Garden Flowers For Bees

Perfect For PollinatorsWhen people ask me to recommend garden flowers for bees I usually point them at the excellent Plants for Bees by Kirk and Howes. Like most of us, though, I often wander through the local garden centre to buy plants for the garden. I try to buy flowers which are good for bees and other pollinators. I had thought that the RHS “Perfect for Pollinators” badge was a definitive guide to help me. Not so, apparently – nor are a number of other similar schemes and labels.

A study has just been released by the excellent Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University. They spent time in local garden centres where they found that “there were many recommended varieties that were unattractive or poorly attractive to insects, and some non-recommended varieties that were very attractive”. The report also points out the difficulties of recommending many different varieties and hybrids in the same plant group, many of which have misleading pictures on their labels.

Poor for bees and pollinators
No Thanks
I was aghast, to be honest, although it did confirm what I had suspected for a while. How can you say that two wildly different cultivars are both as attractive to pollinators? It explains why some “bee friendly” of “butterfly friendly” flowers in our garden here have disappointed. Roses are a very good example; the open single types of rose – closer relations to wild roses – are very different and much better for pollinators than the popular modern “English Roses”.
Dog rose - bumblebee
Yes Please!

So what’s the answer? The study suggests seeing which plants at the garden centre insects and bees visit most, which seems good advice. Ask yourself too how any self respecting pollinator is going to access the nectar and pollen of the flower you’re looking at.

The labels are a guide but nothing more.

Pruning Old Apple Trees

It’s the time of year to prune apple trees. We used to have an old orchard, and I loved renovating the apple trees there; it was amazing to see them springing back into life with renewed vigour. They must have been around 80 – 90 years old, so towards the end of their time, although pruning will extend their lives. This is one of the reason why orchards are such good habitats. Apple trees don’t last long, so there is always lots of dead and rotting wood around, with their attendant flora and fauna.

There are several reasons to prune, which you should bear in mind. Firstly, remove badly placed and rubbing branches, which can be an entry point for infection. Then think about increasing the light and air flow through the tree, to reduce the risk of infection and help apples ripen properly. I also cut out diseased wood rather than spraying a tree with fungicide to help biodiversity. You also want to manage the tree’s shape so it doesn’t blow over or risk losing major limbs in windy weather.

I was always told not to be frightened of taking too much off an old tree – up to 25% as a guide is fine – and to concentrate on taking bigger branches off to reduce the number of wounds. An old apple grower in Kent used to say a well pruned tree was one you could throw your hat through!

The chances are good that when you renovate an old orchard you’ll find heritage apple varieties. Many have only gone out of fashion because they don’t keep, bruise in transit or look asymmetrical. Think about grafting from the cuttings, to perpetuate part of our rural heritage.

If you would like to know more about pruning have a look at this helpful video introduction from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species – big orchard fans because of their importance as a habitat for so many rare flora and fauna.

Bees and Warm Wet Winters

My poor bees are having another terrible winter. “Terrible” winters for honeybees are warm and wet, not cold, which they can deal with quite happily.
If it’s consistently warm and wet they’re in trouble. They are too active, eating their winter stores of honey too quickly. After a while they starve, which is why beekeepers “heft” their hives – to feel how heavy they are, to assess how much honey is left in them. If not much they can be fed fondant to keep them going.
Better though would be to give the bees nearby forage, so that on dry days at least they can get out and bring some food back to the hive. We have some “trees for bees” on our website, which can help. It’s also worth thinking about early flowering bulbs like crocuses.
This pre-supposes that dry winter days are also warm, which isn’t what’s happening in Somerset at least. It’s either warm enough for the bees to be active but too wet for them to fly or sunny but colder. Grrr…
Bumblebee queens are only slightly better off as they can fly in lower temperatures and in drizzle. They will break hibernation on a warm day. I’ve seen queen wasps, which follow a similar life cycle, as recently as the last frost. I can guarantee low Social wasp populations here next year already.

European and Asian Hornets
Which is European?
These warm wet winters bring another ill for honeybees. The Asian hornet, Vespa velutina has reached these shores. It is an aggressive animal and a voracious predator of honeybees. Without colder weather it will spread rapidly and spell disaster for unguarded colonies.
I also fancy it is very bad news for our own European hornet, which is a relatively harmless* but much persecuted and increasingly rare beauty. Many more will now be killed, through paranoia and mistaken identity. Gone from our gardens will be their lovely baritone buzz – another victim, in a way, of climate change.

*not what I felt when I dried myself off after a dip on holiday last year with a hornet tangled in the towel – OUCH!

Climate Change, Hen Harriers and Bees in the Post Fact World

I had pondering time on my hands today at hospital in Bath, recovering from a minor operation. It went swimmingly, all well thank you – let’s just say it was an old bloke issue. I was very grateful to be in the hands of Mr. Courtney and not Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mystic Meg or Michael Gove. Perhaps we do need experts, after all.

Climate Change

Certainly Breitbart don’t. Scribbler James Delingpole has written regularly on climate change in this news organ. Like many things in the post truth era, he seems to see climate change as some kind of political opinion – which he doesn’t like in this instance. He is in hot water with that subversive left wing political news outlet, the Weather Channel, for misrepresenting them in his most recent article. Weather.com are furious. Looking at the video of an exasperated weather forecaster and reading their response, you’ve got to admit they have a point.

