Solar farms creating a buzz

This post is a contribution from Gill Perkins, Conservation Manager at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

There is growing evidence supporting the opportunity for solar farms to help reverse declining bee species, as well as a range of other flora and fauna. Last year, we partnered with Solarcentury to enhance the prospects of Britain’s bumblebees, including the rarest Shrill Carder and the Brown-Banded Carder species.

Thanks to Solarcentury’s seeding efforts – each solar farm it builds is sewn with native seeds supplied by Habitat Aid – there are now a range of plant species flourishing at solar farms around England and Wales that are helping to reinvigorate bee species. The opportunity for solar farms to become biodiversity hotspots is detailed in guidance launched earlier this year, backed by the BBCT and several leading UK conservation charities. It contains research from independent ecologist Dr Guy Parker who found that many bee species benefit from the diversity of light and shade that solar arrays provide. And in years to come, the BBCT’s own annual monitoring will hopefully add to this evidence supporting the idea that solar farms can help reinvigorate pollinators.

Bumblebees love the dappled shaded conditions created by solar panels. In fact, the variety of dry and wet and shaded and sunny areas, if properly planted and managed, can encourage a much wider variety of fauna than improved grassland. Crucially they can also provide safe nesting and hibernation sites for bumblebees. And since many solar farms lie undisturbed by human interference, solar farms can be safe wildlife havens capable of supporting a range of thriving species.

To help raise awareness for the potential of solar farms to become wildflower meadows that can increase the quantity and quality of foraging habitats for bumblebees, the BBCT took part in this year’s first ever Solar Independence Day. On July 4th, a couple of our dedicated volunteers headed down to one Hampshire solar farm to meet with local people interested in understanding more about the solar farm in their community. Commenting about the Day, the volunteers said:

“This was our first visit to a fully operational solar farm and it was great to learn more about the opportunity for biodiversity at solar farms and how they can help reverse declining bee populations. We explained our BeeWalk initiative, a national recording scheme, to local residents and local councillors, all of whom were very supportive of our work to improve bumblebee populations. Partnering with Solarcentury last year has helped raise awareness about how solar farms can be species-rich wildlife havens, capable of supporting a range of attractive micro-habitats.”

We are pleased to be working with Solarcentury for the next year and will hopefully continue the partnership beyond 2015. Establishing a bumblebee survey scheme at solar farms will enable us to measure the effectiveness of habitat management plans so that the impact on bee populations can be accurately evaluated. Reversing the plight of the bumblebee is critical because, as naturalist Chris Packham spells out, “Bumblebees do an essential job which many people take for granted. If bumblebees continue to decline then we face ecological turmoil.”