Wildlife: The Bumble Bee

Common carder bee

Common carder bee - Credit: Archant

A look at the positive steps being taken to conserve our precious insect life...

White-tailed bumble bee

White-tailed bumble bee - Credit: Archant

Lazy summer days lying in flower-rich meadows, dreaming of nothing much and listening to the heavy deep buzz as a bumble bee works its way around the deep purple clover, is something we should all experience every year. Unfortunately this has become somewhat of a thing of the past. Our lives seem too hectic and those blazes of red, purple, pink, yellow and white that littered our agricultural countryside have declined by over 90 per cent in the last 80 years. As we lose those amazing meadows, we are at risk of losing so much else as well – not only the visual delight that they give but also the valuable services that they supply us with.

Common carder bee

Common carder bee - Credit: Archant

The press has been red-hot with news about bumble bees over the last few years and whilst the story is not a positive one, it does show that at least the decline of these lovable insects is pricking the conscience of many of us.

In the UK we have 22 species of the genus Bombus, that is bumble bees to most of us. Latin names are often a bit dry but sometimes they are brilliantly descriptive and Bombus seems so apt. We have lost three species in the last 50 years and many of the others are in serious decline. In Derbyshire we have 12 to 14 species, which is a very respectable showing.

Our countryside should be alive with a deafening deep buzz throughout the summer as billions of bumble bees (amongst other bees, wasps, moths and flies) work tirelessly from dawn to dusk seeking nectar and pollen from our crops and wild flowers. It has been estimated recently that bumble bees are worth £400 million to the UK economy. This is a staggering figure, and one we ignore at our peril. If bumble bees disappeared we would have to pollinate huge swathes of our orchards and crops by hand, or some other ingenious method. And this doesn’t take account of the myriad wild flowers which depend on bees to pollinate them.

So why have bumble bees declined so dramatically? The answer really lies with the decline of flower-rich meadows and other flower-rich areas that studded the British countryside up to the Second World War. The drive, and it was needed, was to increase productivity to supply more home-grown food. Wildflower meadows didn’t fit the bill and they were ploughed and transformed to more productive silage or crops. Hedgerow bottoms disappeared as they made way for bigger machinery and road verges. What were once linear streaks of intense colour and insect activity were mowed and sprayed. When we add to this the use of insecticides, the story becomes even less positive. We learned the risks of, and subsequently banned, DDT in the 1970s but today a new pesticide, known as neonicotinoids, seems to have a serious effect on bees. The science is not precise enough yet but the bells are ringing loud enough for the EU to suggest a suspension on their use.

All is not lost though. The silver lining has not yet been stitched in but signs of awareness and a way forward are appearing. The key thing is to get more nectar and pollen-rich flowers out there across the whole of the summer and we all can have a role to play here. Gardeners are excellent at knowing which plants are great for insects and there is a growing passion for planting to help wildlife. Cowslips, lavender, ivy, chives, apple, pear and cherry trees and strawberries are all brilliant for bumble bees and provide a bounty for us to boot.

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Farmers are encouraged to protect any remaining wildflower meadows and, even more importantly, recreate them where possible. There are now brilliant seed mixes that farmers can buy that produce nectar and pollen-rich flowers across the whole of the summer. For too many farmers though, particularly those with less acreage, this may mean too great a fall in income. However, there are some really good schemes that can help to compensate. Perhaps the best way forward is to encourage and help farmers to plant flower-rich margins. When I wrote my book, Wild Derbyshire, I interviewed a farmer in South Derbyshire called Mike Deakin as one of the ‘custodians’. He has created six-metre wide margins around some of his fields by planting a seed mix containing cowslips, yarrow, knapweed, musk and field scabious. These margins were an instant hit with butterflies and bees. I was bowled over not only by his enthusiasm for the benefits that these brought to his farm but also by the sheer delight that he got from seeing the insects across his fields all summer.

Last but definitely not least, are the new and landscape-wide conservation projects that for the first time are taking the whole landscape into consideration. In Derbyshire our local Wildlife Trust has a number of these and some of them, such as Rose End Meadows, Carsington Grasslands, the Erewash Valley and Linacre and North Peak Fringe, contain valuable wildflower meadows. Here the Trust is working really hard to protect what is there as well as helping farmers to recreate those stunning yet vital flower-rich fields that provide such a valuable service to us all. The papers and internet are still buzzing with news about our dwindling bumble bees but there are small yet positive steps being taken to reduce this decline of one of our best loved insects. Long may the flight of the bumble bee continue into all our futures!

Help our Bees

The Soil Association is currently running a ‘Keep Britain Buzzing’ Campaign visit www.soilassociation.org

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (www.bumblebeeconservation.org) provides useful information about bee-friendly gardening; top tips for farmers and other land managers on managing meadows, pastures, orchards, brownfield sites etc for bumble bees. It is currently running two survey schemes you can participate in to help monitor bumble bee populations and behaviours: BeeWatch which helps to map the distribution of our bumble bees and involves taking digital photographs of any unusual species that you see and uploading them to the site (a great way of improving bee identification skills); and BeeWalk which involves volunteers walking a fixed-route of 1-2km each month and recording what they see.