Like the United States, the United Kingdom has seen honeybee populations plummet in the last couple of years. The Co-operative Group—a U.K.-based consumer cooperative—has launched an awareness campaign around the issue, and a comprehensive plan of action. The US$1.2 million campaign, called Plan Bee, includes the establishment of long rows of bee-friendly habitats across the country to act as bee corridors. The corridors will also support other key pollinator species like bumble bees, hover flies, butterflies, and moths.

Plans to establish bee corridors are in the works in the U.K. in an effort to reverse the trend of alarming declines in bee populations (Photo Credit: The Co-operative Group)Plans to establish bee corridors are in the works in the U.K. in an effort to reverse the trend of alarming declines in bee populations (Photo Credit: The Co-operative Group)“We want people to understand there’s a problem,” says Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals at The Co-operative. “And we also want to empower people to thinking there’s something they can do about it.” The Plan Bee campaign is promoting pollinator-friendly gardens in urban areas, distributing some 900,000 packets of wildflower seeds, and supporting members of the Co-operative to become beekeepers.

“[Bees] pollinate a vast number of crops. They pollinate all the strawberries, all the raspberries, apples, pears… They’re absolutely essential to agriculture,” says Senior Technical Manager Simon Press. “On our own farms this forthcoming season, we’re going to be putting wildflower seed mixes onto the headlands of the fields to encourage the bees.” Honeybees pollinate as much as one-third of the food grown in the U.K.

In the U.S., commercial beekeepers on the East Coast began reporting dramatic declines in their honeybee colonies in 2006. Scientists have dubbed the mysterious phenomenon colony collapse disorder (CCD), and it has spread to most states. Overall, annual losses of managed bee colonies in the U.S. are around 30 percent. The U.K. is now seeing similar losses. “We’re now losing between 20 and 30 percent of our entire stock every winter,” says Paddy Wallace of Quince Honey Farm in Devon County in southwestern England. With 11,000 farm holdings in the county, agriculture is an important industry. “A shortage of bees means not just a shortage of honey, but everything else as well,” says Wallace.

Exact reasons for the declines are not known. Several causes have been suggested, including changing weather patterns, parasitic mites that feed on bee larvae, and the use of pesticides by farmers, homeowners, and businesses. “Nobody currently knows what’s causing bee decline. There could be a variety of reasons behind it,” says Plan Bee Campaign Manager Gwyneth Brock. “What we need to do is help beekeepers, because they can’t cope with this by themselves. There are things that we can all do to help bees.”

Losses of wildflower meadows—which have shrunk by 97 percent since the 1930s—are thought to be one of the major causes of bee declines. By planting the bee corridors with nectar-rich species like lesser knapweed, field scabious, birdsfoot trefoil, and red clover, Plan Bee aims to reverse the trend of bee declines. “What we want to do is strengthen the countryside so there’s a better habitat for bees,” says Brock. “Not just in urban areas, but in the countryside too. [We need] better farming practices. As The U.K.’s largest farmer, we know that we can play our part.”

Plan Bee focuses on four key areas. The Co-operative Group will establish 1,300 hives of European honeybees on its own farms, up from just 400 now. The Co-operative will also fund scientific research to map and breed native bees and to establish the effects of pesticides on their numbers. The group will engage its customers and members to take part in the effort to establish the bee corridors. Finally, the ban on the use of six neonicotinoid-based pesticides on the Co-operatives fresh and frozen produce will be extended.

“This is an ongoing program of activity,” says Brock. “Because I don’t think anybody believes that the problem with bees is going to be resolved this year. A lot of research is going to have to go into it. We’re going to be building support for a number of years from our customers and members. Building better habitats for bees in urban areas, and also looking at the research that can really help resolve what is happening to our bees.”

Do you think that farmers, homeowners, and businesses would participate in an initiative like this one to promote bee habitats in your area?

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project

To read more about the risks of pesticides see: USDA Gives Green Light to GE Alfalfa, New Blog Showcases the GroundTruth about Pesticides, and The Many Misconceptions About Genetic Engineering and Organic Agriculture.