Tackling Pollinator Declines

Pollinator Engagement
All About Bees

An interesting day in London last week, at a meeting to discuss the decline in pollinating insects. There were some interesting and highly competent folk there and some interesting initiatives, although it seemed to be entirely bee related. Also, tellingly, I was the only person there from the commercial sector. Again. This lack of engagement between the commercial sector and NGOs and academics is hopeless.

 

Random take aways? Not too gloomy, as it turns out.

  • Pollinator numbers don’t seem to be as declining as fast as they were in the 1970s and 1980s – thank goodness. Declines then seem to be linked to pesticide use and collapse in wild red clover populations due to changing farm practices.
  • Weirdly, although we don’t know much about what is happening in the UK about pollinators, we know more than nearly everyone else about what’s happening in their own countries.
  • Managed honeybee numbers globally seem to be increasing, but in the UK reflect weather, disease, and the availability of forage.
  • Bumblebee survival seems to be directly related to quality of habitat.
  • Local councils could easily do a lot more to encourage biodiversity, reduce park management costs, reduce CO2 emissions and engage local communities. Good things happening here.
  • “Wild bees” seem to suffer from honeybee diseases related to varroa.
  • Yes, pesticides are a hell of a problem. 40% of honey at the recent Apimondia show was rejected because of impurities. Yuk.

Tell Me About My Wildflower Seed

I spent a fascinating day at Kew yesterday listening to lectures on wildflower seed. It was hosted by NASSTEC, a hopelessly complicated acronym for the even more complicated Native Seed Science Technology and Conservation Initial Training Network. This is an EU funded project to find out about who is doing what in the world of native plant seeds, and to share that information. Very worthwhile it has been too.

One of the interesting topics that came up yesterday was an old bugbear of mine – certification and seed quality. If you buy a wildflower seed mix you want to know:
1. That the seed in it is what it says on the packet
2. Where it’s from
3. That it can germinate
I don’t think this is unreasonable!

Weirdly, however, I don’t have to tell you any of that on the packet. The seed might be from Vladivostock, it could be 10 years old and might just be grass seed. I have my supplier’s assurance about its origin and quality, but that’s all. We randomly test some seed mixes ourselves, but it’s an expensive business and so we can only test a tiny number of batches.

Not declaring anything about seed origin and quality suits the less scrupulous. Producers can use non-viable seed bought in from outside the UK, or different species than are in the specification. Resellers can store seed in inadequate conditions for years until selling it to you. As incredibly, there’s no standard protocol that wildflower seed producers are obliged to follow. There are no guidelines about storage, for example – different producers use different regimes as to humidity and temperature.

Whatever the reasons, there’s clearly a problem with the germination rates and content of some seed mixes supplied by some folk. Sadly I think this situation might suit them; it was notable that in a room full of academics, ecologists and specialist seed producers that I was the only seed reseller.

I would guess that the overwhelming proportion of wildflower seed mixes sold to retail buyers are poor quality and of dodgy origin. They’re too cheap to suggest otherwise. They often look peculiar. They sometimes include agricultural cultivars and odd surprises. Specialist wildflower seed producers and harvesters only seem sell around 5% of their seed to individuals*, but it feels that the total amount of wildflower seed being produced by these guys is very small compared to the total volume sold. There are only around 10 specialist producers in the UK, and most of these are tiny.

The market is so opaque that some resellers don’t even tell customers that they’re not actually producing the seed they sell themselves.

Vive La Difference!
It won’t surprise you that this state of affairs is unusual. They have well organised independent certification schemes in the U.S. and in Germany, and identify and audit seed origin and propagation in France.

There’s no point existing producers getting together here and producing some kind of quality assurance mark. It wouldn’t be seen as independent. If it were auditable it would be expensive. Consumers wouldn’t know to look for it and won’t know if it’s missing. It only suits a tiny number of producers who are trying to do the right thing. The government must legislate. It’s only with this that struggling small scale producers can be rewarded for doing the right thing, and that we can consistently create really high quality wildflower projects.

