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Environmental Stewardship

Bumblebees - some practical ways of improving their lot

Calon Wen is a Welsh co-operative of organic dairy farmers.  Its name means white (wen) heart (calon). The co-operative was established by a group of farmers who wanted to sell milk to local people; today Calon Wen sources its milk from 18 members in north and south-west Wales. 

One of our Conservation Officers Sinead recently visited six of their farms in west Wales to survey the bees and habitats and gain an understanding of the way the farms are managed. She then reported back with findings and some suggestions for how the farms could be made more bumblebee-friendly.

Of particular interest to Sinead was the diverse nature of the habitats on these farms. The fact that the farms weren’t overly ‘neat’, was great because bumblebees aren’t that fussed on ‘neat’. Bumblebees thrive in more ‘natural’ landscapes as there are more opportunities for nesting and foraging throughout the bumblebee season. Many farms and farmed landscapes are monocultures. What we might see as bright green fields, a bee sees as a homogenous grey desert, devoid of food. A natural landscape should be a patchwork of colours - browns, greens, even yellows, and reds - reflecting the diverse nature of natural habitats.

The way in which the farms are managed makes an interesting case study of how sensitive management can be mutually beneficial to both farmer and wildlife. Bumblebees pollinate the pea crop which the farmers use for cattle feed - so more bumblebees pollinating the pea crop = the more food for the cattle.  However, the pea crop is only flowering for a short time during the summer before it is harvested, yet the bumblebees need something to forage on from spring through to autumn. Bumblebees also love Clover and Lucerne which is grown as silage – however, that’s also only flowering for a couple of weeks before its cut. That could mean that bumblebees on the farms have a glut of food one week, and are starved the next. Luckily, the Calon Wen farms also have a range of pastures and hay meadows, hedgerows and other habitats which, if managed sensitively, can provide habitat for bees to ‘fill the gaps’ in forage.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, along with other environmental organisations, has an important role in working with farmers to give advice on how to manage farmland more sensitively for wildlife. Although within that role there is an important element – we need to understand how those farms are managed, and work with farmers to find solutions and ideas.

For example, Sinead and the Calon Wen farmers talked about what measures could be realistically achieved, such as leaving uncut margins of 1- 2 metres around the Clover or Lucerne leys, adding native wildflower seeds to the hay meadows and pastures (where appropriate), and tweaking grazing management so that the most flower-rich fields are allowed to flower and set seed.

This case study highlights the direct relationship between managing land for pollinators and the greater yield/quality of product for farmers, but farms can benefit from managing land sensitively for nature in a number of ways. There is evidence that wildflower rich grasslands such as meadows and pastures provide livestock with a more varied diet which helps to keep them healthy and maybe even taste better. But even if you live in the middle of a city, it’s worth bearing in mind that natural landscapes are important to everyone. Whether it’s the upland bog and heath habitat which helps to store clean water and alleviate flooding downstream, the woodland that helps improve air quality, the coastal heathland to go walking on, or the wildflower rich grassland which helps sustain our pollinating bumblebees.

For more information about the Bumblebee Conservation Trust please go to www.bumblebeeconservation.org

For more information about Calon Wen please go to

http://calonwen-cymru.com/

Combicrop pea flowering Combicrop with pea just coming into flower at Clovers Farm
Clover and Lucerne Rose Hill Clover and Lucerne at Rose Hill Farm