A Little Knowledge…

I had a great weekend, brushing up my little knowledge. On Saturday I was at the mighty Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s (BBCT) members’ day in Cardiff, then yesterday had an equally engaging time at the Tree Conference in Frome. I heard a range of presentations, all give by people doing invaluable – and often unheralded – work.

We had two fascinating external speakers at the BBCT do. Andy Salisbury is the head entomologist at the RHS, and Liam Olds is an ecologist working for Buglife. The Trust’s own science supremo, Richard Comont, also spoke.

BBCT Members' DayAndy is the brains behind the work the RHS has been doing on plants for pollinators, which is still a project in progress. We’re now getting an idea about which plants different pollinators like. Liam has been looking at old coal tips in the south Wales valleys. They turn out to be extraordinary biodiversity hotspots. We’ve only recently begun to understand how important brown field sites can be. Richard – among other things – gave us the preliminary results from this year’s Bee Walk. This is the only data set of its kind. Established in 2008, it gives us a pretty good picture of what is happening to bumblebee populations, relying on figures from a growing band of trained volunteers re-walking the same transects.

Frome tree conferenceThe Tree Conference got me thinking, too. I loved Dr Martin Bidartondo, engaging expert on (impossible to spell) mycorrhiza. These are the underground fungi which are essential to trees, effectively extending their root systems and swapping sugar for minerals. Martin has started to map them across Europe – a Herculean task. His initial results are fascinating, and reinforce our understanding of the damage pollution is doing to our forests.

Lastly, Isabella Tree recapped some of the key themes of her recent book, Wilding. Isabella was the least unheralded of all the speakers! I’m a big – although not unreserved – fan of rewilding*, and it has arrived at the perfect time to influence debate on land use post Brexit and the dreadful Common Agricultural Policy. The big idea at Knepp – Isabella’s estate – is wood pasture. It’s amazing that this – in retrospect – obvious idea was only recently posited at all. Less than 20 years ago everyone thought historically forests were thick, dark and impenetrable, with closed canopies. Now we understand they were much more likely to be open patches of broadleaf woodland punctuated with pasture and scrub. A range of herbivores grazed and rootled around in them. Hugely biodiverse, hugely attractive and instantly appealing. This is a key idea, not least because of various large scale planting initiatives going on at the moment.

There was a theme running through all these presentations. These are all really important topics and areas of discovery. Which plants do we plant for which pollinators? How important are brownfield sites for wildlife? What are bee numbers doing? What is going on with fungi? What should a forest be? We are only now just starting to grope our way towards these answers.

What little knowledge we have about what happens outside our own back doors. How poorly resourced such work as we are doing is. I’ve felt this again and again over the last ten years. Ironically, we used to know the answers to many of these issues, but we have forgotten or ignored them. We now promote and pay for schemes with quick and high visual impact, often based on the wrong premise and often influenced by self-interested lobby groups.

Time is running out. We simply must focus on the science and throw money at it. Now.

*More on this anon.

How Not To Plant “Woodland”

There’s a great and commendable enthusiasm about tree planting in the UK. We know the reasons why. Every year, especially when the floods come, people talk about the need for more trees. Tree planting might even be part of a new post Brexit agricultural settlement. We need to be careful about it, though.

There has been a great boom in tree planting in Ireland. Apparently forests covered less than 1% of the country a hundred years ago. That figure is now over 10% – still low. The government plans it to reach 18% by 2046. Hurrah! There’s a problem, though. This isn’t really woodland. The new planting consists of Sitka spruce plantations. Currently, only 2% of forest cover is mixed broadleaf woodland.

Is this an issue?

You bet.

plantation monocultureSitka spruce hails from the Pacific northwest. It’s not a great fit with local Irish ecology. It grows vigorously, and – as in the UK – advice is to plant at a tree per 2 square metres. Nothing grows beneath its dense stygian canopy. Unlike native broadleaf woodland, this monoculture needs fertilisers and pesticides. Plantations are springing up in bogs and across meadows. They might sequester carbon, they might have commercial value, but in biodiversity terms they’re… unhelpful.