There wouldn’t be the money to create a testing framework but a move to the French system – so that you can see the origin of the seed and producers have some kind of protocol to follow in production techniques – would be a good start. I do hope organizations like Kew, Plantlife and perhaps even the RHS might understand this and lobby for it.

*This is one of the reasons we set up the British Wildflower Seeds website

Hand Collected Meadow Seed Mixes

Meadow seed mixes come in several forms, but it had never struck me that hand collected mixes might be one of them. There are generally four types of meadow seed mixes; let’s call them generic, bespoke, direct harvest and green hay.
Generic meadow seed mixes are usually 80% grasses 20% wildflowers. They consist of seed harvested from plants usually grown in controlled environments, so that you can guarantee their exact composition. They consist of a limited number of common species but can provide a really good starting point to establish a meadow. This has obvious advantages; you know exactly what you’re getting and the seed mix should be pretty much bombproof. This approach can also be used to create bespoke mixes, which produce different visual or ecological results. You can create blue mixes or mixes for particular butterflies, for example.
We’re big fans of direct harvest mixes. These are seed mixes which you collect and clean from existing wildflower meadows. If produced carefully they provide a wide range of species with high floristic content – usually something like 50% wildflowers to 50% meadow grasses. They also have a specific geographic origin. This is important for many reasons; viability, local ecosystem, persistence, local distinctiveness. We’ve even set up a website promoting them.
I’ve also come across green hay, which sounds alluring but actually… isn’t. The idea is straightforward; take a hay cut from an existing meadow, collect the hay, strew the hay over the target site, remove. What could possibly go wrong? Well, actually, a lot. The logistics of this sort of operation are horrendous, as you can imagine. And hay from the donor site is only going to contain a small % of the species there, most of which won’t have set seed at the right moment. It’s also very difficult to find the right donor site.
Hand collected seed mixes were something new for me. Their advantages are obvious. Good and specific species representation, as they’re collected across a wide time window and combined after cleaning. Specific provenance. High floristic content. What’s not to like? Well, potentially, the cost! As you can imagine, per kg these mixes are much, much more expensive than their competition. Here’s an odd thing, though.
I’m writing from deepest Norfolk, where I’ve just been learning about what the folk at Abbey Farm in Flitcham have been up to. A dedicated team of harvesters has been hard at work collecting and processing seed for a large local project. It’s taking a while, as you can imagine, but the important thing is that it’s doable. Fantastic. There are simply fabulous wildflower meadows at the farm which supply most of their needs, and painstaking research gives them an appropriate species list.
I do have a reservation, though. This is an unbeatable approach if you have a wonderful source of seeds (which Abbey Farm is) and either deep pockets or very poor fertility soil. Let me explain. It’s obviously very labour intensive to hand pick individual seeds, clean them manually and combine them into a mix. Consequently, it’s expensive – very expensive. Having said that, the recommended seeding rate is the lowest I have ever seen – by factors. You seed “normal” meadow seed mixes at 3 to 4g per square metre, which seems ludicrously little to most people. These hand picked mixes are recommended to be sown at 0.5g. 0.5g! Even allowing for the very high proportion of wildflowers, this is very low. This rate means on a per square metre basis the different types of mixes are similar prices.
On any medium to high fertility soil this will be asking for trouble, however, as it will be rapidly overwhelmed by docks, thistles, and nettle – among other nasties.
So if you have a top donor site nearby and very low fertility soil or deep pockets, this is a great option…

