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Plight of the Humblebee

Image by Keith Cann
With the numbers of bees around the world declining, gamekeepers and shooters can make a big contribution to encouraging the pollinators so vital to crops and wild plants, says MARTA JACYNA.

Most people are aware of the decline in the number of bees throughout the world. In the UK gamekeepers have been helping boost populations of bees and other species which help pollinate plants, perhaps unknowingly, for quite some time. Certainly there is a lot shooters can do to help.

The plight of pollinators is such that last year Defra created a National Pollinator Strategy. Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss explained; “The National Pollinator Strategy, which over the next 10 years will build a solid foundation to bring about the best possible conditions for bees and other insects to flourish, is a shared plan of action. By working together we will ensure pollinators’ needs are addressed as an integral part of land and habitat management.”

Shooters can be a vital part of this plan, because much of the £250 million worth of habitat management carried out annually on shoots suits pollinators very well. Marc Bull, technical advisor for Kings Game Cover, Conservation and Cover Crops said; “Our ongoing work with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at Loddington provides an excellent example of how carefully planned habitat creation and improvement can benefit pollinators too.” There is solid evidence that shoots are ideal habitats for pollinators and can be made even more beneficial with little extra work required.

Image by Bumblebee Conservation TrustIn the UK, honey bee numbers have fallen by around 30 per cent in recent years, despite an increase in the number of beekeepers, and a similar worrying trend is seen worldwide. Although nobody can really explain this, most people suspect loss of suitable habitats, diseases and lack of food. In the UK alone, 97 per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost in the last 70 years. Jane Moseley, operations director for the British Beekeepers’ Association said; “It is imperative that we plant with honey bees in mind; their lifecycle requires the earliest forage sources from January right through until October. In doing so, we will not only provide the 30kg of pollen and 120kg of nectar required for each colony to survive, we will also create a wide range of habitat which in turn will improve biodiversity and forage for other insects and mammals, providing good cover for game birds, enabling all to thrive.”

It is not only the honey bee that struggles to survive. Since the 1970s, three-quarters of butterfly species and two-thirds of moth species have seen population declines. In the last 70 years two species of bumblebee species became nationally extinct, and currently there are six bumblebee at risk of extinction, including the Shrill carder and Red-shanked carder bees. As Katy Malone, conservation officer in Scotland for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust said; “Bumblebees are a cornerstone of our countryside, and are important to everyone. At least 80 per cent of our wildflowers are insect-pollinated, and some can only be pollinated by bumblebees. Additionally, bees are vital to our agriculture, providing a free pollination service for our crops estimated to be worth at least £603million a year in the UK alone! As rural land managers, gamekeepers have an important role to play in maintaining healthy pollinator populations.”

Without pollinators, plants struggle to reproduce, which in turn will have a negative impact on all animals. Providing ample supplies of pollen for the insects to feed on is essential. A very comprehensive list of suitable flora is available on the RHS website. Many of the listed plants are also used by gamekeepers, providing food, as well as crucial cover to game species during breeding and rearing seasons.

Easy things YOU could do to help bees:

  1. Image by Jane MoseleyStop using insecticides
  2. Plant bee-friendly plants rich in pollen & nectar
  3. Support your local beekeepers
  4. Make your own ‘Wild bee’ houses
  5. Become a beekeeper
  6. Make the most of agri-environment options available – your local agent or Bumblebee Conservation Trust team can advise
  7. Download and read Bumblebee  Conservation Trust’s moorland factsheet, jointly produced with the GWCT –
  8. Make your shoot a friend of the bees and help raise funds for vital research.

Wildflower seeds are cheap to buy and will spread without much support once introduced to field borders. It is only a matter of changing the seed mix you’re already using. Creating borders richer in flowering plants can attract the attention of game animals, especially when they are nesting or feeding young.

Another way of supporting bees is allowing beekeepers to use your shoot. It makes the pollination process more efficient and easier on the bees, keeping their travelling distances shorter. Amanda Anderson, director of The Moorland Association said; “The wonderful purple blanket of heather flower found in August on moorlands managed for red grouse is a big draw for beekeepers. Heather bloom offers a very late source of nectar helping the bees survive the winter and boosting egg production. Beekeepers will travel long distances to set up their hives having gained permission from local moorland gamekeepers. Many shoots sell the delicious heather honey to visiting Guns, creating another unique moorland product alongside wild red grouse.”

Image by Jane MoseleyGrouse and bee are a perfect example of mutual symbiosis. Grouse eat fresh young tips of heather and bees only feed on the heather flowers, which appear on mature branches. Martin Smith, former president of the BBKA, said; “It is good for our two organisations to be working together, producing high class natural produce from environmentally friendly management. Bees benefit from the abundant heather flowers found on grouse moors but also improve the set of the heather seed by pollinating it rather than leaving it to the wind.”

With two million hectares actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting, little extra thought and effort is needed to make your shooting area even more productive, for both shooting and pollinators. It is a win-win situation that the government, countryside, as well as all people of Britain will thank us for. You could always take on a new hobby and become a beekeeper too!

Further details on NPS can be found at

Hedges and forest edges benefitting bees:

  • Willow provides shelter for a range of game birds, and a very useful source of early-season pollen & nectar
  • Hawthorn, blackthorn, rowan, crab apple and honeysuckle provide a variety of flowers
  • Species under hedgerows are also key such as hedge woundwort, dead nettle, cranesbills and foxglove.

Image by Jane MoseleyCover plants benefitting bees:

  • Flowering kale, fodder radish, borage, mustard
  • Clover (both red and white, and agricultural variations like crimson clover).

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