Road verges could be havens for pollinators

Better-managed road verges can help boost pollinating insects, according to new research involving the University of East Anglia.

Pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies benefit from the plants and flowers in road verges, which form a network of “corridors” that provide food and shelter.

While there are downsides of living by the road, including exposure to pollution and the risk of being hit by vehicles, the researchers found that the benefits for insects far outweigh the costs.

The research was led by the University of Exeter, in collaboration with scientists at UEA, Cambridge, the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the conservation charity Buglife. It was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

The team of scientists reviewed more than 140 studies and found that verges can be dramatically improved for pollinators by measures such as creating flower-rich verges, reducing mowing and limiting the impacts of street lighting.

Since writing the review, verges have undergone quite a transition due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

PhD student Claire Wallace, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “There were lots of reports of road verges not being mown because councils and contractors weren’t operating as normal.

“This gave us a brief glimpse of the benefits of wilder verges for nature, with plants such as orchids popping up all over the place where they hadn’t been seen before.”

Lead author Ben Phillips from the University of Exeter said: “There is huge untapped potential to improve road verges for pollinators through management.

“In many cases, this involves mowing less, and at the right times, to increase flowers and reduce the amount of pollinators, eggs and larvae killed.

“We can help pollinators further by reducing impacts of road pollution.

“This includes light pollution, which can be addressed by limiting how long streetlights are switched on for, as these confuse nocturnal insects.”

Andrew Whitehouse, from Buglife, said: “Buglife’s B-Lines initiative has identified the lack of connected wildflower-rich habitats as a major contributor to the decline in our pollinating insects.

“This new research shows the potential that road verges have to help to reverse insect declines.

“By making small changes to the management of our road verge network, local authorities and others involved in road verge management can make a significant difference to support nature’s recovery.”

The results of the work support an ongoing campaign by conservation charity Plantlife to save wildlife on road verges.

‘Enhancing road verges to aid pollinator conservation: a review’ is published in the journal Biological Conservation on July 14, 2020.

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