The annual Bees’ Needs Week is an ideal time to reassess what your shoot is doing to provide extra nectar sources, says Dr Mike Swan writing for Shooting Times
The week from 12 to 18 July is Bees’ Needs Week, so what better time 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 simply the game we manage. Small creepy-crawly insects are important to us as chick food, but big, buzzy bees and other pollinators do not fall into that category, so what we do for them is really conservation for its own sake.
Bees’ Needs Week – what you can do
You don’t need to take up beekeeping 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 more scarce 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.
Two of the five key 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. Pretty much 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.
Phacelia tanacetifolia, also sometimes known as blue or purple tansy, is a gloriously simple thing to add to almost any cover plot or wild bird 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 very 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. It will set viable seed and often springs up in the following year, but it will normally die out over a few generations. As well as being quite cheap at under £10 a 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 add a sprinkling to all my cover crop and wild bird mixes, combining it with the rest of the seed when drilling. If that is impractical with bigger seeds such as maize, sorghum or cereals, the seed can be broadcast across the plot. My best results when broadcasting have been by scattering the seed by hand then relying on the drilling operation to cover enough to get a good establishment. The fact that it then comes up rather patchily 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.
At the other end of the year, overwintered 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, helping the early pollinators, as well as offering great nesting cover and a food resource for a range of birds. Also, if you had sown some phacelia in the previous year, it will often self-seed and come 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. Most people realise that bumblebees are colonial, but what is less well known is that the colonies do not survive the winter.
The 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 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 the following spring.
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 or guinea pig, presumably so that it smells homely.
Creating a good mouse habitat might be a better way forward. Permanent grassy habitats such as wide margins, field corners and beetle banks are known to get colonised by mice and voles very quickly, so these are a more practical way forward than artificial nests.
Another thing I really like to do 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, the same 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 way can add a new dimension to the conservation value of what shoots do at low cost. The extra habitat and flowers that it supports speak volumes about our care for the environment over and above the shoot alone.