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Solar parks could boost bumblebee populations

New research led by Lancaster University has found that simple changes in how UK solar parks are managed can significantly increase the number of bumblebees in the parks and surrounding areas, providing an additional benefit on top of the use of renewable energy characterizing such parks.

The scientists used a geographic information system (GIS) to model solar parks of different sizes, shapes, and management approaches based on real UK parks, and combined it with predictions of bumblebee density in these parks and surrounding areas provided by a state-of-the-art pollinator model called Poll4Pop. Then they used statistical analysis to assess differences in bumblebee density and nest density across the different parks generated in this model.

“Our findings provide the first quantitative evidence that solar parks could be used as a conservation tool to support and boost pollinator populations. If they are managed in a way that provides resources, solar parks could become valuable bumblebee habitat,” said study lead author Hollie Blaydes, a doctoral student in Environmental Sciences at Lancaster University.

“In the UK, pollinator habitat has been established on some solar parks, but there is currently little understanding of the effectiveness of these interventions. Our findings provide solar park owners and managers with evidence to suggest that providing floral and nesting resources for bumblebees could be effective.”

Blaydes and her colleagues found that solar park land managed as meadows (which offers the most resources) could support four times as many bumblebees as the same type of land managed as turf grass. Moreover, large, elongated, and resource-rich parks could boost bumblebee density up to one kilometer outside of the parks themselves, thus providing pollinator services to crops in the surrounding agricultural areas.

However, there are many barriers to solar parks being managed in ways that would benefit bumblebees and other wildlife. For instance, the costs associated with establishing and managing habitats for pollinators are quite high, and there are currently no economic incentives for the solar industry to do this. In addition, existing business structures could also prove to be a hindrance.

“Management of solar parks is often outsourced to external companies where contracts are typically around two years long. This, along with frequent changes in ownership, means that management regimes could be changed as the solar park or management contract changes hands. This could be challenging when trying to establish and maintain habitats over longer time scales,” explained Baynes.

The study will be presented at the Ecology Across Borders conference in Liverpool on Monday, 13 December, 2021.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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