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Title: Effectiveness of UK agri-environment schemes in supporting cavity-nesting solitary bees
Author: Gresty, Catherine
ISNI:       0000 0004 7230 3270
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2017
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Bees provide a vital pollination service to many important crops and wildflowers yet are experiencing population declines across European and North American agricultural landscapes. The conservation of bee communities on farmland is a priority of the UK agri-environment schemes, which support pollinators through the provision of natural and semi-natural habitat, foraging resources and nesting sites. Data are needed to evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions in supporting bee communities and to allow the refinement of effective, evidence-based policy. This thesis examines the effectiveness of agri-environment management, though the provision of natural habitat, foraging resources and nesting sites, in supporting solitary bees, an important group of pollinators of which there are 250 species in the UK. Cavity nesting solitary bees and wasps were surveyed on 19 farms situated across central southern England, ranging from farms under no agri-environment scheme, to farms showcasing higher-level agri-environment management. Data on bee and wasp communities was collected by deploying solitary bee nest boxes. These nest boxes are marketed widely as nesting resources for solitary bees and are provided to farmers as part of Higher Level agri-environment schemes. Over the course of the study, 4002 solitary bees and wasps, comprising 10 species, were recorded. Natural Habitat: A positive relationship was identified between the abundance and species richness of bees and wasps and the proportion of natural habitat across farms. The availability of natural habitat also had a positive influence on the structural stability of bee and wasp parasitism networks; a positive association was identified with network link density. Link density measures the mean number of links per species within a network. Higher measures of link density are believed to confer greater resilience to species loss as individuals have more flexibility to switch interaction partner, limiting the risk of a cascade of secondary species extinctions. This set of results is encouraging, suggesting that the natural habitat types being promoted are effective in supporting solitary bee and wasp communities. Foraging resources: Examination of bee foraging preferences, through next generation sequencing of brood cell pollen DNA, demonstrated that the agri-environment scheme sown wildflower mixes do not support the foraging requirements of solitary bees effectively. Of the 15 plants included currently in the wildflower mixes that were recorded as present on the study farms, pollen from only one species, Ranunculus acris, was used by the bees. Rosa canina was identified as the most popular forage plant. The leaves of this species are also a preferred nesting material for Megachile leafcutter bees, providing strong justification for the inclusion of R. canina within the selection of hedgerow plants encouraged by agri-environment schemes. Tripleurospermum inodorum and Trifolium repens were also identified as good candidates for inclusion in wildflower seed mixtures. Nesting sites: A strong positive relationship between the density of solitary bee nest boxes and the rate of brood cell parasitism was identified, indicating that a high local density of nest boxes may expose bee larvae to a higher risk of parasitism. An enhanced risk of larval mortality could counteract the benefit of additional nest site provision. No significant effect of nest box provision on nest box colonization was identified across these study sites, suggesting that their placement across landscapes to encourage more pollinators may be counter-productive. It would be prudent to advise, given the results of this study, for the provision of a small number of dispersed nest boxes, this might more accurately mimic the availability of nesting resources in nature and reduce the risk of enhanced parasitism rates.
Supervisor: Lewis, Owen T. ; Willis, Katherine J. Sponsor: Christopher Welch Scholarship
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Ecology ; Pollinator Conservation ; Agri-Environment Schemes ; Solitary Bees