Planting regimental ranks of broadleaf trees isn’t ideal either. Dense woodland, with no sense of the effects of what ecologists call succession, is sub-optimal. We need lower density mixed species planting, with gaps. This could be achieved by using a wider range of native species and by more extensive selective felling in any planting scheme’s formative stages.

woodland pastureContrary to earlier thinking, the chances are that dense forests didn’t cover Europe before iron age man started clearance work. More likely is that grazing livestock, like auroch and boar, chomped and rootled clear areas. These enabled much greater diversity of tree species, along with other flora and fauna. You can imagine Oaks establishing themselves among stands of Blackthorn, then spreading out. Wildflowers growing in sunnier meadows. Mottled sunlight through the canopy playing on a rich understory. More managed landscapes used to mirror this approach, which is becoming talked about again through the rewilding movement.

We’re surrounded by vestigial “wood pasture” in this pocket of Somerset. I’d love to see it restored. We should put a commercial value on that, payable from the public purse if necessary, as (I hope) we will – finally – do for planting for flood prevention.

I’m probably just cavilling about tree planting styles. Planting rates in England continue to be disappointing. Management of many schemes is poor and deer wreck others. England only has similar tree cover to Ireland. The government’s (unfunded) targets look like pie in the sky.

We need more trees, in a hurry. We should, nonetheless, get maximum value from them. They have to be the right trees, planted and managed in the right way.

How to Choose Your Apple Trees

Choosing which apple trees to buy can look confusing.

Don’t worry.

Have a quick read before you just nip down to B&Q.

Size
Don’t muddle up the size of the plants you buy, with their size once they reach maturity.

First off, let’s talk about how big they will grow to. Will grow to. Apple trees are not grown from seed. In order to keep them true to type, they are grown from a cutting (“scion”). The scion is grafted on to a “rootstock”, which determines how big the tree will grow. It also accelerates its fruiting. Different rootstocks give you different terminal sizes of tree. We mostly sell apple trees on two, MM106 (or “M106”) and M25 (not the motorway).
M25 will give you a tree up to 6m tall after 10 years. It’s the size we see in Somerset in traditional cider orchards. These trees spread to over 5m, so need to be planted from 6 to 8 metres apart. They need relatively little management, but will need harvesting with a ladder!
MM106 is the size we sell most of for gardens. This rootstock will produce a tree up to around 4m, with the same sort of spread. Reckon on planting 4 – 5m apart.

Apple trees
Old Orchard. Lovely.
We usually sell apple trees as maidens – that is, one year old “whips” which look not much more than sticks. We also sell 2 – 3 year old “bush” plants, which have had some pruning. Generally, the smaller trees are when they’re planted, the quicker they will get going, the better they will establish and the longer they will live. They’re better value too, particularly when you take into account the haulage and planting costs of bigger plants, which will also need staking. Normally, fruit trees on the rootstocks we use won’t need support other than a cane initially.
People do sometimes want older trees, however, which are sometimes possible to find. Usually it’s because they want fruit quickly. You will have a reasonable crop of apples from a tree which is 5 or 7 years old if a tree is on MM106 or M25. The bigger the tree will grow to, the longer it will take to fruit.

Use

Choosing your apple tree - cider
Cider Ahoy!
What do you want your trees for? Remember that mature apple trees will produce a lot of apples. A lot. You may want to keep them for eating, or turn them into juice. You might want to make your own cider, or have penchant for vast quantities of apple crumble. Apple come in three types; cookers, eaters and cider apples. Some varieties will do two jobs, but probably less well than a specialist. If you’re going to make juice, you can use a combination.
Some folk sometimes get round to harvesting their apples at all, and just like the blossom. Fair enough – you can find some really beautiful varieties.

Pollination

Choosing Your Apple Tree
Crab Apple ‘Dartmouth’. A Beauty.
People can really get their knickers in a twist about pollination. Fruit trees generally need another compatible tree nearby to facilitate pollination and, thence, fruiting. By “compatible”, it also has to be an apple tree, and one which is flowering at the same time. A few trees are even “triploid”, meaning they need two other cultivars. If this sounds like a palaver, these varieties have a lot going for them, so can be worth persevering with. “Normal” trees will just need one friend. This should be a tree in the same or adjacent pollination group – i.e. it will be in flower at the same time. If you’re in any doubt just buy a crab apple; they flower for ages and will pollinate virtually any apple. Something like ‘Dartmouth’. Lovely blossom too. And there’s the jelly.

