New research: What limits bumblebee populations on farmland?

Authors: Dr Tom Timberlake and Prof Jane Memmott 

A new study by Tom Timberlake and colleagues at the University of Bristol shows how important late summer flowers and rural gardens can be for supporting bumblebees on UK farmland.

Does this offer an opportunity to devise more targeted agri-environment schemes for pollinators?

Pollen and nectar are the main source of food for bees, including the charismatic and agriculturally important bumblebee. It is no surprise then that declining flower densities – particularly on farmland – are considered one of the most important drivers of pollinator decline. Agri-environment schemes which incentivise the planting of wildflower strips and the expansion of semi-natural flowering habitats such as hedgerows and field margins are an important tool for reversing pollinator declines, but are they really the most efficient way of supporting pollinators?

Image 1: For bumblebees like this one (Bombus terrestris), it’s not just about how much food is available, it’s also when that food is available through the year. A dandelion flowering in early spring for example, would be more valuable to a bumblebee than an equivalent flower in mid-summer.
Image: T. Timberlake

Whilst agri-environment schemes have successfully increased the overall numbers of flowers on farmland, they tend to overlook the timing of when these flowers are available to pollinators. Different plants flower at different times and most of the plants in agri-environment schemes flower in late spring and early summer which often isn’t the period of greatest need for pollinators. Pollinators need a continuous supply of food throughout their flight season, and for species with long flight seasons such as bumblebees, this means from late February, right through until October. ‘Hunger gaps’ of even one week could limit the number of pollinators surviving through the year.

Hunger gaps

To support pollinators in the most effective and cost-efficient way, it makes sense to find out when these hunger gaps occur and then devise targeted management or planting schemes to plug these gaps. A previous study by our team did just this and showed that nectar supplies on farmland were most limited in early spring (March) and late summer.

To check what effect these ‘hunger gaps’ were having on bumblebee populations, we carried out a study on 12 farms around the west of England. We captured, recorded and released hundreds of bumblebees and then measured all sorts of features of the farms to find out which aspects of the farm were most important in determining bumblebee density.

To our surprise, the supply of nectar in late summer (September) was by far the most important factor driving bumblebee density on these farms – more so even than the amount of natural habitat. Late summer is a very important stage in the lifecycle of bumblebees – it is when new queens are produced and must pile on the pounds before their winter hibernation. A rich supply of flowers is therefore crucial, but with fewer and fewer hay meadows, cover crops and weedy areas to provide this late summer nectar on farmland, bumblebees are struggling.

Image 2: Low nectar supplies in late summer coincide with an important stage in the colony lifecycle, limiting colony density the following year. How might we change the shape of this curve to reduce the September bottleneck?

How to plug the gap

So what can we do to plug this late-summer hunger gap on farmland and support bumblebees? On our farms at least, ivy was the most important plant for providing nectar during this sparse time, so managing your hedgerows and woodland edges to promote this amazing plant is a good first step. Leaving some rough weedy corners for late flowering species like thistles, knapweed, scabious and dandelions can also contribute to plugging the gap.

We found that Environmental Stewardship Scheme pollen and nectar mixes were really effective at increasing overall nectar supplies but were far more effective when mown early, or in multiple phases, to extend flowering into the late summer.

Finally, if you want to give those hungry queen bumblebees a real treat in the run-up to autumn, a tasty cover crop of late-flowering red clover would do just the trick. A single hectare of this crop could provide around 1 kilogram of raw nectar sugar each day and completely close the late summer gap.

There was one final surprise in our results… Small patches of garden were having a significant influence on the density of bumblebees. Farms with more gardens had more bumblebee colonies.

Gardens have a far denser and more diverse supply of flowers than farmland and are often managed to keep things flowering throughout the whole year. These little floral oases seem to be throwing bumblebees a lifeline during periods when farmland offers very little.

Image 3: Species which flower in September such as dandelions, red clover, ivy and thistles (clockwise from top left) are likely to be disproportionately important to bumblebees and other pollinators. Including these and other late-flowering species in conservation schemes will help fill the late summer hunger gap.
Images: T. Timberlake & Wikimedia Commons

How much and when

The take home message is that it’s not just about how much food we provide for pollinators, it’s also about when that food is available through the year.

Providing more flowers in the early spring and late summer when bumblebees are at their hungriest is a great way to support these important creatures.

