Take the bee route

Kitty Corrigan discovers ingenious plans to map safe routes for insects across the UK.

We’ve all dreamed of the freedom of the open road for the past year or so, but it turns out we’re not the only ones. Bees need their own insect highways to get around – although they are filled with wildflowers rather than tar.

A network of B-Lines (B for biodiversity) or beelines is currently emerging across the length and extent of the country, thanks to the work of charities and an army of volunteers. They are “roads” of flowery meadows with green “stepping stones” that connect them, a bit like tiny motorway service stations allowing bees and other pollinators to rest and feed on their journeys.

The charity Buglife has been working on the project for ten years now and recently launched their first B-Lines map of the UK, showing where habitats rich in flowers exist, or could be created or restored.

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It is very necessary. The number of bees has declined dramatically over the past 50 years. One of the problems is that they – and other pollinators – are increasingly confined to tiny fragments of soil and cannot move freely due to the lack of habitat to support them; we have lost 97% of our grasslands since WWII.

“Bees are disappearing eight times faster than mammals and birds,” says Paul Hetherington of Buglife. “We need to mobilize individuals and government to act now – and we think B-Lines are an imaginative and beautiful solution.”

Bee sitting on a flower

Many B-lines lie along the existing infrastructure of railway lines and highways, where rail operators, local councils and hundreds of volunteers join forces to plant verges, platforms and roads. roundabouts along the road. How much nicer is it to look out of the train or car window at a bunch of wildflowers than a bunch of ryegrass?

It is not only effective in rural areas. When an area of ​​bare grass in Cardiff city center was restored with pollinating plants in 2019, Buglife Cymru conservation officer Liam Olds spotted what looked like an interesting bug. It was later identified as an acute carder bee, once common but now known only in a handful of sites in South Wales and South England. It is hoped that the numbers will continue to increase this year.

Dozens of groups across the UK are working together on beelines. Kent Wildlife Trust had previously established a network of roadside nature reserves and in 2017 joined County Council and Swale Borough Council. They have, to date, completed 13 beelines, covering a total of 12.1 hectares (30 acres). Two-thirds of the area is cut and one-third uncut, providing refuge for overwintering insects and potential nesting sites for bumblebees. It also encourages a more diverse array of flowering plants to establish themselves, and for the first time, bee orchids have appeared on the scene.

“Bees disappear eight times faster than mammals and birds.

Volunteers like Sue Trueman plant and maintain the areas. “ My first business was cutting and raking grass during Storm Eric in 2019, and I’ve been on it for many days since – experienced the hottest day of last year while doing botanical surveys, ” she says. “The group has a wealth of knowledge and I am now addicted to the outdoors and find beauty in the smallest of living things.

We all depend on bees for the food we eat – we wouldn’t have apples, strawberries or tomatoes without them. Our crops are pollinated not only by honey bees, but also by 270 species of wild bees in the UK. This free service is estimated to be worth £ 1.8bn per year for UK farmers, which it would cost humans to do the same job. But if we don’t act now to protect them, 41% of them could be gone by 2050, according to Buglife.

The main reasons for the decline in numbers are habitat loss due to development, climate change, intensive agriculture and the use of pesticides. Scientists have detected that climate change is disrupting the nesting behavior of bees and their emergence after winter. And intensive agriculture, with increased use of chemical sprays, has had a devastating impact.

Beekeeper Dr Luke Dixon, director of the Bee Friendly Trust, looks after the rooftop beehives of the Bank of England, the Natural History Museum and the Royal Academy of Music. When not on apiary service (or not working in his other role of theater director), he sets up planters, flower beds and insect hotels for pollinators on the beds. forms of stations – working south to north and now heading towards Durham. “The rail infrastructure is perfect for the Beeline project,” he says.

Bee roads sign by the roadside
Many routes can be found along highways, roads and railways where bees can rest and feed on their travels.

Dixon points out that we can all create a micro nature reserve, even on the smallest piece of land. “Anyone can join the dots with a pot of lavender on a windowsill. You can plant a sprinkle of wildflower seeds on the edge of a lawn or have a patch of wilderness in a corner of your garden.

Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex and British “Mr Bumblebee”, is working with the Wildlife Trusts to reverse the decline of bees. The number of bumblebees fell by more than half between 1960 and 2012. A project Professor Goulson is linked to, ‘On the Verge’ in Stirlingshire, involved planting wildflowers at 30 sites, resulting in 25 times more of flowers and 50 times more bumblebees, compared to adjacent grassy areas. that have been mowed down.

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As well as that is, he is convinced that we also need a commitment from the government. He hopes that the agriculture bill currently before Parliament can bring real change, as it calls for subsidies to be reoriented from the old CAP (common agricultural policy) system based on area, towards practices respectful of wildlife.

‘Insects are the canaries of the coal mine – their collapse is a wake-up call’

In the meantime, we can all help the bee cause. There are 1.2 million acres of gardens in the UK, an area larger than all of our nature reserves, according to the Wildlife Trusts. Turning your plot into a bee sanctuary can be as easy as leaving a few dandelions in a corner, planting more herbs, and not using chemicals.

Housing estates, parks and cemeteries are all ripe for a bee resurgence if managed sustainably. Many cemeteries contain ancient meadows full of nectar-rich flowering plants, and the Caring for God’s Acre charity helps maintain them. By simply changing a grass cutting regime at Shrewsbury Cemetery and allowing the flowers to plant seeds, hundreds of pollinators have been recorded.

The good news is that insect populations can recover quickly, under the right conditions. It may mean that the government is making unpopular decisions, but as Professor Goulson says: “If we do things right for the bugs, we do things for everything else. Insects are the canaries of the coal mine – their collapse is a wake-up call that we must not ignore. Action is needed from every section of society – we all need to change this together.

More information at Wild About Gardens, where you will find a wild bee action pack. Dave Goulson’s latest book is Gardening for bumblebees (Square Peg, £ 16.99). See the map of Buglife B lines here.

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Article first published in Saga Magazine in May 2021.

Images © Alamy, Rosie Bleet

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