Geography & History
Apples are part of our history. No, really. You can still buy a descendant of Isaac Newton’s apple tree. Many areas of the UK have their own apple tree varieties, sometimes properly old, which will have done particularly well there. Hereabouts in Somerset we are surrounded by cider trees, which flourish in our heavy clay and wet, warm winters. There are lovely eaters further east which do well in lighter soils and lower rainfall. It’s worth doing some research to find out if you have a local apple, and seeing if you can at least squeeze it in somewhere.
Changing weather patterns in particular mean it’s not impossible to grow heritage varieties in non traditional areas though. We grow apples from East Anglia, which do pretty well.
Don’t be afraid to chose old varieties. If you can only find them to buy with difficulty, it doesn’t mean that they’ve fallen out of favour not because they taste bad. Generally it’s because they don’t travel or store well, or look odd. Maybe they don’t crop reliably or heavily. Does that worry you? These are some of the most trouble free, beautiful, healthy trees you can find.

We Are 10!

Amazingly, Habitat Aid is 10 years old. It started off as what now looks like a lunatic plunge into the unknown. I’d had 30+years in the City and needed another career. I was a keen but strictly amateur naturalist and gardener/smallholder. I think people thought I was having a midlife crisis (probably) or that I’d made so much money it didn’t matter (weak laughter). We downsized dramatically. To the surprise of most the business has kept food on the table and, more importantly, done some good things. Anyway, our tenth anniversary has given me an excellent opportunity to go off on one…

Native planting
Hedge and copse scheme, Cambridgeshire
I wish I’d kept tabs on what we’ve given away to charities and community projects, how many acres of wildflower meadows or orchards we’ve had a hand in, or seed packets, or numbers of ponds, or miles of hedges. Wildflower meadows are now particularly dear to my heart. Largely unprotected, almost completely destroyed, our most diverse and attractive habitat. I think the biggest meadow site we’ve seeded is over a hundred acres. Wildly exciting.

Plan Bee seedsMost aspects of what we do have been very satisfying, not least helping our network of suppliers, many of whom have been with us since we started. We have made some modest progress in changing minds, like promoting local provenance meadow seed, for example. People have been very supportive, from David Attenborough to an appreciative pupil from a Primary school in County Durham (thank you for the letter, Lucy). Thanks everyone, not least my long suffering wife!

Wildflower meadow
Meadow Creation Project, North Somerset
This keeps me going; sometimes, as you can imagine, it can be difficult. I do wish we were having a wider impact. The business is still pretty modest, and we find it difficult to be heard. Projects are complicated and can go wrong (don’t tell!). People don’t pay much for plants and seed, and can find them baffling. Selling online seems to
Our social media efforts are improving!
be more and more difficult for small companies who don’t want to use Amazon. Social media audiences follow enthusiastic and luminous personalities. Folk have odd ideas. Things get weird very quickly. TBH I’m hopeless at it. One of the reasons we set up Habitat Aid was to get across sound information on how to try and improve our natural environment. Worthy but dull on Facebook. Hopeless.

Although we know more about what’s happening in our own back garden than we did 10 years ago, it’s still remarkably little. Some of the charities we support are working hard to change that, but we’re still blundering around in – at best – the twilight. Our understanding of what we’re doing to the natural environment here remains depressingly sketchy.

The conservation lobby is often at loggerheads with other interest groups. I’m delighted to see a new activism abroad, like the recent People’s Walk for Wildlife and various online petitions. I’m uncomfortable though about the confrontational element of some of this stuff, and the over-simplification and sensationalising (is that a word?) of complicated real world issues. For example, banning neonicotinoids on its own isn’t going to “save our bees”. Don’t get me wrong. I think banning them is a very good thing and was very overdue – but bees have other problems too. We continue to find out how many. We’re also finding out how many other impacts neonics have too. In the meantime farmers are flooding their oilseed rape fields with pyrethroid based pesticides instead. Specialist evidence based conservation charities really struggle to put across complicated messages without compromising them.”Personalities” or campaigning groups often eclipse them, too.

NGOs are, however, getting better at persuading people that wildlife friendly can also be people friendly. Most are also engaging better with the real world, although there are a couple of ivory towers out there which need to be bazooka-ed. It must be a concern to them, however, that their supporters continue to be overwhelmingly white middle class folk of a certain age, from outside urban areas. It’s a symptom of “nature deficit disorder”, I guess. There’s also shifting baseline syndrome to fight among the younger generation.

