A guest blog by Chloe Hardman, Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research (CAER), University of Reading.
I find it fascinating to watch bumblebees at work; flitting from flower to flower with bundles of pollen on their legs. Sometimes they enter a flower, sometimes they sniff and move on. They can sense whether it is worth stopping by detecting a chemical footprint left by the feet of previous bee visitors.
This footprint fades over time at a rate synchronised with the refilling of the flower with nectar. Details like this demonstrate just how fascinating the relationship between pollinators and plants is.
The sad news is that finding food and nesting sites has become much harder for bees in our increasingly intensive agricultural landscapes. The reduction in mixed and dairy farming, especially in southern England, has resulted in a loss of hay meadows and the wild flowers they contained. They have been replaced by green deserts of cereal fields, devoid of bee-friendly flowers. It is this habitat loss that is one of the major factors behind the decline in wild bees.
Fair to Nature farmers are taking big steps to remedy this. They are committed to managing 4% of their land as pollen and nectar areas. Packed full of bee-friendly flowers, such as bird’s foot trefoil, red clover and common knapweed, these margins are known to support bumblebees more than alternative types of margins. Having healthy pollinator populations on the farm is important for food production too. Research shows the yields of oil seed rape and apples are boosted by insect pollination.
With a commitment to research that will help understand and improve the scheme, Conservation Grade has sponsored a four year independent research project which I am carrying out at the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research (CAER) at the University of Reading. I will assess how well the scheme measures up against alternatives, and suggest how it could do even more for wildlife.
One aspect of my research is to understand just how much pollen and nectar Fair to Nature farms are providing for bees and whether it is provided throughout the whole summer season. I am also surveying the number and diversity of pollinators at the farm scale: including bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies and hoverflies. I will combine my pollinator and wild flower surveys with data from the AgriLand project (University of Bristol team). They measured the pollen and nectar content of the top 200 wildflower species in the UK. This will enable me to estimate the density of pollen and nectar in each of the different margin and crop types on each farm. For each of my four study Conservation Grade farms, I am comparing results with two other nearby farms: one managed organically, and one managed under the standard Entry Level Stewardship scheme.
Evidence from this study will help wildlife-friendly farming schemes such as Conservation Grade deliver top quality habitats for pollinators, bringing back the buzz to even more of the British countryside.