12/7/2021

Pollinators on the Shoot

6 minute read

by Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education

This week (12th to 18th July) is Bees Needs Week, so what better time than now to think about supporting bees and other pollinators on the shoot? This is a key area where we who shoot can show that we care about much more than just the game that we manage. Small creepy crawly insects are important to us as chick food items, but as I keep pointing out, big buzzy bees and other pollinators do not fall into that category, so what we do for them really conservation for its own sake.

Native pollinators

You don’t need to take up bee keeping to make a contribution, indeed to do so would be to put the cart before the horse. Honey bees are, to all intents and purposes, domestic animals. There may have been wild natives here before our honey hungry ancestors brought their hives, but they would have been far scarcer than today, and we have since introduced all sorts of foreign strains to improve productivity. You might even suggest that, at times at least, domestic bees are competing with wild pollinators for limited nectar supplies

So, two of the key five threads that Bees Needs Week promotes are habitat and food. The food side of the story is perhaps the most obvious one where shoots can help. Just about any sort of flower with a nectar source is likely to be of some help, and the more we provide, the more we are likely to help. Nearly every low ground shoot has some areas of game and wildlife cover crop, and adding floral diversity is simplicity itself.

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Phacelia tanacetifolia, also sometimes known as blue or purple tansy is a gloriously simple thing to add to almost any cover plot or wild birds seed mix. I confess that it is not native, but the bumblebees are not picky about that, and it does produce a mass of attractive little blue flowers over a long season. Also, it is dead easy to grow, and not too competitive, so a modest amount is unlikely to compromise the growth of your main cover crops. Most importantly, if you use it, you are not letting a nasty genie out of the lamp; while it will set viable seed, and often springs up in the following year it will normally die out over a few generations, and is certainly far from invasive.

As well as being quite cheap at under £10 per kilo, Phacelia has very small seeds, so a little goes a long way. That kilo would be all that you need to add real value to an acre game plot. I now always add a sprinkling to all my cover crop and wild bird mixes, either mixing in with the rest of the seed when drilling, or if that is impractical with bigger seeds like maize, sorghum or cereals, then the seed can be broadcast across the plot. My best results when broadcasting have been by scattering the seed by hand, and then relying on the drilling operation to cover enough to get good establishment. The fact that it then comes up rather patchy does not matter, because it is only an addition to the rest of the crop.

Phacelia is quick to establish, flowering as early as late May from an early spring sowing, but still making it to flower when sown in late summer. For instance, I always add some to my mid July sowings of Bright Seeds’ Autumn Promise, to give an autumn resource for the later season pollinators. Mustard sown as a late catch crop is another great pollinator resource, especially for hoverflies, sometimes flowering into December depending on frost.

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Over Wintered Crops

At the other end of the year, over wintered cover crops can offer a huge boost in spring. Good old kale, if left after the shooting season, will flower from late March or early April, and therefore helps the early pollinators, as well as offering great nesting cover and a food resource for a wide range of birds. Also, if you had sown some Phacelia in the previous year, it will often self-seed and come very early offering very different flowers from the kale. This means that between the two you have a pollen and nectar source for queen bumblebees and their first workers, setting up new colonies, plus solitary bees, early hoverflies and many others.

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Bumblebee Biology

Most folk realise that bumblebees are colonial, but what is less well known is that the colonies do not survive the winter. Those big bumblebees that start to show on sunny late winter days are invariably young queens, getting ready to set up new colonies. Once they find a suitable nest site, they lay a few eggs and continue foraging, feeding their larvae, which eventually hatch into relatively tiny workers. As the season progresses, further batches of eggs are laid, and eventually batches of drones and then new queens are produced, to fly off and mate. Both the colony and the drones then die, and the young queens hibernate, ready to start all over again next spring.

New Homes for pollinators

If you look on the internet, you can find instructions on how to make an artificial nest site for bumblebees, using an inverted flower pot buried in the ground, but the instructions do imply that you will be quite lucky to attract a queen. Many bumblebees choose old mouse holes as nest sites, and interestingly the instructions suggest adding some litter from your pet mouse of guinea pig – presumably so that it smells homely.

It seems to me that creating good mouse habitat, might be a better way forward. Permanent grassy habitats like wide margins, field corners, and beetle banks are known to get colonised by mice and voles very quickly, so these are surely a more practical way forward than artificial nests.

Beet (1)Beetle banks are great for mice and voles, who’s holes make bumblebee nest sites

Another thing which I really like on the shoot is to create a perennial edge to shelter the exposed sides of cover crop sites. In an ideal world I plough a bank first, just as when making a beetle bank. This is then sown with tussocky grass, such as cocksfoot or reed canary grass, making more great mouse and vole habitat. Also the relatively free drainage of the bank reduces the risk of flooding for either small mammal or bumblebee nests in the event of a thunderstorm.

All of these grassy habitats can offer more by way of pollen and nectar too, the simple expedient of including a pinch of wild flower seed in the mix when sowing can add an extra resource, as well as making the view that bit more attractive for us. This recipe, can also be used to make a permanent flushing end to a cover crop site, perhaps with a bit of blue flowered chicory added too.

Being a bit imaginative in this sort of way can add a new dimension to the conservation value of what shoots do at very low cost. The extra habitat, and the flowers that it supports also speak volumes about our care for the environment over and above the shoot alone.

This article first appeared in Shooting Times

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Comments

Bee u tifull

at 12:35 on 13/07/2021 by Simon Kibble

Great article mike ,i am into my second season setting phacelia both on brother in laws farm in a 3.0 m x 300 long belt up against the field edge of a barley crop. And a block of some 6x 5 metres down my fathers oçd allotment which includes sunflowers alongside. Id like to think we can all do our bit and phacelia is excellent . Theres nothing finer than sitting in it watching and listening to the bees ,butterflies going about their business . On the farm there is nothing else and neither can we see anything on the wider landscape.

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