Plotting a ‘Plan B’ to save Suffolk’s vital pollinators

Oilseed Rape flowers in Hoo near Wickham Market

Oilseed Rape flowers in Hoo near Wickham Market - Credit: Archant

As the controversy over neonicotinoid pesticides continues, Suffolk conservationist Audrey Boyle speaks to the UK’s top bee specialist and discovers there is conservation action we can all take.

Neonics graphic from Sussex University

Neonics graphic from Sussex University - Credit: Archant

Wildlife campaigners were dismayed at the recent Government decision to grant growers in Suffolk a derogation to use neonicotinoids - banned pesticides which have been shown to impact our many species of bees and other pollinating insects and are now thought to be having broad effects through the food chain.

Political lobbying must go alongside community action they say, so conservationists are asking for everyone’s help in re-establishing lost insect habitats in our towns and countryside.

Neonicotinoids pesticides - often referred to as neonics - were banned for use on flowering crops for two years by the EU in 2013 due to research linking them to bee declines. Since then more evidence has emerged to suggest that they are affecting other forms of wildlife, including farmland birds and insect-eating vertebrates such as frogs and voles.

Highly persistent chemicals which have been used on UK crops - particularly oilseed rape - for the past 20 years, neonics are systemic pesticides applied as seed coatings which are then taken up by the whole plant, contaminating both the pollen and nectar.

Bumblebee taking off against lavender flowers

Bumblebee taking off against lavender flowers - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Now there are concerns that neonics are ending up in non-target species. Researchers are busy looking at neonic accumulation in marginal plants - which are often planted along arable fields as part of EU agri-environment schemes to attract wildlife. They say there is now evidence that neonics are ending up in wildflower pollen, so it’s case of “watch this space”.


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The multi-organisation State of Nature report that was published in 2013 showed most farmland wildlife to be in decline. The losses between 1945-1990 are fairly easy to explain - devastating habitat loss combined with post-war intensification of agriculture.

But why do declines continue despite UK farmers being paid more than £400million a year through agri-environment schemes to increase biodiversity - that’s a lot of taxpayers’ money put to seemingly little effect.

Entomologist and bumblebee specialist Professor David Goulson, who is spearheading the research into the recent bee declines, says it’s not all due to neonics.

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Among other things, a lot of the agri-environment schemes just don’t work, he says. But there is strong evidence that these insecticides are driving the broader decline of our wider wildlife.

“Neonics are highly persistent neurotoxins, accumulating in our soils and turning up in streams and hedgerow plants and hence are very likely to be contributing to the depressing ongoing declines of farmland insects, birds and other wildlife that eat insects,” said Prof Goulson.

The Government granted the derogation at the request of the National Farmers Union, whose members feared the cabbage stem flea beetle would decimate this year’s oilseed rape harvest. However, according to a report by the UK’s largest independent agricultural and environmental consultancy ADAS, yields for the 2014/15 oil seed rape crop (the first grown without neonics) were high.

Prof Goulson said: “(Environment secretary) Liz Truss granted a derogation despite the clear fact that oilseed rape did well without neonics and despite a recent Government-backed study which shows that neonics don’t provide any consistent benefit to crop yields.”

Prof Goulson and other scientists at the University of Sussex, who are among the UK’s leading researchers into pollinators, have this week launched the Buzz Club. Conceived by entomologists and bumblebee specialists, Buzz Club is citizen science which aims to generate information on pollinators and pollination.

“By offering people the chance to take part in a range of projects we hope to generate key data to help us find out how populations of our bees and other insects are changing, and better look after them in the future,” said Prof Goulson.

“All you have to do is choose which survey you’d like to take part in. For example, you could create a hoverfly lagoon or become part of our pan-trapping network to find out what pollinators live in your garden.”

“There’s an urgent need to find out about the health and distribution of our insect pollinators. This is particularly important in intensively farmed areas of Suffolk and the rest of East Anglia where an extremely high proportion of natural habitat has disappeared and pesticide use is widespread.

“Suffolk grows an awful lot of arable crops, many of which need pollinating, so you need to look after your pollinators.

“One of the best ways of doing this is through the help of people on the ground, no matter if you live in the town or country. We are asking everyone who’s interested to take part in the monitoring process and become a member of the Buzz Club by checking in at www.thebuzzclub.uk

The organisation Buglife is also taking action.

Its Norfolk and Suffolk B-Lines project will roll out a national programme of wildflower-rich meadow and grassland creation in the East of England. By connecting up the best wildlife sites for pollinators in Norfolk and Suffolk through a network of wildflower corridors running east to west and north to south, Buglife is aiming to help our declining pollinators to move through this agriculturally dominated area.

The charity’s conservation officer Jamie Robins said: “Buglife has worked with a host of organisations, including Natural England who are funding the work, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, Plantlife, the Forestry Commission, local authorities, landowners and entomologists to create a B-Lines map which connects the region’s most important pollinator habitats. The idea is to work with landowners and managers to restore, enhance and create wildflower-rich habitats.

“We’ll provide support and training for landowners and managers in techniques for managing and establishing grasslands and accessing funds. There will be online resources such as habitat management fact sheets and we’ll communicate and promote B-Lines to a wide audience by attending events, holding workshops and community gatherings.”

Buglife says it is excited by the prospect of working in the Suffolk Sandlings area over the coming months.

“We’ll be offering support and advice to a new group of passionate farmers and landowners, supported by Suffolk FWAG, who are co-ordinating the creation and care of wildlife habitats across the area,” said Mr Robins. “This will be in Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so it’s a great chance to get B-lines well and truly under way in an area known for its rich pollinator populations.”

To find out how to get involved in Buglife’s B-Lines work, visit www.buglife.org.uk See more environment news here

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