About one third of the world’s crop production relies on animal pollinators, not just honeybees but a variety of different wild species, and numbers are decreasing. Although concerns have been raised about specific types of pesticide, there is also a growing body of evidence that suggests that the increase in monocultures means that honeybees in particular are short of food at critical times of the year.
Experts in a number of areas are to discuss how beneficial insects can be encouraged within a productive farm environment at a networking meeting organised by Agri-Tech East at NIAB’s Park Farm on 23rd June 2015.
Improving food source for pollinators
Jeremy Macklin, of event sponsor Hutchinsons, which has Regional Technology Centres throughout the country, says that his fieldwork with beekeepers and mustard producers has shown bees are vulnerable to food shortages, especially in early spring and prior to hibernation.
Professor Beverley Glover, Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, agrees: “If you’re a honeybee in East Anglia you’re having a great time while the oilseed rape is out. Then within a few weeks those crops go to seed and there’s nothing to eat, so the bees rely on gardens and wildflowers. It’s feast or famine for them.” The Botanic Garden, Moles Seeds and NIAB have developed a seed mix for use in parks and recreational areas that provides a food source across the entire growing season. It is designed using a scientific methodology that takes into account flower reward, timing, accessibility, visibility and texture.
Mixed leys boost pollinators and fertility
Although these seed mixes are not designed for agricultural usage, Ian Wilkinson, Managing Director of Cotswold Seeds Ltd, believes that this approach can be adopted on a field scale and provide a more rounded benefit for farmers. “Wildflower meadows have declined significantly since the 1950s and over the same period we have also seen a decline in bee numbers.”
Wilkinson sees that increasing diversity in temporary grassland, or leys, can provide benefits on a number of levels.
“Cultivated legumes such as peas and beans are excellent within a rotation as through nitrogen fixation they can increase the fertility of the soil. We are recommending that these same benefits can be achieved with wild species of forage legumes, such as clover, lucerne, trefoils and vetches grown within a mix of grass species and herbs. “Forage legumes can be considered the engine of the ley. These are truly remarkable plants that have the unique ability to fix up to 300 kg N/ha N and provide forage with around 15% more protein than grasses alone.
“A rich sward including forage legumes can be introduced within a rotation and forms an effective management strategy for blackgrass – which can be virtually eliminated.
“Another advantage is that a mix of species providing ground cover and flowering through the year protects the soil, reduces runoff and provides food and shelter for insects who may spend part of their lifecycle in the ground.”
With years of experience in multi-species mixtures, backed by extensive trials across Europe, Cotswold Seeds has learnt that increasing the species in a seed mix can increase the net yield by 47% beyond what would normally be expected – an effect identified by Darwin many years ago. These mixes are also is a rich source of protein, vitamins and minerals for livestock.
Bee friendly insecticides
The need to protect beneficial species whilst at the same time controlling pests that threaten to reduce yields is an area of research for Lin Field of Rothamsted Research. She says that more work needs to be done on increasing the selectivity of pesticides for pest insects.
“Our understanding is increasing of how insecticides interact with their target proteins and how these proteins vary in different insects; this can potentially pave the way for designer compounds with high selectivity. This is also true for understanding how insects metabolise insecticides, where we are working with Bayer Crop Science on a project that has the potential to create ‘bee friendly’ insecticides.
“Other approaches include seed treatments so the insecticide is contained, development of crop plants that can repel insects or enhanced biological control. “Additionally better forecasting of risk and targeted treatments can reduce the use of insecticides and cut the costs to farmers.”
Expert speakers, strawberries and Pimms
Speakers at the Pollinator event will also include Dr Lydia Smith, Head of the NIAB Innovation Farm, and Dr Lynn Dicks, Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge Department of Zoology. The Agri-Tech East event “The Pollinator Pollinator’ is to be held at NIAB Park Farm, Villa Road, Histon, Cambridge, CB24 9NZ from 15.30 on Tuesday 23rd June.
See trial plots
There will be an opportunity to see the trial plots and to network over Pimms and strawberries. The event is kindly sponsored by Hutchinsons.