Bee walk on Norfolk farm creates a buzz
Bees, bees and yet more bees. Award-winning farmer Chris Skinner has been planting acres of special flowering plants to encourage the birds and the bees.
And numbers of the 15 species of bumblebees found on the family's farm are increasing year on year. Even after last winter's harsh winter, he has record numbers of bees foraging in his flower-rich fields.
And he is expecting more than 1,000 visitors to his south Norfolk farm to enjoying the rolling countryside on his four-mile 'bee' walks by the end of this month.
Mr Skinner, of High Ash Farm, Caistor St Edmund, near Norwich, who was runner-up in last year's Norfolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group's conservation competition, started planting specially-selected British native species in a 'pollen and nectar' mix.
The results have been outstanding. And on a sunny afternoon, with his son, Daniel, he counted 10 bumblebees per square metre actually foraging.
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'Each year the numbers are build-ing up. The workers die away in the autumn and the bumblebee queens hibernate as adults, unlike honeybees where a queen and workers go through the winter. The bumblebees start to emerge once the first flowers start producing pollen in the spring.
'That's why the numbers are increasing because I've got more and more bumblebees of each species, hibernating over the winter months. Even after the coldest winter last year, I've got record numbers,' said Mr Skinner, who farms about 500 acres including 80 acres of woodland.
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The key to success is planting a rich mix of species to last for as long as possible with a succession of flowering plants, ideally for about 16 weeks. 'I was looking at a piece of sainfoin and just before a brief shower it was swarming with bees,' he said.
He has even put up some nest boxes for solitary bees, the so-called mason bees. 'They collect mud alongside my swallows and house martins. It is amazing to watch them because they'll come back and fill in holes in the walls with mud,' said Mr Skinner, who has just seen house martins return for the first time to High Ash Farm for 10 years. 'And they've built two nests,' he added.
The pollen and nectar mixes work best with a succession of species over a long period, unlike oilseed rape which is much shorter. So he has plants including red and white clover, sainfoin, crystal vetch, yarrow and knapweed. 'We've been asked to help promote them and it is easy to do. Most farms have got little corners on the farm where not much happens. These mixes don't like highly fertilised soil but seem to prefer a sunny side near a wood.'
Usually, he plants an acre at a time or a half-hectare block for bumblebees. 'They're much more resilient insects which will work at a much colder temperature than a honey bee. They will work in the wind and have quite a good flight distance.
'It got boring growing 10 tonnes per hectare of wheat, it is really exciting to have wildlife back,' he added.
The bee walk, which takes about an hour and a half, starts from the car park of the Roman Town, with signs about every 200 metres. There are also five miles of permissive paths on the arable farm.