Image 4: Some examples of low quality (left) and high quality (right) farmland habitats for pollinators. The more diverse and flower-rich high quality habitats tend to provide a more consistent supply of nectar through the year, helping to fill those important hunger gaps.
Image: Nick Tew

This article is the summary of a University of Bristol-led research paper published by Thomas Timberlake, Jane Memmott, Ian Vaughan and Mathilde Baude in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) with additional support from the NERC Biomolecular Analysis Facility.

Case Study: Helping hedgehogs on farmland

Author: Nida Al-Fulaij, Grants Manager, People’s Trust for Endangered Species

Species: Hedgehog

Why is farmland important for this species?

Hedgehogs are found throughout the UK in all habitats. They have historically been associated with farmland for centuries. Hedgehogs are insectivores, foraging in fields and on grassland for worms, and along field margins and at the base of hedgerows for beetles, snails and other invertebrates. They are considered a generalist species, inhabiting most areas of our countryside, our villages and many areas of our towns too. However, as the dominant habitat in the UK, farmland is particularly important for hedgehogs.

Hedgehogs, like all animals, need to feed, hide from predators and find mates. A variety of habitats that provide foraging areas and secure nesting sites is ideal. Both arable and pasture land can support healthy hedgehog populations. Wide, species-rich hedgerows with buffers of grassy margins on either side provide safe ‘highways’ for hedgehogs to move around the landscape. Hedgerows with wide bases that are managed on rotation should have healthy invertebrate populations for hedgehogs to feed on. Old hedges with dense root systems and lots of deciduous leaves are ideal for them to use as nesting sites, both during the summer and in winter as hibernation spots.

The denser the network of hedges, the more securely hedgehogs can move around, and the higher the availability of prey species for them to feed on.

Recently ploughed fields can provide a bounty of earthworms and other prey; hedgehogs can be found in-field taking the opportunity to feed on invertebrates once crops have been harvested.

Recent studies show hedgehogs are found nearer to farm buildings. These areas could be providing safety from predators on farmland with less robust and fewer hedgerows, and larger fields.

Hedgehog (c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Habitat management

Hedgerows:

Increasing hedgerow availability provides more nesting and foraging areas for hedgehogs. Ensure that hedgerows are species-rich, contain native trees and are as wide, high and dense as possible. Maintaining hedge bases at least 2m wide with minimal or no gaps provides secure safe nesting sites. Managing hedgerows on a 3 year rotation ensures that hedges remain diverse and robust.

Field margins:

Field margins provide buffer zones to protect hedgerow bases. 2m margins in arable fields and 3-6m margins in pasture ensures the hedges are protected from trampling and grazing, whilst the grassland provides extra invertebrate prey. Beetle banks also provide buffer zones and extra foraging areas.

Fields:

Smaller field sizes with a mixed crop provides greater variety, and therefore greater food security, for hedgehogs and other wildlife. Increasing hedges and field margins on farms with fewer, larger fields, provides habitat for hedgehogs. Reducing tillage or moving to no-till or conservation agriculture reduces soil compaction, increases soil invertebrates and improves and increases the depth and quality of the soil organic layer.

Pesticide & herbicide use:

Reducing pesticide and herbicide use means that more invertebrate prey, in particular earthworms, will be available on farmland for hedgehogs to feed on.

The above management measures recommended to provide a healthy landscape for hedgehogs are typically those associated with traditional farming practices. There should be no problems, though many of the measures may be more time-consuming than those associated with farming on a larger scale.

Hedgerow with grassy margin (c) Gethin Davies

Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) have created an advice note detailing management and stewardship options that will benefit not only hedgehogs but other wildlife too (see link below).

Benefits and costs

Creating and managing hedgerows sensitively has financial costs but there are stewardship options available; individual ones for the management regimes listed above are detailed in the attached advice note.

Managing a farm for a species such as a hedgehog involves looking at the farm as a whole. Unlike species that fly, such as butterflies, hedgehogs needs the entire landscape to be suitable in order to thrive. Consequently, many of the management techniques recommended to improve habitats for hedgehogs will also provide a healthier landscape. A denser proportion of hedges and associated smaller field sizes both help to reduce soil erosion. Reducing tillage improves soil organic matter and reduces soil compaction.

PTES guide - How to help rural hedgehogs