Operation Bumblebee

Bumblebee populations on UK arable farms have declined by more than 70% over the past 30 years, primarily through loss of vital nectar food resources and nesting sites as agricultural cropping patterns have changed. One of the 20 bumblebee species has disappeared altogether, and three other species are on the verge of extinction.

Operation Bumblebee, pioneered and funded by the chemical company Syngenta and initiated in 2006, is set to put the habitat back and revive the fortunes of the humble bumblebee across the entire UK arable farming area. Over 600 farmers, farming in excess of a quarter of a million hectares, have already joined the new national scheme, with each committed to establishing at least a hectare (2.5 acres) of specific Operation Bumblebee seed mix. This mixture, containing red clover, vetches and sainfoin, is specifically tailored to meet the bumblebee feeding needs through the summer and more particularly to ensure that the queens go into hibernation in the best possible condition to produce maximum viable offspring in the following spring.

Operation Bumblebee provides farmers and advisors with the training, skills and technical support to successfully establish habitats rich in traditional flowering species, and then manage them to maximise the benefit to the bees.

Operation Bumblebee has demonstrated that pro-active management of dedicated environmental areas will achieve far greater results for all biodiversity than simply de-intensifying farm production. When integrated alongside organic or conventional arable areas, Operation Bumblebee creates a practical and workable balance between maximising crop production and reviving the fortunes of this iconic species; it is not uncommon to see an 800% increase in populations in only two years.

In 2007, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's threw their weight behind the scheme, and having donated a substantial sum to the project, set about encouraging the 300 growers in their fruit and vegetable supply base to follow the arable lead. Training and support is provided to incoming participants, and currently 80,000 hectares of farmland largely dedicated to supplying Sainsbury's are covered by the scheme.

Here at HE Hall & Son, we have established red clover in many of our arable headlands and have a 2.5 hectare block of organically managed red and white clover in close proximity to our Bramley, Comice and organic orchards. The Organic Concept Orchard was originally drilled with a pure sward of red clover and still contains a significant population. There is little doubt that the increased populations of Bumble Bees on the farm have had a positive effect on the pollination of our flowering fruit crops during what has all too often been some very challenging spring weather.

These areas of clover in conjunction with the trees, hedgerows and ditches surrounding these relatively small fields have had a massive positive effect not only on the bumblebee populations, but also on the number and diversity of other insects. These include the honey bees, which whilst 150 times less effective than Bumblebees and Solitary Bees at crop pollination are essential for honey production, and the predatory insects that we rely on in our organic systems. This increase in insect life has also led to a greater number and diversity of birds recorded in the farmland bird surveys and ringing activities conducted here by RSPB volunteers.