Lastly there’s the commercial sector. Retailers sell lots of THINGS to try replace degraded habitat. Bee boxes, bird boxes, hedgehog boxes, bat boxes, dormice boxes, hibernacula, bird feeders, even bumblebee colonies.* This all just widens people’s disconnectedness with nature. Together with the over-simplification of key messages they are encouraged to think that nature is easily and cheaply replaceable. They’re not looking at it either. Our efforts to get people to take pleasure in the small things – a new butterfly in the garden, a new plant in the meadow – generally fall on deaf ears. I still run into far too much greenwash in the corporate sector at large. Perhaps naively I think this is often down to ignorance.

I’ve become increasingly suspicious of government, although encouraged by the Blue Planet effect. This means that – for the first time ever – the environment will win votes. Best of all, it might win votes among the under 25s. This realisation just might drive a good environmental deal post Brexit, although as this will mean short term cost and higher food prices the jury is still firmly out. At the least, we should get improved biosecurity and wave goodbye to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Rainbow over Alfred's TowerThis is apparently my 362nd blog. There does now seem to be a wider understanding that something is needed to reverse what Chris Packham calls an “ecological apocalypse” here. There are more active efforts being made to that end, like rewilding. Much hasn’t changed over the previous 361 blogs, though. We still worry about animals like hedgehogs much more than we do about the drivers behind their decline. These are common to many, many other species. Biodiversity loss is still the Cinderella of the Green movement, which is much more concerned about energy and sustainability. We still spend peanuts on it, least of all on the poor souls slaving away in this area – or in horticulture generally, come to that.

I’m still convinced that the way to improve biodiversity here is by recreating and rejoining (as best we can) destroyed and splintered natural habitats. This not only means huge changes to the way we use and value land here, but also getting people to see the benefits of habitat creation. It can be beautiful and wildly exciting (sorry! – Ed.).

*Plants and seed sellers often pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. “Wildflower seed” in particular could be anything from anywhere and often fails. Retailers seem to sometimes actively encourage people’s confusion; between actual and other sorts of “meadows”, and the provenance of plants, for example.

September in the Garden

Things are beginning to look knackered in the garden in September. You might think it’s time to cut back some of those long flowering perennials which have done such good duty over the summer. Don’t!
Mid September is late season for insects. Late butterflies, honeybees* and glossy new queen bumblebees are feeding on the sedum, but most of the summer’s excitement is past. Wildlife gardening books urge you to keep any ivy, which is an invaluable source of late nectar too.
I was impressed though to discover our geraniums buzzing with action yesterday. That’s geraniums, not pelargoniums – there’s sometimes a confusion. Among other varieties we have ‘Rozanne’, which has become a ubiquitous favourite in garden centres over the last few years. It has a nice habit and, unlike our native meadow cranesbill, goes on and on… and on. Not only did we have some lovely but familiar visitors on it today, but we also had something rather special…
Butterfly on geranium The Small Copper is a pretty little butterfly that you can see about into October in a good year. This is most likely its fourth – and last – generation of this summer, before it overwinters in its larval stage and pupates in April. It’s pretty widespread across the UK and a common site in our garden.
Geranium and honeybee Honeybees seem to love geraniums. Their open flowers are ideal for the bees’ flat short tongues, and they have been working them for most of the summer. The bees are busy finishing stocking up now ahead of winter. Their colony is beginning to contract and there are fewer brood to provision.
Common carder bee This is a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). She’s looking a bit ragged at this end of the summer. There are only a few worker bumblebees around now, and their nests are breaking up as the new queens fly off. By the way, you can see her longer tongue very clearly in the photo.
And now… the unexpected… Colletes hederae, the Ivy Bee. This chap is rare enough that I had to check the ID with my solitary bee guru Stuart. They’ve only been in the UK since 2001, and it’s highly unusual to find them inland from the south coast.
Geranium and Colletes hederae They look a bit like honeybees at first glance – very smart – and fly quickly. It’s very late in the season for a solitary bee, but that’s because their main source of pollen is… ivy. Apparently they nest in south facing banks; I would love to find out where this one came from.
Colletes hederae We’ve had several notable sightings of rare species in the garden this year. It has been really exciting, if I’m being honest, and a great illustration of what we can all expect if we create diverse and appropriate habitat. Even in the garden in September. Plant it and they will come, you might say.

*which occasionally get picked off by a passing hornet

National Honeybee Day: What We Need To Know

Dear Journalist

Thank you SO much for writing about National Honeybee Day. To declare my interest, as a long time beekeeper, I do love honeybees. The Day was originally an American thing, and is celebrated on the 3rd Saturday of August (this year, the 18th). I’m not sure why. Anyway, it’s a fab opportunity to inform people about honeybees. So let’s do that.

