Study casts light on whys and wherefores of bee numbers

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FOLLOWING the ban on a major pesticides because of fears that it was affecting the bee population, a project that aims to improve the food supply for bees and other vital pollinators on arable farms has produced it first year’s results.

The five-year study, jointly funded by national merchant Gleadell Agriculture and agronomy specialist Hutchinsons, has identified considerable variations in the seasonal availability of pollen and nectar, which are likely to be contributing to the falling numbers of bees that are regularly being reported.

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.

“The whole industry is acutely aware of the issues surrounding bees,” according to Paul Butler of Gleadell. “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.

He believed the fall in bee numbers was down to a combination of factors such as poor weather, inconsistent food sources and parasitic activity. He added the project had 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 would improve and balance the food supply throughout the year.

“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 of pollen during May,” he said.

The three periods of particularly low supply were March, October, and July. “We want to try to balance this availability of food more evenly throughout the year as 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,” he added.

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 OSR playing an important part during April.

Looking forward, he believed end users could develop practical protocols for their farmer suppliers in encouraging sustainable production in relation to pollinators.

They could then highlight this to their customers, bringing both commercial and environmental benefits to the food chain.