Image for Conservationists are creating ‘superhighways’ for insects in the UK

Conservationists are creating ‘superhighways’ for insects in the UK

The B-Lines network aims to join the dots between meadow habitats, enabling pollinators and other wildlife to move freely between them

The B-Lines network aims to join the dots between meadow habitats, enabling pollinators and other wildlife to move freely between them

Roads and railways have made it easy for people to travel around the UK, but have had the precisely opposite effect for insects. Alongside housing developments, industrial sites and farms, transport infrastructure has fragmented insect habitats, leaving many pollinators marooned on shrinking islands of biodiversity. 

A new conservation project aims to address that by creating a network of wildflower superhighways across the UK. Ten years in the making, the B-Lines initiative was launched by the insect charity Buglife on Tuesday and has already generated interest from unexpected quarters. 

“Off the back of [the launch] we have had housebuilders ringing up asking how they can incorporate the network into housebuilding, so it could have a really positive effect,” said Buglife’s Paul Hetherington. 

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Buglife has spent the last decade mapping potential routes for the insect superhighway – often at considerable cost. Access to the land-use data needed to create the map cost around £2,500 per county, then there was the hours of time needed to collect the data and identify the best routes for insects. 

On first inspection the resulting map (pictured, below), looks like something the AA might have produced. But rather than roads, the red lines highlight proposed wildflower corridors that will join the dots between fragmented insect habitats and perhaps help, in a small way, to reverse the decline of the UK’s wildflower meadows. 

“Since around about the 1930s we have lost 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows in England and Wales,” said Hetherington. “To put that into perspective, that is a land mass roughly one and a half times the size of Wales – a massive amount of habitat has been lost.”

The B-lines network

A map of the B-lines network. Image: Buglife

Hetherington said the proposed highways are more like “stepping stones” than continuous corridors of flowers. And he told Positive News that if just 10 per cent of the proposed network comes to fruition, that could be enough to give the UK’s ailing insects a boost, and a route out of habitats that become too hot due to the climate crisis. 

“It can make a huge difference in mitigating declines,” Hetherington said.“The things that have really hammered pollinators, and bugs in general, are habitat loss, fragmentation of habitat, loss of connectivity of habitat, climate change and pesticides – this deals with everything except pesticides.” 

It could also, adds Hetherington, prevent interbreeding, which happens when insects are isolated in fragmented habitats. However, as he pointed out, it won’t address one of the main causes of bug declines in the developed world: the widespread use of pesticides. 

The B-lines network is not just a concept. Pilot sections have already been completed, including the South Wales B-Lines near Cardiff. 

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Buglife believes the network could help reverse the fortunes of the UK's ailing pollinators. Image: Emma Morgan

“Since that was done, there have been recordings of the shrill carder bee – one of our rarest bumblebees – in Cardiff town centre,” said Hetherington. “It hasn’t been seen there for a very long time, it has literally been confined to a few pockets of land around the country, so to have it back in Cardiff, I think shows that this connectivity can work.”

Another project near Bridgnorth, a town in Shropshire, is currently underway. It will see a 10-mile strip along both banks of the River Severn planted with wildflowers. “A lot of that is formerly arable land so there is a positive land change there,” noted Hetherington. 

And in Norwich, Buglife has been working with Network Rail to plant wildflowers along a one-mile stretch of track.

Anyone living along one of the proposed routes can get involved in the project. All they need to do is let their lawns grow, or even just create a small herb garden, which Hetherington likened to creating a “motorway service station for bees”.

Main image: Jonny Gios

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