Grow a weed, save a bee. Michael Hickling reports on a new plan to rescue Nature’s struggling pollinators
Paul Evans chooses a suitable spot to make his pitch, a field margin that has been deliberately left uncultivated to encourage wildlife.
He’s in the first week of a new job which will involve persuading farmers and landowners to help build a network of nature-friendly pieces of land like this.
If things go to plan, these now fragmented areas will grow to form corridors – or more eye-catchingly bee roads – that link the nation.
Yorkshire has been chosen for the pilot project. “You have got to start somewhere, why not in God’s Own Country?” says Paul.
He works for Buglife, a national invertebrate conservation trust, and on this glorious sunny evening he is addressing his first audience near Helmsley in North Yorkshire.
They listen intently and afterwards the impression they give is that they are keen to do what they can. But then these listeners are mostly the interested, the converted and assorted experts.
We are on a walk organised by the Yorkshire branch of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) at Beadlam Grange where the farmer, Mark Rooke, has 300 acres, pigs and cattle and a hectare of native woodland.
The idea is to investigate first-hand what might seem paradoxical – how a farm can be more prosperous by becoming in certain regards less efficient.
The argument runs like this. Farmers’ long-term self-interest will be served if they set aside land to let wildflowers grow because these form a habitat for pollinating insects which have an economic value.
Greater biodiversity means more pollinators buzzing around and that in the long run increases yields and productivity.
The problem is that the old fashioned way of farming with a bit of grassland, lifestock, cereals and the rest of it does not for the most part work economically any more.
The way forward is specialisation but it seems the law of unintended consequences has followed in the wake of this farming revolution. The intensive cultivation of huge arable areas created super-efficient monocultures which are no use for pollinators.
These vast landscapes are deserts for insects for finding food and for moving around. Some experts predict that with climate change 40-60 per cent of all insect species could that left isolated in alien places.
The decline of the bee is the tip of the iceberg in the decline of invertebrates in general with wild pollinators now reckoned to be doing most of the donkey work.
There are serious implications for the bottom line here. The incessant activity of honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies are reckoned to contribute to one in every three mouthfuls of the food that we eat.
The value the pollinators bring to crop production in this country is estimated at £430m a year by a recent study at Reading University.
Yet a farmer may need not have to make too great a sacrifice to help foster the insects’ recovery.
Wildflowers actually grow better on poorer land and a “nectar mix” of seeds will only cost around £65 to cover an acre.
What the tiny pollinators are keen on are things like borage, Abyssinian mustard, and Himalyan balsam which as many urban gardeners and allotments holders will know, don’t need any encouragement to spread like wildfire.
Mark Rowe took his group over to view an area of his land, often too wet to be much use he said, next to his woodland where he plans to sow seeds which will grow into nectar producing wildflowers.
England’s bees are vanishing faster than anywhere else in Europe, with more than half of hives dying out over the last 20 years.
Arable farmer Stephen Brown, who had come up to Beadlam Grange from Cambridgeshire to attend this event, said the effects of this dry spring had been so severe in places that bees were starving in Cheshire and Shropshire.
He has a passion for bees and runs something called Beescape which undertakes to remove bees from what he called prairie landscapes like his own in Cambridgeshire. “We can place bees on farms for farmers to look after them,” he said. “ We have to come this far north to find a suitable mixed farming set-up.
“We make no money from bees. We give back to the farmers a certain percentage of the honey production.”
He also grows forselia and buckwheat and borage which attract bees. Forselia seed costs £10 per kilogram to broadcast.
Martin Shaw, who farms north of Northallerton, was a bees’ stalwart for many years until last winter when the frosts wiped out his colony.
From his perspective, the parlous state of bees has a lot to do with too much in-breeding, a consequence of too few people keeping bees these days.
“Four near me have stopped recently – that’s within a five-mile area,” says Martin. “Having bee-keepers within three miles of each other, that would be ideal.”
A bee will travel two to three miles to forage and in-breeding is fatal because it depletes a colony’s genetic diversity.
A queen bee lives two to three years, worker bees live six weeks in the season.
It’s well known that the health of many bees has been undermined by a parasite, the varroa mite, which arrived in Yorkshire in 1995.
It’s the size of a pinhead and feeds on the blood of a bee which makes it susceptible to viruses.
The mites are increasingly resistant to treatments and are thought to be a factor in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) affecting colonies here and in America and Europe.
Mark Rowe has been on the side of the environmental angels in terms of working practices, such as only trimming his hawthorne hedges every three years, for some time.
He has been collaborating since the late 1980s with FWAG who helped him design a pond that serves as a wildlife haven.
FWAG’s Phil Lyth said, “It’s important farmers are aware of what can be done to help bee populations and this is an opportunity to find out what’s possible”
Many farms are now in some sort of environmental protection scheme but these usually have a finite life of ten years. Farmers may be less keen to sign up again if commodity prices continue to soar and push up the potential profit from decent quality land.
The one-year project that Buglife’s Paul Evans has just started work on and which is sponsored by the Co-op, recognises the need for a much bigger scale of habitat creation and one that will be permanent.
The long-term aim is to have the bee-roads – a network of grassland habitats across every county of England – covering 70,000 hectares.
The immediate aim is to have five hectares in Yorkshire. It’s a big ask and they hope to get over to farmers and public alike that this is a necessity rather than just generally desirable.
Where will the money come from to pay farmers to leave pieces of what looks set to be their increasingly valuable productive land to the bees and the wildflowers?
Paul talks of re-thinking how the money that the EU currently spends on agriculture might be used in new ways. What he’s now engaged on he says, is the “next big bold step”.
Helping embattled bees to survive
There are nearly 20,000 recorded species of bees in total. In this country we have around 260 species. Bees require a supply of honey or sugar, pollen and water to feed the young. The National Bee Unit at Sand Hutton near York reports that this year’s weather has been exceptional with some regions having the driest spring for a century and says if the drought conditions continue nectar production will be affected. It recommends bee keepers check the store levels of their colony and in extreme cases, if the bees are starving on the comb, they should be sprayed with a thin sugar syrup solution.