In which spirit, can I suggest some helpful guidelines for your supportive article? I appreciate that – particularly due to fake news and cuts in the newsroom – you might not be fully up to speed on honeybees.

National Honeybee Day
I am a hard working honeybee
Firstly, please do make sure you know what a honeybee is. Is it a bumblebee? Is it a solitary bee? If no to either question, what’s the difference?

Secondly, are you absolutely sure that without honeybees mankind will end in four years? Who actually said this? Is it even a teensy weeny bit credible? Is mentioning it worth the bee truth squad coming over? I would really, really prefer it if I didn’t have to send them round.

Thirdly, are global honeybee populations going up or down? Why? Are honeybee populations in the UK going up or down? Why? What is the outlook? What is their history here?

Fourthly, what is happening to bumblebees and solitary bees? WHICH ARE NOT HONEYBEES*. But I’d be interested to know about them. How important are they? Also other pollinators, come to think of it.

Last off, what are we doing to help honeybees? What can we do to help? Don’t just tell us which flowers to grow, although that’s helpful. We all want to do more than just *Like* National Honeybee Day, and we understand they are going through tough times. And please, please not the sugar water thing. That will get you more than a brief enforcement visit.

“Awesome”. Thanks.

*Sorry to labour the point, but it seems necessary.

When and How to Cut Your Wildflower Meadow

Many of the failures we see – when a wildflower meadow reverts to grass – are due to poor cutting regimes. People tend to be rather nervous about mowing. It can be difficult to cut a meadow when you see all sorts of wildlife still enjoying it. Remember, though, that wildflowers are resilient and low growing. They’ll enjoy cutting, as it keeps the sward open and surrounding grasses under control. Cutting will also control encroaching scrub. You won’t take out over-wintering insect eggs and grubs. It’s too late to impact on ground nesting birds. The right cutting regime will increase the flower species in your wildflower meadow, extending its flowering period. Appropriate approaches will of course vary from site to site – it can get complicated! – but here is our general guide.

Darter and Oxeye Daisy seedhead
Must You Cut My Meadow Now?
When to Cut?
The ideal timetable for cutting a meadow for wildlife and cutting one for hay is different. Generally, managing for biodiversity means you will cut later, producing stalky hay.

In the FIRST year of establishment you do cut earlier and then cut often over the rest of the summer/autumn, to ensure maximum plant diversity. If there are no annuals in the seed mix this can be from June, otherwise from mid July, after they have set seed. An early cut will also whack the flush of annual weeds which may appear.

Over time, though, this would remove attractive and useful later flowering species – here we have knapweed, wild carrot and Devil’s-bit scabious. On the other hand, if you leave cutting too late the grass will have gone over and will be very difficult to cut effectively at all. You will lose wildflower species if you do this too, as the grass will take over and form an impenetrable thatch. Sometimes the weather has a say as well – it can rain all August!

We’d generally say cut an established wildflower meadow in sections from the end of July, leaving several days between each to encourage diversity. Definitely finish before the end of August. This will encourage more diversity but stop the grasses dominating.

Unfortunately we can’t follow this advice ourselves as I have to hire the mowing kit! Depending on the weather, we cut in one go in the first half of August. Many of the later flowering plants have set seed (to the birds’ delight!), and the grass is usually still workable. Steel yourself; whenever you cut your wildflower meadow there will be something in flower.

Cut your meadow
Cut Me Now!
What to Cut?
As above, don’t cut everything at once. Or, in fact, don’t cut everything; leave some tussocky messy grass margins, only cutting them every two years or so. Some animals – like crickets – will be enjoying the long grass into September. Bumblebees need tussocky grass for their nests. Voles need this kind of habitat to rootle about in, so owls like it. You’re allowed to make some other minor exceptions too. We have a particularly good small area of knapweed; I scythe it around the end of August.

How to Cut?
I do love my scythe, but I’m not Poldark and if I scythed our two acres of wildflower meadow it would take me days of work and I would end up in A&E. Scything is great if you can manage it, though. You won’t accidentally kill anything and you don’t have to fire up anything mechanical. You can manage your cutting over time. If you do have to use a machine, the best solution is to find something which does “cut and collect”. Failing that, you can get small bailers which will work off tractors and collect and bail the arisings from your hay cut. We hire a mower with a simple cutting deck, and collect all the hay by hand. If it’s wet we have to turn it to help dry it out. It’s a pain.

