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Invaluable bees and nature’s other services

We depend on nature for so many things: from clean water, wood and food to carbon absorption, water purification and coastal protection, as well as for relaxation, inspiration and identity. Nevertheless, our modern world putting increasing pressure on these ecosystem services. Leiden researchers investigate ecosystem services, their interrelations and underlying mechanisms. They do so using the most advanced technologies at the interface between disciplines, from natural sciences to humanities and social sciences.


Pollination is a well-known example of an ecosystem service. Bees pollinate an estimated 70% of our agricultural crops, including apples, strawberries, coffee and tomatoes. However, both wild bees and honey bees are threatened by pesticides, changes in land use and disease. ‘We actually still know very little about bees,’ says Koos Biesmeijer, Professor of Natural Capital and Scientific Director of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. ‘Apart from the familiar honey bee, there are approximately 25,000 species of bees, of which 360 are found in the Netherlands. To protect them effectively, we have to know where and how they live, and what factors impact their survival.’ This research makes use of ‘old-fashioned’ observation and experiments, as well as computer models and molecular technologies. For example, satellites and models are used to predict when crops will blossom and where and when bees are needed for pollination.

Together with wild pollinators, the honey bee contributes more than €1 billion per year to the Dutch economy.

Green circles

How can we create products with closed water and energy cycles, the efficient use of raw materials and concern for a pleasant living environment? This is the question that the Green Circles experimental project aims to answer. ‘Heineken in Zoeterwoude is developing a climate-neutral, environmentally friendly brewery,’ says Biesmeijer. ‘It’s a model project, in collaboration with the Province of Zuid-Holland, the Rijnland water authority, Naturalis and Wageningen University.’

This brewery, the largest in Europe, will be powered by heat from the harbour of Rotterdam, and it will recycle its waste water using a reed swamp. ‘Nature as a partner, that’s the idea,’ says Biesmeijer. ‘Nature, economy and society can no longer be viewed as separate entities. Everything we learn here we want to also apply elsewhere.’

Counting on/Quantifying nature

The IPCC, the UN climate panel, is by now well-known. What is less known is that for a few years now the UN has also had a platform looking at the link between nature and human well-being: IPBES, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. This panel collects data for policy makers. Koos Biesmeijer acts as an expert for the panel, as does Alexander van Oudenhoven,  is a specialist in quantifying ecosystem services. For example, which factors do you include, and how much weight do you give them? ‘One of my case studies here in the Netherlands is the Sand Motor,’ he explains, ‘a large peninsula of deposited sand off the Zuid-Holland coast near Kijkduin. It is intended for coastal protection, but also serves nature and recreation.’

Twelve PhD students from various universities are investigating various aspects of the Sand Motor, from chemistry to policy, and from ecology to soil morphology. Van Oudenhoven brings all these data together. ‘At times there can be conflicts of interest,’ he says. ‘Our goal is to quantify these considerations and opportunities.’ Policy makers can then use this information to make better decisions; they can see how a decision in one field has consequences elsewhere. This applies not only to the Sand Motor, but to the entire world.

The Sand Motor is essentially an experiment in coast protection: it studies whether sand deposited close to the coast will naturally spread to gradually expand the beach area. But researchers also investigate what other services the sand peninsula provides, for instance in the field of nature and recreation. Photography: Rijkswaterstaat / Jurriaan Brobbel

Green Circles
The Sand Motor

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