Variety the spice of life for pollinating insects

March 28, 2014 by Alex Peel
Variety the spice of life for pollinating insects

Planting a variety of flowers on farmland could boost the number and diversity of pollinating insects, according to new research.

The paper, published in the journal Biological Conservation, says the vital bugs would also benefit from a summer rest period, where fields are left to grow without cutting or grazing.

The research was commissioned by Defra and Natural England with the aim of identifying the value of mixed flowers in farm subsidy schemes.

'Grasslands are really important to , and they cover around 40 per cent of the UK's ,' says Dr Ben Woodcock, from NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who led the study.

'But over the past 60 years or so, they've been seriously degraded and now only one or two per cent of that can be considered high-quality habitat for pollinators.'

'Grassland restoration, where we try and re-establish ancient grassland types, is expensive, and so can only be used in a limited number of cases. On the other hand, the most popular grassland agri-environment schemes often fail to establish flowering plants that are so important for bees.'

'What this study shows is that we need a mix of flowers. The flowers of agricultural plants like red clover and other legumes tend to flower quite quickly and then die off. So you need a diverse seed mixture that can maintain flower resources right through the season, and persist for a number of years.'

Variety the spice of life for pollinating insects

The team planted three different seed mixtures on a site in Berkshire, UK. The first was made up only of grasses, while the second included a simple mix of agricultural legume flowers, like red clover and birdsfoot trefoil. The third contained a more diverse mix of flower seeds.

They monitored the fields over four years, charting the health of the flowers and the abundance of foraging insects like bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Altogether, they counted more than 8,500 bugs.

As expected, analysis revealed a direct relationship between the abundance of flowers and the number and variety of pollinators.

But only the most complex seed mixture was able to maintain those gains over a number of years. And both and bugs also seemed to benefit from a summer break from cutting and grazing.

Nearly 60 per cent of England's agricultural land is managed under entry-level agri-environment schemes. Under the schemes, farmers receive subsidies to manage their fields in ways that benefit the environment.

The amount of subsidy each farmer gets is based on a points system. In the UK, Defra and Natural England are responsible for deciding how many points are allocated to different management practices.

In recent years, strong support for planting wildflowers in field margins has seen a proliferation of the practice throughout the British countryside, bringing a number of benefits to wildlife. Woodcock and his colleagues would now like to see a similar thing happen on .

'It would be pretty simple and relatively cheap to implement, and it can make a massive difference to pollinators,' says Woodcock.

'We are doing some work now looking at the range of benefits that these more complex flower mixtures can bring to both the farmer and wider society,' he adds.

The preliminary results of the study, which is published in the journal Biological Conservation, were used to design a new agri-environment scheme option which was made available to farmers in January 2013.

Explore further: Pollinators easily enhanced by flowering agri-environment schemes

More information: Woodcock BA, Savage J, Bullock JM, Nowakowski M, Orr R, Tallowin JRB, Pywell RF, 'Enhancing floral resources for pollinators in productive agricultural grasslands,' Biological Conservation, 2014

Related Stories

Urban sites sown with wildflowers attractive to wildlife

March 3, 2014

A study into the attractiveness to wildlife of urban sites sown with wildflower seeds has shown that roundabouts and road verges can easily be converted into flower-rich havens for bees and other wildlife by replacing grass ...

Lonely bees make better guests

June 18, 2013

Solitary bees are twice as likely to pollinate the flowers they visit as their more sociable counterparts, according to a new study.

Loss of wild insects hurts crops around the world

February 28, 2013

Researchers studying data from 600 fields in 20 countries have found that managed honey bees are not as successful at pollinating crops as wild insects, primarily wild bees, suggesting the continuing loss of wild insects ...

Hedgerows can be managed better for wildlife

December 29, 2011

Simple changes to hedgerow management could significantly improve winter habitats and food supplies for wildlife, according to new research by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Recommended for you

Tasmanian tiger doomed long before humans came along

December 12, 2017

The Tasmanian tiger was doomed long before humans began hunting the enigmatic marsupial, scientists said Tuesday, with DNA sequencing showing it was in poor genetic health for thousands of years before its extinction.

Searching for the CRISPR Swiss-army knife

December 12, 2017

Scientists at the University of Copenhagen, led by the Spanish Professor Guillermo Montoya, are investigating the molecular features of different molecular scissors of the CRISPR-Cas system to shed light on the so-called ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.