Whatever you go for, it’s very important that you collect the hay you cut and remove it (ideally let it rot down somewhere). This reduces soil fertility, and opens up the sward for your wildflowers. Make sure when you mow, incidentally, that you don’t go round and round, squashing panicked animals into a smaller and smaller area.

Fleabane pollinator plant
Fleabane and Common Blue
After the Cut?
Continuing to pretend you’re a Medieval peasant, imitate sheep (if you don’t actually have them). Mow (or lightly graze) the “aftermath”. Continue to keep the sward short over the winter until March. The amount of mowing you will have to do depends on soil fertility, the weather, and your own preference. Ideally remove any cuttings when you mow. Simples.

Make sure you have other plants in flower through the rest of August and September, in other areas. The wildflowers we have en masse for this are in our swales – fleabane and purple loosestrife, both brilliant forage plants for a wide range of pollinators.

Things Fall Apart

From time to time I used to suffer from what doctors call “anxiety” – I guess a form of mild depression, which I’ve learnt how to manage over the years. I’m now feeling something rather different and rather more alarming; a sense of foreboding.

We’re in one of our favourite places – Italy – for a few days. I’m writing on a sunny terrace with glorious views of violet hills, against a soundtrack of sparrows. There are clouds of butterflies about and – later this evening – a mob of unruly swifts will close the day.

We have lost all these things at home.

We have the odd swift, the odd sparrow. A hot dry summer will be good for our beleaguered butterflies, and I can hear people saying now that they seem to have turned the corner where they are, etc. etc.. Nature friendly farmers tell me how much they’re doing for wildlife. Enthusiasts click on online campaigns. The numbers remain pretty awful though. Biodiversity has collapsed in the UK and many species numbers are still in sharp decline. The short story is that there is still no concrete strategy in place to reverse this.

I’m sure, too, that many will say that the recent weather – all over the world – is just weather, and nothing to do with global warming. In any event, people still don’t care enough about global warming to even list it in their top 10 concerns at the ballot box. As one who has canvassed with spectacularly poor results around Langport in the Somerset Levels this is something I know at first hand. The U.S. Administration, of course, doesn’t even acknowledge climate change exists.

My concern about these two things – mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change – have, to be honest, marked me out as a bit odd among my friends. Even more bizarre for them has been my trying in a practical way to do something about them in the UK over the last 10 years.

This has been very depressing. It’s not too much of a stretch to see people’s lack of reaction to the rise of populism (is this the right label?) as similar. Right wing extremists are murdering our MPs, elements of the Press are calling the senior judiciary and our Prime Minister “traitors”. Both Left and Right are polarised; it’s a type of politics familiar from the Europe of the interwar years. The current struggle in politics is not between Left and Right; it’s between the Centre and extremists. Our political class is manifestly failing us – not just in the UK, of course – and destroying public confidence in our institutions. Doubly concerning, this is coming at a terrible time to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will fuel extreme political views.

Why do I have to be an eccentric / snowflake if I am doing things about stopping climate change, mass extinctions and neo-fascists/Stalinists?

There are (some, at least!) bright, well meaning people in parliament, of different political persuasions, who need to completely refocus their agendas. We ALL have to get involved. In a hurry.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B.Yeats

Bees And Sugar Water – A Story Of Our Times

What do bees have to do with sugar water? When I was a child I used to rescue bumblebees trapped in the house and plonk them on a flower in the garden. They’d take a sip of nectar and invariably revive. A saucer of sugar and water is apparently the modern version. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust says you can particularly help Queens in winter this way. Of course, many of the workers you might see struggling on the ground in summer can only briefly be revived – they are most likely on the way out anyway. That’s true with bells on for honeybees. Beekeepers sometimes feed them inside their hives with a sugary syrup, to bump up their food supplies over the winter.

So far so good, but this is where it starts to get weird.

Someone pretending to be David Attenborough put a post on a Facebook Page with some – ahem – what you might call “alternative facts” about bees. It also included the claim that “tired” bees can be revived and will return to their “hive” after a reviving sugary water cocktail. I say “hive” in inverted commas as I’ve only ever seen this done with bumblebees, which of course have nests. Anyway, this is what the page offered by way of advice to help bees. It has been shared half a million times (and counting!). Country Living, Heart FM, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and even Radio Four* are reporting the story as if it did actually come from Sir David. Blimey, the power of Attenborough, even pseudo Attenborough!

