Andrew Whitehouse has been on the cliffs at Prawle Point, south Devon, searching on his hands and knees for a rare bee. He saw only one last year, and so far this summer there has been no sign of the six-banded nomad bee with its striking yellow markings.
Whitehouse fears it is on the brink of extinction because, as a parasitic bee, it depends on a host – the long-horned bee – in whose nest it lays its eggs, and the host is now also scarce.
“The long-horned bee is restricted to a few coastal clifftops where the wildflowers it feeds on are still growing. When it finds them it burrows into the cliffs to nest,” he says.
In the UK, 97% of wildflower-rich land – seven million hectares – has been swept away by modern agricultural and out-of-town developments since the 1940s.
Now the conservation charity Whitehouse works for as countries manager, Buglife, hopes to help restore and create at least 150,000 hectares of wildflower pathways with the launch on Monday of its B-lines network for England.
B-Lines are a strategically mapped network of existing and potential wildflower habitats that criss-cross the country. The 3km-wide corridors stretch from the coast to the countryside and towns and cities, covering in total some 48,000 sq km of England.
It is hoped the new corridors will help species such as the long-horned bee to thrive. Named after its extraordinarily long antennae, the bee was once common across the south of England, but arable farming and over-grazing by sheep and cattle has robbed it of food. “What’s left is too small and too far apart, and needs to be joined together,” says Whitehouse.
It has been predicted that 40-70% of insect species could become extinct if confined to tiny fragments of land.
Catherine Jones, pollinator officer and B-Lines lead at Buglife, says: “A complete England B-Lines network is a landmark step in our mission to reverse insect declines and lend a hand to our struggling pollinators.” B-lines will cover the whole of the UK when maps for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are completed later this year.
Since the charity began mapping B-Lines six years ago, with financial support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), it has worked with a range of partners, including local wildlife trusts and their volunteers, councils, highways agencies and landowners. Together, they have created over 450 hectares of wildflower pathways as stepping stones between fragmented sites, and with some success.
Just south of Bristol on the west of England B-Line – a long-term partnership with Avon Wildlife Trust – Hayley Herridge, Buglife’s conservation officer, last year recorded another increasingly scarce species, the black carrot-mining bee, on the fringes of the city where it hadn’t been seen since 2013. Here, significant areas of wildflower-rich habitat, including wild carrot and other umbellifer flowers on which the bee feeds, had been restored by volunteers.
“It was very exciting to find this small black bee,” says Herridge. “I hope it will encourage local communities and developers to plant more wildflower mixes with wild carrot to boost population growth.”
The Devon B-Line joins Prawle Point with Dartmoor, giving the long-horned bee a chance to move back inland with the six-banded nomad bee in tow. Influencing farmers and landowners to create and restore bee-friendly habitat along the route will be key to its success, says Whitehouse.
“We can’t meet with large estate owners and tenant farmers face-to- face because of social distancing, but we hope to work with them on a big project to change the way their animals graze, so wildflowers can bloom along the route,” he explains.
Martin Lines, chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network , says the B-lines map will be hugely beneficial for its members. “If farmers are choosing where to create more hedgerows or field margins, the map shows them where to focus their efforts,” he says.
On the north-west England B-Line, the Cumbria Wildlife Trust has been working with Highways England and contractors planting trees and wildflowers along the A595/A66 road network. Other sites have been planted with kidney vetch to help boost the local population of the small blue, a nationally scarce butterfly.
The launch of the B-Lines map in England coincides with Bees’ Needs Week, 13-19 July, an annual event coordinated by Defra to raise awareness about how we can help bees and other pollinators by simple actions, such as planting more bee-friendly flowers and mowing the lawn less.
Back at Prawle Point, Whitehouse hopes to see the six-banded nomad bee soon somewhere along the Devon B-line. “I hope we’re not monitoring the extinction of a species, but the recovery,” he says.
There are some 250 wild bee species in the UK; 24 are bumblebees and the rest are solitary bees, such as the carrot-mining bee and the long-horned bee. The honeybee is not a wild bee as it is managed by beekeepers.
Of the UK bumblebees, six species have declined by at least 80% in the last few decades. They all have long tongues and the flowers they feed on have disappeared as land is cleared for farming and development.
In addition to habitat loss, threats include the use of pesticides and other chemicals in modern farming and in parks and gardens. Climate change will be an increasing problem.