A wildflower ‘motorway’ system of corridors, roads and pathways designed specifically for bees and other pollinators, criss-crossing the UK and linking up separate habitats might sound far-fetched.
But that is exactly what B-lines has achieved, a project run by invertebrate conservation charity Buglife, that has succeeded in mapping 17,000 km of insect-friendly corridors across the UK. And it’s now planning to expand across Europe and get pollinator pathways into the next wave of environmental legislation in the UK.
This grid of new and restored wildflower-rich areas, which provide pollen and nectar to bees, butterflies, moths, hoverflies and other insects as well as places to nest, addresses the detrimental fragmentation of habitats that prevents many species dispersing through the countryside, something that will only be exacerbated by climate change, intensive farming and other human-made obstacles.
Wales was the first country to launch its B-lines map in September 2018, followed by Northern Ireland. Scotland has progressed well – the Highlands aren’t suitable B-line territory – and networks in England are due to be completed soon.
The Netherlands have made a national commitment to create ‘Bee-lines’, an important consideration for conservation beyond the UK in the long-term. As Buglife chief executive, Matt Shardlow, explains: “Having fewer insects flying about is not good news. We must think beyond borders because insects are influenced by what happens as they migrate.
“For example, one population of migratory hoverflies and moths spans North Africa and Russia, so if countries neighbouring Europe start to use insecticides we’ve banned, we risk losing our pollination and predatory services [i.e. natural pest control] as a result of pesticide use elsewhere.”
Climate change also impacts the range or area where a particular species can live. “In terms of bumblebees, the southern limits of their range are no longer suitable for them to survive but they aren’t moving north because habitats are so fragmented, so ranges contract.
"A better network of flower-rich grasslands could enable a species to move in response to climate change,” continues Shardlow, who is pushing the European Commission to integrate B-lines into the biodiversity strategy for 2030, in a bid to address the massive decline in insect populations across Europe.
More than 40 per cent of insect species are declining, a third are endangered and numbers are plummeting, primarily due to habitat loss in what scientists refer to as the sixth mass extinction, according to a global review of global insect populations, published in 2019 in the journal Biological Conservation.
But why does conserving insect populations really matter? “The alternative is that we continue to lose our pollinator species and we simply don’t know what will be needed to pollinate our food in the future,” says Shardlow. “In 20 years’ time, we may be growing a different set of crops that may be pollinated by species that are at the moment rare, but if we’ve driven them to extinction, they won’t be there to do it. We’d be damaging our future options to have sustainable agriculture.”
The key principle of B-lines is connectivity and the best way to fix the problem of fragmentation is to create stepping stones between flower-rich grasslands. Scientists at the University of York found, through modelling, that by targeting this restoration work into lines or corridors, it’s possible to get five times the benefit than with a random approach.
“B-lines traverse all sorts of different places, from nature reserves to farmland,” says Shardlow. “Once 10 per cent of each 3km-wide B-line is wildflower-rich, it will start working for a significant proportion of pollinator species.”
Mapping of B-lines is funded by Defra, the Scottish government, the Welsh government and the Northern Ireland Executive agency, so it has strong political support. Once the remaining wildflower habitats have been mapped, an algorithm is applied to reveal how best to join up these locations with the least distance of lines.
“We add in blockages and steer B-lines around unsuitable land, then work with county councils and local communities to produce a final map, taking it from something that’s calculated to something with real relevance,” says Shardlow. “Once the B-line map is published, we just need to make sure they actually fill with flowers, and we’re now looking at what level of funding will be needed to convince farmers to commit their land into B-lines.”
And it’s not just farmers who can help this UK-wide renovation. By letting plants such as yarrow, forget-me-not or dandelions flower or by designating ‘messy’ areas of your garden for wildflowers to thrive, you’ll provide a pollen and nectar resource. Meanwhile, bug hotels, logs with holes in or even bundles of bamboo wrapped together can help local bee populations thrive.
The food choices we make also influence our environment. “Generally, organic is better than most other food labels. Invertebrates tend to be more abundant on organic farms than non-organic farms; that’s got to be a good thing,” says Shardlow. “The RSPB’s Conservation Grade food label is the only marque that might be better, but it’s not widespread.”
Next, Shardlow wants B-lines to be “front and central” to England’s new Environmental Land Management farm subsidy scheme: “If we pull it off, we’ll have a visible network of wildlife habitat across the UK, species moving more fluidly than they possibly can at the moment and the potential for the public to have something they can really engage with.”