Jam Today

Earlier this summer a copy of Holly Farrell’s The Jam Maker’s Garden arrived for me to review. It has sat in the catering department’s in tray ever since, but now jam making time is upon us we dug it out. What a delight.
Holly FarrellThere’s a peculiar pleasure in growing and using your own produce. You can square that if you have to process it in some way. I made three small pots of beeswax polish from the cappings left over from this year’s honey harvest; fantastic.
Holly Farrell is quick to understand this. She also points out other joys of jam making – not just the delight of eating them! Enjoy the tastes of summer and autumn through the winter and the connection they make with the local – what the French would call – terroir.
There’s a lot more than celebration about this book, however. It covers “garden notes” as well as “kitchen notes”, so deals with growing the fruit you’ll cook too. Some sensible advice in this section, although I find people could always do with more help about what varieties to plant and in what volume. Everyone always plants too many apple trees and under-plants soft fruit, for example.
Rose Hip SyrupThe kitchen section is great. It’s clearly laid out into vegetable and fruit sections. The recipes are easy to follow and many highly original. Carrot jam looks delicious!
The book promotes some more obscure fruit as well – Medlars do well here and I grow them principally for their blossom, but now we’ll be making medlar fudge. I Can’t wait.

Neonicotinoids And Bees (Again)

Yesterday I saw two papers on neonicotinoids and bees. They are the first large scale look at how these systemic pesticides affect bees in the field.
We’ve known for some time that neonicotinoids have bad effects on bees in the lab, which is hardly surprising. They are pesticides, after all. The big argument has been about how they affect bees in the real world.

neonicotinoids
Oilseed Rape
The Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) looked at honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. Their paper aimed “to quantify the impact… of two commercial neonicotinoid-based seed treatments in commercially grown crops of oilseed rape”. As usual, the results the results have thrown up more questions. People will continue to argue about methodology, I’m sure. In essence, however, the conclusion is that the neonicotinoids harmed both “wild bees” and honeybees.
Ironically, Syngenta and Bayer funded the study. It was their neonicotinoids which were used. Led by the unfortunately named Dr Schmuck, Bayer CropScience are now scrambling to re-interpret the results and are adamant they are not conclusive.
A second paper, however, published in Canada, reached similar conclusions. It looked at neonicotinoid treated maize and honeybees. It has more bad news, as Buglife point out:

The Canadian study also found that the common fungicide boscalid almost doubled the toxicity of neonicotinoids to bees. This is significant because a recent paper showed that 70% of the plants that people buy from garden centres to help garden bees contain neonicotinoids, and 48% also contain boscalid (Lentola et al. 2017). This suggests that gardeners may be unknowingly poisoning pollinators in their efforts to try to help them, a factor that may be associated with recent declines in numbers of urban butterflies (Dennis et al. 2017).

We knew how toxic the combination of insecticides and fungicides is to bee colonies. This first came up when scientists were looking at Colony Collapse Disorder in the U.S. Now we can worry about the scale of the problem.

Three things have continued to irk me throughout this shambles. Firstly, we still know nothing about how these pesticides affect other pollinators. Secondly, what are the less damaging alternatives to neonicotinoids? Farmers claim they would have to use lots more pyrethroid based pesticides to control, for example, flea beetle. Conservationists claim they wouldn’t.* Why is this debate STILL going on? Let’s have some fact based policy! And this take us to the third point. Why have we been using these pesticides for so long without knowing what damage they might be doing? We are supposed to follow the Precautionary Principle. Instead, we seem to chase short term financial gain. Our environment is too precious to turn it into a kind of giant chemical experiment.

*no prizes for guessing where I stand on this one.

Tree Bumblebees

Tree bumblebees, Bombus hypnorum, were the main topic of conversation on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust stand at RHS Chatsworth last week. I last blogged about them in 2013, but it seems there’s a need to get more information out!

Bombus hypnorumBoth the BBCT and the BBKA (the British Beekeepers’ Association) are swamped by people asking for help with honeybee swarms, which turn out to be Tree Bumblebee nests. I get calls here too as I’m on the local swarm collection list. As the name suggests, Tree Bumblebees nest… in trees. Failing that, birdboxes or small holes in eaves make lovely snug nests for them. This is unlike our other bumblebees, which nest underground. It’s also unlike honeybees, which need bigger spaces to make colonies in.

