Growing a 150,000-hectare highway for British passenger insects

globally, up to 10% of all insect species are in danger of extinction. The devastation is due to several factors, including climate change and pesticide use, while vast areas of key habitats have been lost to intensive agriculture and other developments, says Jamie Robins, program manager at Buglife.

“While our countryside looks green, beautiful and vibrant, if it doesn’t have a lot of flowers, it’s a pretty hostile environment for our insects,” says Keith Jones, conservation officer at Buglife.

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Buglife has identified 150,000 hectares (580 sq mi) of land across the UK that it wants to restore to flower meadows. The hope is that these grasslands can be linked into a nationwide network of “suburban” insects called B-lines that will provide nectar-rich pit stops for pollinators.

These flower “steps” should be no more than 300 meters apart, “based on the average distance traveled by a lone bee to make sure they can move from place to place,” Robins explains.

The B-lines project, funded in part by the National Lottery Legacy Fund and the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, began in 2011. Using software developed by the University of Washington, Buglife mapped out the best connections between existing wilderness areas across the UK and created the first nationwide B-line map, launched in March 2021.

Insect conservation officer Keith Jones inspects a bee in a wildflower meadow in Shropshire, UK.

So far, B-lines has restored just over 2,500 acres of wildflower-rich meadows to the network. But this is only a small percentage of the 150,000 acres targeted, and the wildflowers could be difficult to restore. Claire Carvell, senior ecologist at the UK’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology, says native wildflowers tend to be hard to establish in areas with rich and fertile farmland, and pollinators often need a variety of flowers at any time of the year.

Another key issue is that the network crosses public and private land in both urban and rural areas, so the project has received support from wildlife foundations, local authorities, farmers and estate owners.

Buglife provides farmers and landowners with guidance on growing wildflower-rich pastures, as well as a 10-year maintenance plan. “These are the ones who can really make a difference. They can give away small plots of their land to wildflowers and restore the habitat they have,” says Robins.

Separately, the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is incentivizing landowners and farmers to restore habitat by funding the planting and management of wildflowers as part of a recent Ecological Land Management Scheme.

Carwell believes that the B-lines initiative provides effective support and training for farmers and councils in the recovery process and is an important complement to government incentives.

A variety of wildflowers can be seen in the Melverley Meadows in Shropshire, UK.

She adds that planting hedges and meadows rich in wildflowers not only helps the insects, but also the farmers. “We have a lot of evidence that farmers benefit from managing their land in a way that benefits bees, flies, and any predatory insect or insect that provides an almost natural pest control service to their crops.” she says.

Study published by the Royal Society of Great Britain offers that the establishment of wild flower habitats in former crop areas will not adversely affect crop yields over a five-year period and may even increase them. From almost 75% of the world harvest Depending on pollination, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, conserving pollinators through wildflower-rich meadows is essential to food security.
The public can even get involved by adding their own wildflower habitats to the B-line map via buglife site. Whether it’s a flower garden or a pot of field plants by the window, pollinators and insects will be thrilled, Jones says.

“We all have a role to play,” she adds. “The opportunity to contribute is great.”