Verging on success: how can we make our roads better for pollinators

Wednesday 6th March 2019

Roads. We’ve probably all been on one at some point in our lives. They are unavoidable. Whether it’s on the way to a pleasant day out, or on your daily commute, who knows how many thousands of miles of tarmac you’ve stared at? But how often do you notice the green stuff that runs alongside them? In the UK we have almost a quarter of a million miles of roads, and with them come their often overlooked side kick; the road verge.

Road verges are the strips of land that act as an interface between the road and the surrounding landscape. Some road verges, probably the ones you’re most likely to notice, are full of wonderful wildflowers; things like hogweeds, willowherbs and thistles creating a beautiful bouquet of whites, pinks and purples. Pollinators like bees, butterflies and hoverflies come to road verges to feed and whilst they’re there may even mate, lay eggs and look for somewhere to nest or spend the winter, especially if there are areas of bare ground and a variety of different habitats. This makes road verges an important habitat for wildlife.

By definition you cannot have a road verge without a road, and this is where we get into a bit of a jam, a traffic jam if you will… Traffic poses a real issue to insects as they can easily get squished whilst feeding on the road verge or when trying to cross the road. This is because nobody has taught insects to look left and right before crossing, and smaller butterflies in particular seem to have a love for danger as they cross very close to the tarmac. Thankfully though, due to the relatively high numbers of insects compared to other animals the risk posed from traffic isn’t likely to have a major impact. So we can all take a sigh of relief the next time we are driving past a beautiful verge.

Cars also cause pollution; from their exhausts but also from the wear and tear of car parts. This means that road verges are quite polluted, especially within the first few metres which in some cases could be the entire verge. An example of road verge pollutants are heavy metals, which can be harmful to plants and pollinators when present in high levels. We don’t actually know how polluted our road verges are, and so it is difficult to know whether road verge pollution is a problem for pollinators. Laboratory studies with pollinators have shown that eating heavy metals can cause death and reduced resistance to diseases, but also that our clever pollinators can find ways of avoiding eating the heavy metals. For example, some caterpillars poo them out, and some bumblebees will visit contaminated flowers less.

Parking the negatives, road verges have plenty to offer our wildlife so we mustn’t give them the red light. They can provide important habitats for pollinators in our landscape, and due to their linear nature, road verges may also play a role in connecting habitats; contributing to networks for nature – like B-Lines. To fully give the green light to pollinators using our road verges, we need to manage them better . Road verges tend to be managed at two extremes: they’re either cut too often, taking all the flowers away during the peak flowering times, or not cut enough, resulting in grasses and scrub taking over and swamping the wildflowers. The question therefore is not just to cut or not to cut, but when to cut. Cutting during the summer takes away all the food and can destroy eggs and larvae but is sometimes required for safety, and also helps to maintain grassland habitats. To create road verges that benefit pollinators at all stage of their lifecycle, we need to be steering management towards cutting before or after the key flowering and pollinator activity periods (March-September).

Keep your eyes peeled for a full report on the costs and benefits of road verges for pollinators, and make sure you tell your local councils and MPs about it so that they can help drive forward the changes we need to make road verges better places for pollinators.