A new study shows that the value of UK agriculture could increase by millions of pounds per year if thousands upon thousands of honeybee colonies were placed on solar parks throughout the country.
Scientists warn that managing solar parks for wild bees over honeybees is a good idea. However, it should be prioritized where possible and evaluated on a per-site basis.
Researchers from Lancaster University and University of Reading have quantified for the first-time the economic benefits and costs of installing honeybee colonies on solar parks in the UK.
As solar parks' contribution to electricity generation increases, solar parks play an increasing role in the national shift towards carbon neutrality.
Solar parks can take up large areas of land so it is important that you consider how they could be used to create other benefits for the environment or business.
There is an opportunity to place honeybee colonies on solar parks. Many solar parks are found in areas where there is intensive agriculture, and many of the wild pollinator habitats have been destroyed or degraded. Honeybee hives can be used to create ready-made pollinating armies that will increase crop yields in the surrounding farms. While some honeybees have been used to make solar parks, their potential economic benefits were not known.
To understand the location of solar parks, the research team used detailed maps of land cover, such as those created by Centre of Ecology and Hydrology. They also looked at crop rotations and distribution, data on honeybees and crop pollination needs, and crop values.
They also considered the cost of managing and installing the honeybee colonies on the solar parks.
The researchers used 2017 crop distribution patterns to determine that the use of honeybees in solar parks could have increased the yields by 5.9 million.
The study examined field crops like field beans, linseed, oilseed, top fruits like apples and pears, including varieties to make cider or perry, and soft fruits like strawberries, raspberries, and blackcurrants.
Because oilseed is widely cultivated, the results showed that honeybees would benefit England most from their installation. Soft fruits and strawberries would reap the greatest economic benefits per acre due to their high market value, high dependence on honeybee pollination, and high market appeal.
According to 2017 data, honeybees in solar parks could increase field crop yields up to 2.6 million, top fruits up to 1.3 million, soft fruit yields up over 1.9 million.
The findings also showed regional patterns. Values were highest in the east, south and west of England due to the higher production of soft fruits and oilseeds.
Researchers also discovered that if all UK crops were grown within a 1.5km radius of solar parks, this could increase the yields of those crops by 80 million per year. However, this scenario is unlikely due to other factors.
These findings suggest that soft fruit cultivation in the UK would be a priority if UK agriculture wants to maximize the economic benefits of honeybees on their solar parks.
Researchers are keen to emphasize that each solar park location must be evaluated for honeybee hives. Because not all areas, including their climates and soil types, are suitable for all crops and because farmers have different preferences about what and where to grow it. Different crops have different pollination requirements, so the results of the research team cannot be applied to all types and varieties.
It is important to take care that honeybees do not compete with wild pollinator species. Researchers also noted that wild pollinators could be more beneficial than honeybee colonies.
Alona Armstrong, Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University, and the lead author of this study, stated that "Managing solar parks to honeybees can have positive effects on crop yields, and so financial returns." It is crucial to assess the suitability of each site, as there are potential consequences for wild pollinators, and the benefits associated with managing biodiversity sites more generally.
Professor Simon Potts, University of Reading, co-author of this paper, said that "our study shows how multi-disciplinary research could find novel land management techniques which can simultaneously benefit energy producers and farmers, beekeepers, and consumers."
These findings will inform energy policy and future business cases for solar parks. They will also help to make sustainable investments and decision about how honeybees can be integrated into energy and land management.
These findings are presented in the paper titled "Honeybee Pollination Benefits Could Inform Solar Park Business Cases, Planning Decisions and Environmental Sustainable Targets", which was published by the journal Biological Conservation.
Alona Armstrong and Lauren Brown and Gemma Davies are the paper's authors. Simon Potts of University of Reading and Duncan Whyatt of Lancaster University are also involved.