With so many local holdings left as bare-croft, the windy conditions giving rise to windburn, and windblown salt spray causing saltburn to unprotected crops, it is easy to dismiss pollinators and their habitats as being too delicate for the harsher hebridean climes.
However, pollinators are vital to creating and maintaining the habitats and ecosystems that many animals rely on for food and shelter, and they facilitate the reproduction in up to 90% of the world’s flowering plants.
Approximately 1,000 of the plants grown for food, beverages, fibers and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we rely. In fact, one out of every three bites of food, from vegetables to fruits to edible oils, are a direct result of pollination services. In the U.S. alone, bees and other insects produce $40 billion worth of products annually through the process of pollination, and across Europe, the figure is estimated to be upwards of £75 billion.
Locally, a variety of bees and flies are a vital part of the wider ecological system, including fruit and vegetable production, and there are specific crops that can provide food to pollinators on crofts all of sizes.
One of the most important steps it to set aside areas for habitation. This could include rough grass, scrub, and the banks of drainage ditches and burns. By providing a diversity of flowering plants in these areas, so you can help support a wider range of pollinating insects with year-round food. Additionally, by planting willow, hawthorn, and other flowering shrubs, so you will boost the wind protection to your croft, and create natural shelter belts for livestock.
Existing areas that contain wildflowers, hedges and clover provide both food and shelter, as well as vital nesting and overwintering sites. Bare ground and moss covered areas will also provide an important habitat for bees and their nests. These areas can be managed with late season grazing to avoid disturbing active nesting site, and to allow plants like wild mint, knapweed, and meadowsweet to flower. This diversity of plant is a great benefit to pollinating insects and ensures continuous food source that provides both essential sugars for energy and pollen which assists in breeding.
Croft holders can go even further by sowing clovers, wildflowers, and other nectar-rich species, such as birds-foot trefoil, vetches, and flax to promote insect habitation. It is worth noting that the number one reason for the decline in the bee population is habitat loss. Changes in our land use, including insensitive urban development and intensive farming, have caused significant losses and fragmentation of pollinator-friendly habitats. This results in bees losing the diverse food sources they need for a healthy diet.
It’s vital that bees have enough flowers to forage – and safe places to use for nesting, among vegetation, the soil and hedges. But since the Second World War, we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, leaving our bees with little natural habitat.
The loss of key habitats on farmland in particular has meant that wildlife, including bees, have become more dependent on protected wildlife sites. Yet government figures show that in the UK, only 6% of habitats protected by EU laws are in ‘”favourable condition”.
Even when applied correctly, pesticides can have adverse impacts on bees by reducing their breeding success and resistance to disease. Scientists have found that exposure to pesticides can impair honeybees’ ability to navigate, bumblebees’ ability to reproduce and solitary bees’ ability to reproduce any young at all.
Pesticides are designed to kill unwanted pests, but their toxic properties and widespread use are also harming beneficial insects such as bees.
Neonicotinoids are a particularly harmful group of bee-harming pesticides. When a bee feeds on pollen or nectar containing them, their central nervous system can be affected. This affects tasks that bees depend on to survive such as feeding, homing, foraging and reproducing.
New research has also begun to show an increase in pesticides being found beyond the farms where the seeds are sown. As well as pesticides, the use of herbicides in parks, streets and on roadside verges reduces the availability of forage plants that bees and other pollinating insects seek out for food at different times of the year.
In summary, the situation for bees and other pollinating insects in precarious, but by setting aside an area for wildflower growth which is sheltered with the likes of willow or hawthorn, we can ensure that we all enjoy the fruits of our labours for many years to come.
Until next month, go green – go crofting.