A new project aims to help reverse the recent decline in bee numbers by boosting the food supply for bees and other vital pollinators on arable farms.

“The whole industry is acutely aware of the issues surrounding bees,” says Paul Butler, Gleadell business development manager. “We know they are of great importance in the pollination of many crops, and they also greatly enhance the biodiversity of an area by pollinating many other plant species.

“Unfortunately, due to a combination of poor weather, inconsistent food sources and parasitic activity, numbers have fallen sharply over the past few years.”

This decline in bee numbers has also fuelled fears over the impact of some pesticides, culminating in a temproary EU ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments being announced last week. But there is still much debate on what the sicence says and even beekeepers highlight other possible reasons for the decline.

One could be food supply and a five-year study, jointly funded by national merchant Gleadell Agriculture and the agronomy specialist Hutchinsons, has already identified considerable variations in the seasonal availability of pollen and nectar, which are likely to be contributing to the reported decline in bee numbers.

“Due to a combination of poor weather, inconsistent food sources and parasitic activity, numbers have fallen sharply over the past few years.”
Paul Butler, Gleadell business development manager

Ways of tackling these shortfalls are currently being assessed, to help balance seasonal supplies of pollen and nectar and in doing so, support a recovery in bee populations.

“We want to identify what steps farmers can take to reverse this trend – a healthy bee population has to be good news for the whole food chain,” says Mr Butler.

The project has three key aims – to quantify the on-farm food supply available for pollinators, to evaluate and map this availability for each month of the year and identify botanical enhancements that will improve and balance the food supply throughout the year, says Bob Bulmer, environmental services manager for Hutchinsons.

“During the first year of the project we have identified three critical periods when pollen and nectar production is particularly low, as well as demonstrating an abundance during May.

“We want to try to balance this availability of food more evenly throughout the year – the low points act as a limit on populations so the more we can fill in the troughs the better it will be for both domestic and wild bees.”

Two mixed arable units, one in Lincolnshire and the other in Cambridgeshire, growing mainly wheat and oilseed rape, have been mapped to show available pollen and nectar through the year.

The findings have been based on a very detailed botanical study of each area to identify species and the percentage of the total flora they account for. Up to 95 species including trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and crops were identified and their monthly pollen and nectar totals combined.

Production forecasts are based on a French model, which shows woods, hedges, margins and permanent grassland supply important amounts of nectar during the summer months, with oilseed rape playing an important part during April.

Three periods of particularly low supply stand out: March, an important month for pollinator communities to establish population sustainability; October, a critical period for wintering insects; and June and July, when insect diversity is often high.

Cost-effective options using mixtures of cultivated and natural plant species will now be assessed and trialled on farm, says Dr Bulmer.

“The programme will widen significantly next year to assess more farms, on a variety of soil types with a range of cropping combinations, to identify key messages and actions that will encourage the recovery of bee populations to the benefit of the whole industry.

“End users could develop practical protocols for their farmer suppliers to encourage sustainable production in relation to pollinators. They could then highlight this to their customers, bringing both commercial and environmental benefits to the food chain.”

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