Bumblebee Research: the "Big Bee" project

This project, funded by Defra (Dept for Environment Food & Rural Affairs) project is using novel techniques to study the effects of Countryside Stewardship Scheme pollen and nectar mixtures on bumblebee populations in contrasting agricultural landscapes.

Bumblebees have suffered major losses of habitat as a result of agricultural intensification. A shortage of flowers on many farms means that the supply of pollen and nectar, vital for their survival, has dwindled. As a result many of Britain’s bumblebee species have become very rare or even extinct in recent decades. This decline may have severe consequences – bumblebees together with other bees are important pollinators for a wide range of crops and wildflowers.

The recent introduction of the "pollen and nectar mixture" (option WM2) ) to the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, and now to the Environmental Stewardship scheme in England, is good news for bumblebees. As we have shown in our other research (e.g. the BUZZ project), the legumes in the mixture, especially red clover, attract large numbers of foraging bees through much of the summer.

 

However, we don’t yet know what effects the mixture has on the success of bumblebee colonies (which is where young bees are raised and new reproductive males and queens are produced), or on the number of colonies in a given landscape.

For this experiment we have sown 24 patches with the pollen and nectar mix on eight farms in contrasting agricultural landscapes in an attempt to understand what determines the success of bumblebees: amount of forage or other landscape features e.g. nesting habitats. We measure the effects on bumblebees using two new research approaches. One method follows the growth and reproduction of experimental colonies which are produced by nesting native queens. The other method uses genetic techniques to estimate how many colonies there are in the landscape before and after the pollen and nectar mixtures have been introduced.

Project management and funding

The research is funded by Defra and English Nature. The research is being conducted by a consortium consisting of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Rothamsted Research, the Institute of Zoology and the Farmed Environment Company.