It’s unusual for a bumblebee, and its behaviour fools many. Tree bumblebees are new arrivals, driven here by climate change around 2000/2001. They’re thriving, and are now one of the “big eight” of common bumblebees in the UK. Combine this with the cloud of drones which whizz around outside the nest entrance, and their habit of nesting in more obvious locations, and lots of people reach for the phone.

Please don’t! A honeybee swarm is quite different. The bees look very distinctive and there will usually be many, many more of them. Tree Bumblebees might look black from a distance, but they are actually a very smart brown, black and white. Like all bumblebees, Tree Bumblebees will nest for a season, so they’ll only be a temporary nuisance if they’re in the way. And they’ll help pollinate your fruit and veg!

Nigella Lawson in The Garden

For my sins I have spent several hours recently tramping around local estates delivering election leaflets. This has provided a fascinating insight into the average local garden. The real ones – not like you see on Gardener’s World or the Chelsea Flower Show.

I make this distinction because gardening seems to be treated by the visual media like cooking. Millions of people love to watch cookery videos but live on take-aways and fish fingers. Millions love to watch Monty Don and his dog but have urban gardens full of rusting barbeques and decking.

So what does Monty think his typical viewer’s garden looks like? I assume he’s in the same bubble as the celebrity cooks, so he’s going to be well wide of the mark. Well, at least in this part of the world, they generally don’t look great.

They fall into four groups:

1. Immaculate. Unusual. Typically heavy on the veg and cut flowers, head gardener of pensionable age.

2. Struggling. Possibly aspiring to immaculate but time and knowledge poor. Some weird sights. Gnomes.

3. Jungle. Lost engine parts and bits of recycling the foxes have messed about with. The odd child’s toy.

4. Hard landscaping. Cars on breeze blocks. Marestail the only green thing.

In total, not very encouraging for Monty – or for wildlife.*

A balance between 1 and 3
Firstly, jungle is – contrary to popular belief – not great for invertebrates. I aspire to a balance between 1 and 3. This combination was almost non-existent, interestingly. My favourite garden was one which had a kind of delicate urban meadow going on, with Fox and Cubs and Trefoil in the lawn. Judging by the veg, here was a competent gardener, but one who could give nature a nod with an aesthetically pleasing and time saving feature.

Secondly, jungle is mostly the look of rented houses and – consequently – becoming more and more prevalent. Why on earth should young renters bother?

Somerset MeadowThirdly, the more modern the house the more miniscule the “garden” and the more aggressive the hard landscaping. This is appallingly obvious, not the least because of the almost complete absence of pollinators in recently built areas. And these are areas surrounded by “countryside”.

So I took myself off to the local meadow by way of an antidote. Even here there seemed to be fewer bees than there used to be. Maybe the cold spring has been hard for them. Oh well. Here’s a nice picture of an orchid from the meadow anyway; Monty – or Nigella for that matter – would be pleased.

*Talking of which – people! – go easy on the damn slug pellets!

Seeding Wildflower Meadows in Spring

Thank goodness we have done no wildflower seeding here this spring. It has been so dry the patch of unruly wasteland we have in Somerset looks more like the Gobi Desert. I have been watering our green roof and running around the veg patch with a watering can.

I fear this is going to be a pattern; a dry spring followed by a cool wet summer. This is hopeless for seeding wildflower seed mixes. Wildflowers and native grasses are particularly vulnerable because – unlike commercial cultivars – they take a while to get going. They’re also surface sown rather than drilled, which leaves them exposed.

If there’s enough moisture around for seed to germinate the seedlings will conk out before you’ve even noticed them. If there isn’t there’ll just sit there being eaten by birds and blowing about until a downpour washes them away.

Traditional wisdom is that you sow wildflowers in spring or early autumn. Most of the species in wildflower meadow mixes set seed in summer, so you would think early autumn would be a better bet for seeding – and you’d be right.

