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Early spring flowers can save bees from climate change and boost pollination

Traditional “pollinator-friendly” plants are blooming too late to help bees when they need it most. New research from Oxford and Exeter Universities reveals a dangerous “hungry gap” in the pollination period of bees during spring.

Many guides recommend pollinator plants. However, these plants often bloom too late. Thankfully, the study reveals a surprisingly simple fix: by prioritizing early blooming plants, we can offer bees a lifeline when they need it most, safeguarding their future and, with it, our own.

Bees struggle during pollination

Picture a bee colony waking up from winter. The queen worked hard to establish it last year, and now her daughters, the worker bees, are ready to kickstart the pollination season. But there’s a problem. The flowers they desperately need for pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their growing brood aren’t in bloom yet.

“Bumblebee food demand is highest March to June, and lack of food during this critical period has catastrophic consequences for colony survival and queen production, increasing the risk of local population extinction,” explained Dr. Matthias Becher of the University of Exeter.

Those early weeks are vital. If bees go hungry then, the whole colony suffers.

Bees and timing of pollination

We focus a lot on pollinator-friendly plants, which is great. But the timing, it turns out, is crucial. Mismatched bloom times can leave bees without a proper food source during critical periods.

“We were surprised to find that the colony’s demand for nectar and pollen is driven mainly by the number of larvae rather than the number of adult workers,” said Dr. Becher.

“This explains the particularly high colony demand in March and April, before the adult workers are usually seen foraging outside the colony. The larvae need pollen for growth, and most of the energy from nectar is used for thermal regulation of the brood.”

Basically, baby bees – the future of the hive – are the hungriest mouths to feed.

Hungry bees, empty hives

Studies predict that a mere two-week food shortage in March or April can slash new queen production by a shocking 50-87 percent. This can lead to the collapse of the colony that year and have ripple effects that threaten future bee generations.

“The results give us a simple and practical recommendation to help bees: to enhance hedgerows with early blooming species, especially ground ivy, red dead-nettle, maple, cherry, hawthorn, and willow, which improved colony success rate from 35% to 100%,” said Dr. Tonya Lander from the University of Oxford.

Filling the “hungry gap”

By adding early blooming plants to existing hedgerows, we can significantly boost bee pollination and colony survival. This leverages the common presence of hedgerows in agricultural settings, supporting bees without taking land away from farming.

Hedgerows, those dense rows of shrubs often marking boundaries or acting as windbreaks, are a staple of many agricultural landscapes, especially in Europe. This fills the “hungry gap” that bees face in spring and adds biodiversity and resilience to the farm environment.

Study significance

Bees are declining at a frightening rate around the world. They’re crucial for pollinating not only our crops, but also the wild plants that form the foundation of ecosystems.

Bees’ decline directly threatens food supplies and biodiversity. Hedgerow enhancement offers a practical, scalable solution to one of the key challenges facing bees.

Importantly, this strategy doesn’t ask farmers to sacrifice land or make drastic changes. It’s conservation that aligns with agricultural goals.

As pollinator decline is a global issue, this approach, adapted to regional plants and bee species, could contribute to a worldwide effort to bolster our most important pollinators.

Future directions

On a global scale, adapting the study’s findings to different regions presents an exciting challenge. The decline in pollinator populations is a worldwide concern, and solutions need to be as diverse as the ecosystems affected.

Investigating how early blooming plant interventions can be customized to fit various climates, flora, and agricultural practices around the world is essential.

This includes exploring the strategy’s applicability in tropical regions, where pollination dynamics and plant growth cycles differ significantly from temperate zones.

In essence, the path forward is about building on the study’s success by broadening our understanding of how to support pollinators effectively in a changing world.

The study is published in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity.


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