My View

Life can be sweet for golf

Warren Bader of Plan Bee™ shares his views on golf courses as havens for pollinators.

By Warren Bader

Keeping bees can benefit everyone  

Golf clubs lovingly tend their courses to create pristine conditions for golfers all the year round, but the daily upkeep needed to create and maintain them can come at great financial cost.  Growing awareness of environmental issues means that these courses are often seen by the public as ‘green deserts’ or, worse still, as dead landscapes that are treated with large amounts of chemicals and pesticides, requiring large amounts of machinery spewing out carbons - all to maintain the manicured status.

Like it or not, that is a part of the general public’s view of golf, but courses today offer real opportunities for the preservation of natural habitats and for creating new habitats in which animal and insects populations can survive and thrive. And they can be seen to be doing so.

People play golf for a variety of reasons, whether it’s to relax or play competitively, but importantly whilst on the course they are increasingly keen to engage with the natural world that surrounds them.

Among the most vital species in our ecosystem are the insect pollinators

The value of golf courses for promoting wildlife and ecosystems can either be greatly increased or seriously diminished by the actions and decisions of course managers.  Golf courses can provide safe havens for a range of wildlife through careful planning and partnerships and could be leading the advance for protecting many wildlife species.  Ongoing development of housing and commercial space, together with the demands of agriculture, means that urban and rural spaces are being lost or degraded. Golf courses can offer important places of refuge for wildlife.

Among the most vital species in our ecosystem are the insect pollinators. They are profoundly important to the health and well-being of our environment. Every third mouthful of our food has been made possible by pollinators.

These insects are crucial to the habitat and ecosystems that many other wildlife species depend on. Birds eat fruit and seeds, which in turn are pollinated by insects. Butterflies, flies, beetles and moths are all important pollinators but bees are the most industrious of all. A single bee can visit hundreds of thousands of flowers over its lifetime as it collects nectar and pollen, while pollinating flowers at the same time.

Plant communities are maintained by pollinators as an important resource for other wildlife species which rely on them for shelter and food. The disruption of plant communities in wildlife ecosystems has undeniable and serious long term implications both for wildlife and for people - not to mention for golf courses.

Pesticides, invasive plant species, fragmented habitats, forestry, shortage of housing, and the growing of monocultures of agricultural crops have all contributed to a decimation of the bee population.  So how can a golf course help to make a difference? Using out of play areas is the obvious choice, and courses can make a difference in two important ways:

Foraging Habitat: encourage a diverse range of native plants that provide nectar and pollen throughout different seasons. Use plants with a variety of colour; bees see in a spectrum of blues and ultraviolet, so they like blue, purple, violet, white and yellow. A range of different flower shapes means more nesting sites for bees and other insects, so create suitable ground conditions with felled wood, provide appropriate materials for the building of nesting sites, and bring in honey bee hives.

Stop using pesticides:  pesticides kill bees and insects, whilst herbicides kill off plant life, which reduce the diversity of foraging available. Use alternative methods to control competitive plants.
These are very simple and achievable goals.

Investing in hives can help combat the decline of honey bees

Encouraging more bees and pollinators onto your course will not increase the risk of golfers being stung. There may well be some resistance to the creation of pollinator habitat on course, but the areas where people congregate are unlikely to be suitable for bee conservation anyway. Out of play areas provide much better potential. Players are much more likely to be troubled by wasps attracted to food waste areas containing cans of soft drinks than by bees benefitting from enhanced foraging opportunities and habitat.

By creating safe havens for wildlife, new opportunities open up for engaging with local communities.  Hosting field trips for local schools to monitor the habitats can provide a unique opportunity to promote golf through educating children about the importance of insect pollinators. This 'return on involvement' in communities will help promote your club as a good neighbour, and show commitment to the biodiversity of your area. The costs are minimal compared to the long term benefits achieved through local community support.

The generation that’s in education now - your potential club members of the future – has a profound understanding and appreciation of the environment.

It’s a generation that is reluctant to engage with organisations that fail to show commitment to the environment or to good corporate citizenship.

Warren taking the message about pollinators to schools

Having hives of honeybees at a course offers the club an opportunity to harvest locally produced sustainable honey, which in turn can be used within the clubhouse for use in food preparation and servings, or sold to members. This further underpins a club's sustainability credentials.

Bees in all their different species are a key barometer of the environment, and at the moment this barometer is not looking good. The reality is stark. For their own survival, golf courses are heavily reliant on the future of their local ecology; without fresh air, water and the materials we harvest for wood, paper and our other needs, we simply will not have a golf industry in the future.

Plan Bee™ has been profiled by the European Commission as part of its Eco-Innovation Action Plan.  Read more here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.