Plight of the humblebee

With the numbers of bees declining around the world, 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.” (A full NPS can be found on here

Cover plants beneffiting bees

  • Flowering Kale, Fodder Radish, Borage, Mustard
  • Clover (both red and white, and agricultural variations like Crimson Clover)
  • The understorey is just as important, if not more so – use hedge woundwort, dead nettle, cranesbills, oxeye daisy and foxglove

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 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.

In the UK, honeybee 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 honeybees 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, and enabling all to thrive.”

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 provides variety of flowers

It is not only the honeybee 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 bumblebees became nationally extinct, and currently there are six bumblebees at risk of extinction, including the shrill 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. A recent YouGov UK poll showed that British people consider the decline in bee numbers to be the most serious environmental issue. 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 £603 million a year in the UK alone! As rural land managers, gamekeepers have an important role to play in maintaining healthy pollinator populations.

"Research has shown that the bumblebee species which have shown the biggest and most widespread declines, including the great yellow bumblebee, are those that depend on extensive open habitats. These species in particular need urgent help from gamekeepers and other land managers to prevent further extinctions and keep our countryside full of colour."

Katy Malone, Conservation Officer Scotland for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

It needs to be stressed that absence of pollinators affects all of us. Without them, plants struggle to reproduce, which in turn will have a negative impact on 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 a great source of food for game species, providing food, as well as crucial cover during breeding and rearing seasons

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 to a pure flower seed mix which will yield better results. Creating borders richer in flowering plants can attract 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.”

“Perennial brood rearing margins that are often used to increase the insects will also be frequented by pollinators. Examples include floristically enhanced grass margins, such as Kings’ Basic Wildflower Mix and Species Rich Grass Mix and the Kings Grass Free Pollen & Nectar Mix. The good work carried out by shoots and keepers does not stop there. Using brassica crops such as kale, fodder radish and mustard, provides pollinators with a late season flowering crop which later feeds game and farmland birds. Grouping these together in Kings Moir Mix, will give staggered flowering/seeding times and offer agronomical options.”

Marc Bull, technical advisor for Kings Crops (www.kingscrops.co.uk, technical helpline number is 0800 587 9797)

Easy access to the grouse shoots would benefit bees hugely. Heather honey is renowned for its taste, and grouse 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!

Easy things YOU could do to help bees:​

  1. Stop 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 agro-environment options available – your local agent or Bumblebee Conservation team can advise
  7. Download and read Bumblebee Conservation’s moorland factsheet, jointly produced with the GWCT here
  8. Make your shoot a friend of the bees and help raise funds for vital research

Images by Ian Blackley, Rose Lander, and Andrea Finch

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