Bee project highlights nectar supply gap

Improving pollen and nectar availability at either end of the growing season could significantly boost farmland insects and ultimately benefit growers, says leading agronomy firm Hutchinsons.

Bee on Phacealia

Bee on Phacealia

Initial findings from its five-year Bee Project (see panel below) suggest that while many farms are doing a lot to encourage bees and other pollinator insects through stewardship schemes, much of the emphasis is on mid-season pollen and nectar production, resulting in comparatively low food supply for such insects in early spring and autumn.

March and September/ October are the main months where nectar availability needs to be improved, project leader Bob Bulmer told attendees at Hutchinsons technical conference in Harrogate.

“Many insects, particularly Queen Bumble bees start flying early in the season, from the end of February onwards, so it’s vital they can replenish the energy lost during hibernation in order to breed properly for the coming season. Likewise, other species, such as the ivy bee, are active late into the autumn and will need enough food sources to see them through the winter.”

He says a lot of pollinating insects have become reliant on a narrow range of arable crops, notably oilseed rape and peas, for their nectar supply and it is crucial to build more diversity into this supply throughout the year, not just the main summer months.

Simple steps

Dr Bulmer believes this is relatively easy to do on farm and does not necessarily require expensive seed mixtures or taking areas of productive land out of production.

He acknowledges that it may be difficult and potentially quite costly to establish purpose-bought herbaceous seed early in the season, so instead suggests trying to identify and encourage naturally-occurring beneficial plants on certain uncropped areas, field margins or awkward field corners.

For example, ground ivy, white/ red deadnettle and dandelion are all useful species for extending insect food availability, while planting early flowering shrubby species such as goat willow and blackthorn can give longer-term benefits.

Changing cutting regimes on grass and flower margins to delay flowering is another relatively easy way to extend food supply for insects, while including a particularly late-flowering variety of knapweed in any mix is a useful addition for boosting end of season food, he says. There are also a number of other wild species that flower later in the year, such as field scabious and wild carrot, he says.

“Generally, if you get the plants right then everything else will follow, so getting more flowering species on farms will have a tremendous benefit for bees and other pollinator species, which are so crucial for pollinating farmland crops. It’s also a good way of creating positive news stories for farmers and ultimately helps improve the industry’s public image.”

 

The Bee Project needs you

The Bee Project is a joint initiative between Hutchinsons and Gleadell Agriculture that started in 2012.

The five-year project initially involved a survey of two predominantly arable farms – Midloe Grange, Cambridgeshire and Worlaby Farm, Lincolnshire – to evaluate and quantify the availability of pollen and nectar through the year and find practical ways of balancing this supply.

Despite differences in the size, crop rotation and environmental practices already employed across each farm, both sites experienced low levels of pollen and nectar production in March and September/ October.

This year different plant mixtures are to be trialled at Worlaby Farm to investigate which have the greatest potential for improving pollen and nectar supply early and late in the season.

Dr Bulmer is looking for other commercial farms to take part in the project and anyone interested should contact him directly on 07810 515892.

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