting last year I had a conversation with Jonathan Briggs over at Mistletoe Matters and he told me that “the mistletoe trade in Britain is entirely unregulated and not documented in any tangible way”, and the same is true of holly. We therefore have no idea what the economic value of these non-food crops actually is. But some back-of-the-red-and-gold-Christmas-lunch-napkin calculations can at least give us an insight. Auction reports for 2013 show that on average the best quality berried holly was selling for £2.50 per kg whilst equivalent quality holly without berries sold for only 80p per kg. In other words, pollination by insects increases the value of that crop by more than 300%! Similarly the high quality mistletoe averaged £1.20 per kg, whilst the second grade stuff was only 40p per kg. And the best holly wreaths (presumably with berries!) were averaging £7.00 each.
These are wholesale prices, of course; retail cost to the customer is much greater. A decent holly wreath will set you back between £15 and £30 whilst online shopping for mistletoe is in the £5 to £20 range, depending on how much you want. The national census of 2011 shows us that there are 23.4 million households in England and Wales, plus there are 2.36 million in Scotland and 0.70 million in Northern Ireland. Let’s round it down and say there’s 26 million households in the whole of the UK. Let’s also be very conservative and estimate that only 5% of those households bought one holly wreath and some mistletoe at a total cost of £20. Multiply that by the small proportion of households buying these festive crops and you arrive at a figure of about £26.5 million! And that doesn’t include non-household use in shops, offices and businesses. So there you have it: an industry worth a few tens of millions (at least) all being ultimately supported by insects.