Pollinators in a Pandemic

by Claire Wallace, PhD Student.

In these “unprecedented times” many of us are quite-rightly uncertain and anxious about what the Covid-19 pandemic means for us, our families and friends, and our jobs. We are all subject to a constant battering of information from TV, radio, and newspapers which can make it even harder to find the silver lining in this ever-growing dark cloud. But I would like to present a silver lining for you now – bees. Whilst our world changes, bees continue bumbling around in their search for flowers completely unaware of our current situation. So how can a viral outbreak be connected positively with bees?

Lockdown has meant all non-essential work has stopped. Many councils will be experiencing a reduced workforce as employees are unfortunately ill or self-isolating. A possible outcome of this may be that areas, including roadside verges, parks, and other public green spaces are left uncut. Less cutting will give many wildflowers a chance to flourish in spaces previously managed as lawns, which means more habitat for pollinators. Although some councils are continuing to cut back these areas, many have stopped cutting for the time being and the results across the country have been spectacular.

A roadside verge as it would normally be (left) and during the lockdown (right) in Wales. Photos by Lizzie Wood.

Whilst writing this blog many news outlets were releasing their own articles on why wildflowers and pollinators are likely to benefit from the current pandemic: the BBC, The Guardian, and The Independent. All of these articles highlight road verges in particular, stating that less cutting could “boost wildflowers”.

The volume of traffic on roads in the UK has declined dramatically since the beginning of March, with some regions experiencing a drop of almost 73%. For bees using verges, this means less chance of collisions when crossing roads, and less pollution from vehicles. Nitrogen is a prominent pollutant of roadsides and its presence promotes the growth of competitive grass species. A reduction in nitrogen emissions from car exhausts will lead to a greater diversity of plant species on roadsides, again creating a haven for bees.

With many now working from home, and the spring sunshine making a regular appearance, attention might turn to the garden. People could spend their time pottering about in their gardens; sowing seeds, building planters, birdhouses and bee hotels, and generally tending to plants that may need some TLC. All of this would be beneficial for bees who often rely on gardens for their nectar and pollen. However, these garden activities can also include mowing the lawn, cutting back trees and hedges, and applying weed killer and pesticides to plants. All of this would be detrimental to bees, and so the dichotomy of gardens presents itself once again. The chances are that those gardens which are being levelled by a lawnmower were always going to be, but the current crisis has meant that there is now an opportunity to do so more regularly. It is still a great shame to hear the loud buzz of a strimmer outside, but there will now be more habitat elsewhere for bees to enjoy as a result of this pandemic.

Another positive to come from the pandemic is a stronger connection to wildlife and nature. Spending time in the natural world has long been shown to benefit our physical and mental health, and lots of people have been taking advantage of their one form of daily exercise to venture into their local nature reserves, gardens and walking trails (whilst still following social distancing rules of course). For many, this is either an entirely new experience or one they haven’t done in a long time, as other commitments have taken priority. In the hustle and bustle of modern life, it is very easy to forget just how truly captivating nature can be, but the current situation has left us with the time, and the want, to step outside and into nature. Simple things, like following the buzz of a bee until you find her with her head buried deep in a flower, can really help people reconnect with the environment and remind them of its simplistic beauty.

So whilst Covid-19 dominates our headlines and takes over our conversations, it can be very easy to feel nervous and overwhelmed about what is happening and what the future holds for us. This pandemic is going to hit everyone in different ways, and we are likely to feel the ripples of it for quite some time. For myself, this has put a complete stop to my research as my summer field season will be spent in lockdown instead of outside on roadsides. But there are some (albeit very small) silver linings. Our green spaces will be alive with activity this summer. Parks will be painted with dandelions, birdsfoot trefoil, clovers, and buttercups. Our verges will be rivers glittering with field scabious, poppies, vetches, and the occasional sparkle of an orchid. And, best of all, every one of these jewels will be left untouched by the blades of a mower. What a wonderful time to be a bee.

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