Operation to save the bee

Keep your nerve and follow the specific management advice.

That’s Somerset farm manager Bill Douglas’ view on the Operation Bumblebee pollen and nectar mix, which he tried on the 250ha (618-acre) grass and arable farm at Farleigh Hungerford last year.

Mr Douglas admits that he came very close to ripping up half of the specific mix, when it appeared to contain far more black-grass and broad-leaved weeds than the flowering legumes he was expecting.

“Despite having followed Syngenta’s establishment guidelines to the letter, I wasn’t very impressed with the first showing,” he recalls.

“It seemed as though we were just going to make a bad black-grass problem even worse.”

In consultation with his agronomist, Stephen Harrison of South West Agronomy, Mr Douglas opted to sow the mix at the recommended late August timing.

The advice to create a firm, fine seed-bed, broadcast the seed onto the soil surface and then roll it in was adhered to, with two separate areas on the farm being selected as suitable sites.

“We decided to create the habitats where they would have least impact on the farm’s productivity, but would make a real biodiversity contribution.

One area was sited alongside a hedge, which has always suffered from rabbit damage, while the other was on a steep sided valley.”

Although Mr Douglas has chosen not to enter ELS at the moment, he has studied the scheme and is aware that the Operation Bumblebee mix is worth 85 points/ha.

“The policy at Castle Farm has always been to farm in harmony with the environment, so encouraging bees and insects was a natural step for us.

“And as we don’t have to abide by ELS conditions, we can manage the strips for maximum environmental gain.

That was very relevant last year.”

AICC member Mr Harrison adds that site planning and location is important where bumblebees are the target.

“Sheltered, sunny locations, preferably south facing are the best. It’s also sensible to sow the mix after cereals, to minimise problems with volunteers.”

As Mr Harrison had attended a two-day training course as part of the Operation Bumblebee initiative, he was less concerned about the pollen and nectar mix’s poor initial establishment.

“The training had covered the importance of active management.

It is not just a case of putting in the seed and walking away.

Farmers must be prepared to do some work in the first year.”

A hard cut in April and an application of a clover-safe herbicide to tackle broad-leaved weeds was all that was needed in this case, he continues.
“Mowing allows the legume species to establish,” he notes.

“The aim is to get a dense margin that shrouds out the unwanted weeds species.”

Syngenta’s advice is to cut between two to three times in the first year, removing the cuttings wherever possible.

Mr Douglas used a grass mower and immediate round baling, which helped the fescue grass species recover quickly.

“The small legume seedlings weren’t smothered by the cuttings either.

It appears to be a better approach than using a topper.”

Although Operation Bumblebee research has shown that cutting in April and May has the most benefit for insects, Mr Harrison points out that growers in ELS have to follow the DEFRA guidelines which only permit mowing in June and October.

“These rules need relaxing,” he stresses.

“It would be a real shame if this initiative wasn’t able to fulfil its potential because of this.”

Last year’s experience at Castle Farm has persuaded both men to try mowing the areas at different times next year, to prolong flowering and pollen production right through the summer.

“The two areas were alive with insect activity in the summer,” concludes Mr Douglas.

“And it wasn’t just bumblebees.

There were more butterflies and beetles too.

It proved to be an easy and very rewarding way of showing that we do care about the environment.”