Judging by the comments, soon everyone who reads this post is putting out saucers with sugary water in. They’re not interested in the right flowers, or nest sites for bees, or not using pesticides. All they care about is Sir David’s sugar and water. Some top up their sugar water every morning. Others take things to another level and buy sugar water feeding stations.

This is all very odd, but offers some useful lessons.

I get terribly depressed by the Press. They endlessly plead with us to support them, as they report with veracity. I don’t know much about much, but there have been a couple of recent stories (this and, less surprisingly, a Daily Mail report on Climate Change) which I absolutely know have included falsehoods. These stories have been widely circulated and have done damage by promoting an – at least – unhelpful agenda. In this instance the story accompanying the sugar and water advice was alarmist and completely wrong.

Does this matter? After all, its good to get people engaging with bees, surely. It’s a small thing anyway. Yes it really, really does matter.

Firstly, I have an issue with warnings about impending ecological apocalypses, as I have written before. People hide under the kitchen table. They get apocalypse fatigue. Worse, they don’t like it when they’re told there’s an apocalypse coming and it doesn’t. For the record, yes, bumblebee and solitary bee numbers crashed in the back end of the twentieth century and they’re broadly speaking under pressure, with some species in really worrying decline.

Secondly, the page isn’t written by David Attenborough. Its author is doubtless well meaning, but whoever it is, it’s not him. This kind of thing undermines his credibility and the credibility of any other authority. Not to say Facebook’s – if it has any. People absolutely believe David Attenborough is writing the stuff on this page.

Bee sugar waterMy last complaint is more subtle but just as important. People are increasingly removed from the natural environment. This is why giving bees sugar and water is a much more appealing message for them than giving them nectar and pollen via the right sorts of flowers. We must do everything we can to reconnect people to this sort of relationship, not distance them further from it. You’re really not helping if you pave over the flowerbeds in your front garden and put a saucer of sugar and water out instead. Growing wildflowers is one way to go. Growing the right kind of garden flowers even in a small planter really helps and isn’t difficult either. It is itself a great pleasure.

*I had an apology from the BBC, and this now on their website:

In the introduction to a Nature Notes item about bees we referred to a Facebook post from Sir David Attenborough. However we quoted from a fan page on Facebook and not a site connected with Sir David personally. We should not have quoted the remarks or its statements about bee populations. We apologise for the error.

TBH, I’m not sure how many of the half a million who shared the post might read this. Interestingly though the FB page has disappeared, apparently at the BBC’s behest. They apparently have a hotline to FB to ask for this sort of thing. I wish we did.

The Green Economy in the UK… What’s Missing

According to Wikipedia, the green economy is one which “aims at reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and… aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment.” I went to a celebration of it this week, hosted by Business Green.

The Green EconomyWe’d been shortlisted for an award and I had a cracking night. The food was great and the wine flowed. Fab people and inspiring stories. Lots of enthusiastic young, and a lot of companies represented. There were 25 awards, and a short list of 136 finalists for them, ranging from large household names to small companies like us*. There was a real buzz and enthusiasm about the evening. We heard a lot about low carbon, zero emissions, renewable energy, battery storage, energy efficiency, clever building, recycling, and sustainability generally. Business Green is a good publication, and they’d taken a lot of care to host a very enjoyable event. They launched their Net Zero Now campaign on the night, which helps business and government develop net zero emission strategies.

There was, however, something missing.

It’s something which is generally missing from events like these. Given the rest of the evening it almost seems churlish to mention it, but I just have to. It’s the ecological scarcities bit of Wikipedia’s definition. Biodiversity loss didn’t get a look in.

In fairness, there was an award for Best Environmental Awareness Campaign. This did include one project which seemed to be about ecology. That meant that 2 out of the 136 finalists were directly concerned with reversing biodiversity loss – including us, who are so small we don’t really count!

This is entirely typical of the green economy in the UK. Reversing biodiversity loss just isn’t a priority; not for government, NGOs, policy wonks, business, and specialist media. Climate change and sustainability generally completely dominate their agendas. I suspect in years to come this will be as baffling to most people as it is to me now.

*no, of course we didn’t win. I was thrilled to be on a shortlist, though.