One way to combat the decline in biodiversity is by promoting the recovery of declining species and habitats. The UK’s dwindling bee population, which farmers depend on for crop pollination, is one of the species groups we have targeted in our biodiversity in action programme.
In 2006 Sainsbury's partnered with Syngenta in "Operation Bumblebee". This program aimed to establish bumblebee habitat on the land of over 90% of our UK produce suppliers. Following the success of this model (a 400% increase in populations on some farms) we worked with a bee specialist to establish over 100 "Bee Hotels" in our stores increasing the availability of nesting sites for solitary bees. We place the hotels in a position where they may be visible, but not where colleagues or customers could disturb nesting bees. The project has been so successful in our Dursley store that the red mason bee has been re-recorded there after an absence of 12 years.
According to a Government White Paper, some 84% of European crops and 80% of wildflowers rely on insect pollination and the value of pollination to UK agriculture is £440 million per year, so the decline of bees is having a detrimental on the security of our food supplies.
In the UK, 40% of pollinators have disappeared in the last 15 years. Bees are of critical importance as worldwide some 30% of human food crops rely on insect pollination, as well as other crops like cotton.
Sainsbury's recognise that if we are to continue to sell fresh British produce in the long term, we are going to have to look at the problem of declining bee population and do our bit to help solve the problem.
Each solitary bee species undertakes a single flight period each year for 6 to 8 weeks. They are found flying from late March to October. One of the species, the red mason bee flies during late March and through to early June. This activity matches the pollination period of the mass-flowering fruit crops such as apples and pears. Solitary bees, unlike honeybees, can fly in cool weather so ensuring pollination of our essential food crops, especially fruit trees in spring.
Solitary bees are different to honey bees. They live separately, rather than as part of a hive. They don't make honey, so have nothing to protect, making them docile and very unlikely to sting, so customers need not worry.
Working with our suppliers
We started a programme with our suppliers in spring 2011 and engaged with key UK top fruit growers to encourage them to develop sustainable habitats and bee hotels. This is to be extended to soft fruit growers to ensure that Sainsbury's are driving food sustainability and security through our green initiatives.
The rapid decline in wild and managed colony bee populations over the last 15-20 years has had a severe impact upon the productivity of British crops, so we decided to take practical steps to help.
Research into the effects of pollination in crops has tended to look at the effects of yield, and possibly quality so we took our expert beekeeper, Robin Dean, down to some of our supplier farms in Kent to impart his knowledge on how the solitary bee can help their crops and take action to increase the numbers of key species.
Orchards where we have introduced Red Mason bees, a well known pollinator of apple, have shown some interesting results, particularly in crops of Bramley's seedling apples in Kent. Whilst there was no change in the quantity, there was a vast improvement in the mineral content of the fruit and as such the apples were of much higher quality. The percentage of first class fruit per crop jumped considerably, providing Sainsbury's consumers with tastier British produce for less.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many species of solitary bee are there?
There are more than 250 species of native solitary bee inBritain. A surprising number of solitary bees occur in gardens.
What use are solitary bees?
Solitary bees are more effective pollinators, bee for bee than honey bees.
How many Sainsbury's stores have bee hotels?
Bee hotels are currently at 110 of our stores and we hope to roll them out for many more, ask at your local store to see if they have a bee hotel.
Do solitary bees sting?
Yes, but they live a solitary lifestyle and don't create stores of honey so with nothing to defend they are not aggressive and very rarely sting unlike colony living honey bees.
Do pesticides harm the bee population?
There have been some reports that the decline of bees is the result of the use of pesticides, however, this research is not conclusive and the best independent experts have indicated that using modern pesticides with care and in accordance with the manufacturers label instructions are unlikely to harm bees. Sainsbury's operate a Pesticide Policy which requires our suppliers to minimise their use of pesticides and employ Integrated Crop Management (ICM) techniques. For more information on how we work with our suppliers, visit our ethical trading and working in partnership pages.
How do bee hotels help?
Solitary bees mostly appear in the spring around apple blossom time and lay an egg with a bundle of pollen in a small hole where the young will stay over winter till the next spring. Bee Hotels with their recycled cardboard tubes and bamboo canes provide the ideal habitat for the eggs to be laid in and so increase the chances of survival.
How can I tell if I have solitary bees in my garden?
Join the online communities at BWARS where members can help identify your bees - http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/bwars/
Bee image credits: Jeremy Early - www.natureconservationimaging.com