Wildflower meadow

Farming for bees

03 Oct 2017
Discover how farmers can help bees and pollinating insects thrive on farmland, including providing food, shelter and cutting pesticide use.

What is bee-friendly farming?

Bee-friendly farming means providing bees with what they need, and reducing the threats to their populations. This includes:

  • Providing food (nectar and pollen-rich plants);
  • Providing shelter and nesting sites across the whole farmed landscape;
  • Avoiding bee-harming pesticides.

For a bee, the changes in our countryside over recent decades have been massive. 97% of our wildflower meadows – once prime pollinator habitat – have disappeared since the 1930s. So bees and other pollinators are increasingly reliant on flowering crops and the wildflower mixes planted by farmers.  

How can farmers provide food and shelter for bees?

These are some of the measures that bee-friendly farmers are already taking to help bees and other pollinating insects. 

  • Creating flower-rich margins and other habitats to provide patches of wildflowers across the farm.   These margins can act as a buffer alongside hedgerows, ditches and existing wildflower-rich grasslands and woodland, and provide a transition from farmed land to natural habitat 

  • Planting pollen and nectar mixes to provide food during ‘hungry’ periods in early spring, and later summer and autumn. 

  • Managing hedgerows on a two or three year rotation to ensure that there are always some hedgerows left uncut, and providing abundant hedgerow flowers every year. 

Buglife provides more detailed advice for farmers including how to ensure bees have sheltering and nesting places on the farm.

Ladybird on a blade of wheat
Ladybirds act as a natural predator of aphids
Credit: izzzy71

Avoiding bee-harming pesticides on the farm

Bee-friendly farmers are challenging the current reliance on pesticides as an insurance measure against insects, weeds, and disease. Instead they are working with nature to build healthy soils and populations of natural predators and pollinators that improve the whole farm environment as well as crops. 

Some insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics) have been identified as posing a particular threat to bees,  but other insecticides and pesticides can also cause problems, for example some herbicides (broad spectrum) kill the plants that bees like to feed on. 

What's wrong with neonics?

Providing bees with nectar and pollen sources is really important.  But there is worrying evidence that the very flowers that attract the bees may also be harming them.  They may be laced with neonics, which damage the bees’ ability to find food and reproduce. 

There is increasing evidence that neonics also harm other pollinators, as well as beneficial predators  that help farmers, such as the beetles that eat slugs. 

The European Commission banned the use of neonics on flowering crops such as oilseed rape in 2013 giving bees some protection, however these chemicals continue to be used as a seed treatment on crops such as wheat. 

Neonic seed treatments have been found to contaminate soil and water, and can be taken up by subsequent flowering crops and wildflowers.  So now the Commission is considering extending the ban to all crops even if they are not visited by bees. This is a crucial step to protect our pollinators.   

The good news is that some farmers are ahead of the game. They have already pledged to avoid the use of neonics. They are adopting innovative ways of growing oilseed rape and other crops in ways that don’t harm bees. 

Bumblebee on cornflower
Cornflowers are a great source of nectar and pollen for bees
Credit: Alan Palmer

Effective alternatives to pesticides  

UK farmers are using tried and tested methods of pest control on their crops, as well as trying out some new ideas including:

  • encouraging natural predators that will eat pests; 

  • introducing companion crops to confuse pests and improve fertility; 

  • sowing oilseed rape early to give it a head-start before pests appear; 

  • using disease resistant crop varieties where they are available;
  • improving monitoring of pests so that pesticides are only used when needed (instead of using seed treatments as an insurance measure)
  • leaving a longer gap (rotation) between sowings of the same crop, to reduce pests and disease. 

Resources for farmers

Find out more about farming wheat without neonicitinoids and farming oilseed rape without neonicotinoids.