Scientists say plant wildflowers to help bees survive

A study of wild bumblebees in Buckinghamshire has shown that bumblebee families are four times more likely to survive if they have access to pollen and nectar rich flowers.

bumblebee on red clover flower

The study used DNA technology and remote sensing to identify, map and track mother, daughter and sister bumblebees from three species of bumblebee.  They found that colonies produced more daughter queens that survived to the following year when colonies were located within 250-1000 metres of habitats with high quality food resources.

Understanding bumblebee lifecycles is crucial to conservation

In the UK, most bumblebee colonies live for less than a year. 

  • Nests are formed in the spring by a single queen and produce up to a few hundred daughter workers. 
  • The workers spend all spring and summer gathering pollen to feed baby bees.  They drink nectar for energy.  Unlike honey bees, bumblebees do not make honey and they don’t store food.
  • At the end of the summer, new queens are produced which, after mating and hibernation go on to start new colonies the following spring.

Understanding survival between these critical life stages has proved challenging in the wild because colonies are almost impossible to find.  This new research used advanced molecular science to match daughter queens to their mothers and sisters and estimate the locations of colonies in the landscape from the location of their workers.

More quality food leads to higher survival rates

Dr Claire Carvell, senior ecologist at the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology was lead author for the study.  She said “our research demonstrates that the survival of bumblebee families between years is positively linked with habitat quality at a landscape scale.  The findings suggest that increasing flowers provided by spring-flowering trees, hedgerow plants and crops across the landscape – in combination with summer flower resources along field edges – can increase the probability of family survival by up to four times.”

Why do we need more bumblebees?

Bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees play a vital part in the human food chain.   Without them there would be no fruit or vegetables.  Staple crops such as wheat and maize are wind pollinated, as is the grass that feeds our sheep and cattle.  However it’s the fruit, vegetables and herbs that give us the vitamins we need for survival – and indeed for healing.  If bee populations are allowed to decline then we risk becoming dependent on synthetic food supplements.  Yuk.

According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, bumblebee populations have been decimated in the last 80 years.  Two species have become nationally extinct and several others are struggling. 

wildflowers growing beside road

Allowing wild flowers to grow on roadside verges would be an enormous help to bees.  Sadly the way that 21st road verges are managed is unhelpful to wildflower species. If clippings were removed instead of being left on the verge, a wider range of wildflowers would thrive.

Why? Changes in agricultural practices have been widely blamed but don’t forget that we gardeners are becoming less and less wildlife friendly too.  How many people have paved over their front gardens to allow extra parking?  How many still grow their own fruit and veg?  Do they have plants or do they have patios?  Maybe climate change or pollution are also factors to consider.  It’s a big subject.

How can we help bumblebees?

On an individual level, we could all grow more bee-friendly flowers in our gardens.  If there’s not much space on the ground, consider installing a living green roof.

Community wise – some of those manicured parks, roundabouts and road verges could be allowed to become a bit wilder.  Last year, in Feltwell, the parish council allowed some of the grass verges to grow longer – to save maintenance costs and to support wildlife.  There was outrage!  People thought it looked scruffy and insisted it was mown.  Such a shame.  Communities need to get more engaged with conservation and this can start in parks and on playing fields.  Careful signage and interpretation boards would help people to understand what is going on and why.

Meadowmat have produced a downloadable leaflet for villages and communities wishing to help support nature.

Get your free copy here

 

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