Fingers Crossed

The idea with seeding in September is that the soil is warm and moist enough and the days long enough that there will be some germination before it turns cold. The caveat to this is to be wary of heavy wet soils, where there is a risk seed will just sit in waterlogged conditions and rot. There’s also a risk of a really wet and cold period on any soil, which would do for a lot of seedlings. Generally, though, it looks to be better time to seed than spring as rainfall is more reliable in September/October than it is in April/May.

Some species too, most notably Yellow Rattle, need to stratify to germinate, so want the cold of winter.

The text books say the last time to seed in spring is end May. This is particularly true of annuals, which won’t have the time to flower before the days start drawing in. If you’re sowing a mix of perennials and grasses – a wildflower meadow mix – I’m increasingly thinking you should think about doing it at any time of year between March and November when conditions are right.

We need to adapt to changing weather patterns and local conditions. If I were seeding a Welsh hillside I would be reasonably happy doing it in June, for example. Rainfall is pretty reliable throughout the summer here. On the other hand I’m increasingly cautious about sowing wildflower mixes in places like East Anglia and Kent in spring without the ability to water.

It looks like we’ll have to take more care whenever we seed. We should also resign ourselves to more failures because of hostile weather conditions. If you have to seed in spring water the seed bed then the seedlings.

Hooper’s Hedgerow History Hypothesis

Max Hooper has just died. He was a proper botanist, who became known because of his work on British hedges in the 60s. From the obituaries and his writing he seems to have been quite a character too.

Hooper's Rule

Like many I came across him because of “Hooper’s Rule”. This was his rule of thumb – for obvious reasons not definitive – for dating hedgerows. Walk along a 30 metre length of hedge and count the species in it. Multiply that number by 100 and you have a reasonable estimate for the age of the hedge.

There was also his work on the extent of the hedge loss in the UK. Hooper uncovered it by looking at RAF reconnaissance photos. 50 years ago we were losing over 10,000 miles a year. 10,000 miles! I didn’t think we had that many hedges – and how could we continue to be so casual about them?

I was staggered by Hooper’s Rule too. I started looking much more carefully at the hedges around our house in Somerset. All around us were early medieval hedges. Given the history of the village this was entirely predictable, I suppose, but I was amazed. Amazed that I hadn’t stopped twice to think about these important ancient things. Amazed that their diversity and history went unnoticed, at best. I then realised the hay meadow next door was probably pre 15th century. It was suddenly obvious to me that we didn’t even begin to appreciate or understand what was underneath our noses.

Realizing this and the extent of the destruction to our environment still going on was an important part of my decision to leave the City. There were much more important things to do. I started a business promoting – among things – native British hedge plants.  Thank you for helping to convert me, Dr. Hooper.

Adder Bites Man

I shudder when I read an adder bites man story. The Daily Mail couldn’t resist the temptation to sensationalise this extraordinary tale, although to be fair it did point out the last death from an adder bite in the UK was in 1975.

It’s an extremely rare event – rare enough that it gets plastered all over the National Press when it does happen. Adders aren’t easily provoked and they’re not “common throughout mainland Britain”. Far from it. Finding one in London is extraordinary. They’re pretty much restricted to some areas of southern England, Scotland and West Wales. Why? Loss of habitat but also persecution.

I shudder about stories like this because they provoke hysterical reactions in people. We have a lovely big grass snake in the garden. They’re clearly not adders, but people cheerfully chop grass snakes’ heads off because they’re scared of them. I’ve even seen people take spades to slow-worms because they thought they were adders. Yuk.

Slow Worm
The Gardener’s Friend

For the record, it’s illegal to kill slow-worms, grass snakes and adders. And people should think better of them. Slow-worms are fantastically helpful around the garden (and not snakes anyway). Adders kill small rodents, and with grass snakes are indicators of healthy ecosystems. I’m not thrilled by the idea of our grass snake eating our frogs and newts, but I am delighted we have so many it can.