Yorkshire farmers take a ‘b-road’ approach to boosting bee numbers

WITH honeybees estimated to contribute around £200m to the UK’s agricultural economy each year, a new project to plant wildflower corridors to stem their declining population could prove a wise investment. Richard Middleton reports.

The demise of the British bee has been well documented over recent decades, but a new £60,000 pilot project is aiming to provide these vital pollinators with some much-needed assistance.

But how much farmland will be affected, what will farmers be required to do, will it work and just what is a ‘b-road’?

A network of wildflower ‘roads’ is to be planted on farmland and countryside across Yorkshire, in a bid to ensure their survival and continued effect in fields across the county.

Bees play an integral part in the British countryside and, along with other pollinating insects, enjoy a vital role within farming. The bees living in the 250,000 colonies in the UK are estimated to pollinate more than 60 commercial crops and contribute more than £200m to the agricultural industry each year.

But pesticides, the varroa mite and large-scale farming have curtailed their numbers, with around 97 per cent of the UK’s traditional wildflower meadows estimated to have been destroyed since the 1930s.

Dr David Aston, chair of the technical and environmental committee of the British Beekeepers Association, explains.

“The loss of field margins, removal of arable weeds hedgerow management techniques which do not enable hedges to flower, hedgerow and hedgerow tree removal and intensification techniques have all severely reduced the available forage for both honeybees and other pollinating insects,” he says.

The result has been an estim-ated 50 per cent drop in the British bee population since 1985. And although beekeepers and honey

producers might feel the direct implications from their demise most keenly, the wider agricultural community will also feel the loss of these pollinating insects.

Wildflower corridors

Against this backdrop comes the creation of ‘b-roads’, a scheme spearheaded by The Co-operative and Buglife, a charity which aims to sustainably maintain insect numbers, by planting a variety of wildflower ‘corridors’ to allow bees to use food-rich routes to travel between their hives and other pollen-rich areas.

“Given that honeybees alone pollinate a third of the food we eat, a further decline in their numbers could have a devastating impact,” says Paul Monaghan, head of social goals at The Co-operative.

“By setting up these ‘b-roads’ we hope to make life easier for all pollinators and reverse their alarming decline.”

The project will first be piloted in Yorkshire at a cost of £60,000, with local farmers and landowners planting a range of flowers along narrow strips. Varieties will include the lesser knapweed, field scabious, birdsfoot trefoil and red clover.

“The pilot project area will take place in Yorkshire and we are initially planning on planting up to 12.5 acres, but this will be in thin long lines,” adds Dave Smith of The Co-op.

“This is part of our £750,000 Plan Bee project designed to help halt the decline of honeybees and other pollinators. Buglife, our partner on the bee roads project, will approach landowners such as farmers in the Yorkshire area to identify suitable areas.”

Although the farmers who choose to take part in the scheme are unlikely to be paid directly for the land that is used, they will receive additional benefits from being involved in the scheme.

“We envisage this being a partnership with all parties playing their part,” says Mr Smith.

Vicky Kindemba of Buglife adds: “Of course we definitely realise that we will have to compensate farmers.

“We intend to work closely with several pre-existing agri-environment schemes such as the Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) but we’re also very eager to explore other opportunities.

“The ELS and HLS have not worked particularly well in terms of helping the bee population so we are also looking at working with the Environment Bank.

“We are also hoping to work with programmes which allow products from the nearby areas to be branded as originating from high conservation areas.”

The precise routes of the roads are yet to be finalised but it is planned to have a network which runs from north to south, and east to west across Yorkshire. Farmers will be approached in an attempt to secure adjacent areas which will allow bees to pass along the wildflower corridor without disruption.

Conservation sites

“The project will aim to link fragmented land and provide routes between pollen and nectar rich areas such as conservation sites,” adds Ms Kindemba.

“Ideally farmers will be involved with planting and maintaining the areas once they have been chosen, but as this is a pilot project we will be exploring a range of options and alternative methods.”

A series of studies will be undertaken as the road takes shape to enable a set of before and after figures to be calculated to determine the effectiveness of the b-road’s success on pollinator numbers in the area.

And if the pilot project works as planned, it is hoped a country-wide network of wildflower highways will be planted in coming years, an idea which seems feasible and is welcomed by Dr Aston of the BBKA.

“Anything that increases the total amount of pollen and nectar available and spreads its availability throughout the season when pollen is required by honeybees and pollinating insects will be of value and will enhance biodiversity,” he says.

And it seems the scheme has already caught the imagination of the public, and engaged elements of the farming community.

“Work on the roads will begin later this year, once we have confirmed and mapped the route, but we have already had some farmers contact us even at this early stage, looking to contribute land and become more involved,” says Ms Kindemba.

“The initial £60,000 will just fund the pilot in 2011 and into the beginning of 2012. This will see the mapping of the lines and the creation of five hectares sown, along with agreements for further hectares to be sown. But we have big plans, this is just the first step.”

’B roads’ facts

  • 250,000 bee colonies in the UK are estimated to pollinate more than 60 commercial crops
  • B-roads scheme spearheaded by The Co-operative and Buglife
  • Project will first be piloted in Yorkshire at a cost of £60,000
  • Wildflower ‘roads’ aim to reverse decline of bees
  • Varieties planted will include lesser knapweed, field scabious, birdsfoot trefoil and red clover

Readers' comments (1)

  • We applaud and support this initiative and hope to learn about its implementation and success. Based in Delta, British Columbia, Canada, Feed The Bees is a community campaign designed to encourage individuals, businesses, organizations and governments to support a healthy and sustainable bee population, and plant gardens to feed pollinators and encourage biodiversity in our community. Check us out at www.FeedTheBees.org and bee sure to follow us at www.twitter.com/FeedTheBees

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