Driven Grouse Shooting

Hen Harrier on moor
Hen Harrier (Image: RSPB)

On a much smaller scale there is a similar conflation of entrenched political views and “scientific facts” going on in the conservation world about driven grouse shooting. Unsurprisingly the Left hate it and the Right love it. I’m no expert (!), but there is good evidence that raptors are puzzlingly absent from grouse moors, including rare species like Hen Harriers. In some quarters this has just been denied point blank. Keepers are shooting a lot of Mountain Hares, and there’s little doubt that grouse moors contribute to flooding.

There was an article on this by Matt Ridley in The Spectator which included some apparently spurious statistics to support his view. He claims that these moorlands are better at retaining water than forests. Better than spruce plantations possibly, but generally no, this is complete nonsense. The government itself has recently acknowledged this by announcing a £15 million tree planting programme as part of its flood prevention strategy.

The whole issue has fallen victim to shouty Delingpole style politics. If Matt Ridley sees an insidious left wing plot, then George Monbiot sees it as an example of the establishment elite trampling the people. It turns out Paul Dacre (Daily Mail editor) owns a grouse moor. Chris Packham is unhappy with the shooters and the shooters are certainly unhappy with Chris Packham, who they think is a metro luvvie who doesn’t understand country pursuits. And so it goes on.

It is more important than ever for experts and proper journalists to be precise and informative about conservation and environmental issues. They must also avoid confirmation bias. The rest of us to have to amplify good information via social media.

Different Bees Please

To take a small but nonetheless annoying example, I would say the MAJORITY of articles I read about bees on Facebook confuse honeybees with solitary bees and bumblebees. They’re often also illustrated with a photo of a hoverfly. People are interested in bees and want to do the right thing for them, but end up confused. They sign petitions purporting to be about all bees which are actually about honeybees. They share helpful Facebook posts about feeding dying bumblebee workers in autumn and funny cartoons about how good bees are and how bad wasps are. People spend hours making bumblebee nesters – which don’t work – rather than solitary bee nesters – which do. We should be following the Bee experts.

Food or Fauna?

Miles King is a well informed ecologist who I read for self-improvement – God knows I need it. His latest blog asks some uncomfortable questions about intensive farming. As he says:

We certainly do need to continue to challenge the propaganda that Guy Smith, Robin Page et al put out, that somehow nature has disappeared from the farmed landscape due to other reasons – predators for example, or urban development.

No-one has yet managed to explain to me how 97% of wildflower meadows, or 75% of chalk downland, has disappeared in 70 years thanks to predators. And urban development still only covers 12% of England.

Whatever words we use, the facts are the same. Modern farming methods, together and individually, have caused nature to disappear from the farmed countryside.

intensive agricultureThe % of the UK which has been urbanised is even lower; based on government population figures it is under 10%, of which the reckoning is that anything up to 50% might be green space. The idea that urban development is the biggest threat to biodiversity in the UK is one that needs squashing. It has become politically convenient for the farming lobby and handy for the anti-immigration lot, but is not based in fact. Rather, wildlife here is under threat from intensive farming practices. According to HMG, 69% of the UK is used for agriculture (although we only produce 60% of the food we eat).

I’m no expert, but there are seemingly only four outcomes to this battle between food and fauna:
1. We carry on as is.
2. We import more food and farm less intensively.
3. We eat less (and much less meat) and farm less intensively.
4. We farm even more intensively.

An unfortunate consequence of Sterling devaluation and a policy vacuum is that the most likely scenario is the last one. Bad news for wildlife.

The Magic of Green Roofs

It has been three years since we planted the green roof for our new house with wildflower plug plants, which has turned out to be a fabulous success. For many, “green roof” is synonymous with “sedum roof”, p1080079we started off by colour bombing it with annuals while the slower growing perennials developed.
This sense of progression and change – like a wildflower meadow – is part of its fascination. Fortunately I can see it from my office window on the first floor! Its colours change through the season and species come and go depending on the weather. It’s much past its best now, but still lovely.

Green Roof in 2014
Green Roof in 2014
Also like a wildflower meadow, the roof serves as a wonderful habitat for all sorts of invertebrates and birds as well. Our wagtails love it, and we see different finches on it regularly too. Fingers crossed we might even have something nest on it next year!
p1080073Conditions on the roof are almost opposite to the wet clay hereabouts, so we can create diversity as well as a very different look with it. Wild Thyme and Scabious (pictured) do very well on it, for example, which we would never see normally here. There are some areas where the growing substrate is evidently more fertile than in others and the moisture retention in the substrate also varies, which gives diversity to the flora and flora within the roof too. Some areas still have a lot of bare earth, whereas others have almost tussocky grass.
p1080085It can be pretty hostile for the plants on the roof, which means I don’t need to do much more than weed it a couple of times a year. Things don’t grow to great size, and annual weeds generally don’t survive at all. In the first year I watered it a couple of times but now I don’t bother. I’ve just sown some Yellow Rattle this year to keep the grasses down a bit in some sections, too. What’s not to like?

State of Nature 2016: “the countryside” is broken

The latest State of Nature report is out and, predictably, it makes grim reading. There are some minor gains, but the overall picture is that habitat loss and climate change has meant that wildlife continues to decline. The UK is at least ahead of Hong Kong in terms of how damaged its nature is. Hurrah.
state-of-natureThis report is a national scandal. 75% of the UK is managed for food production; this is by and large the bit of the UK people call “the countryside”. It is extraordinary that we do not specifically connect our loss of biodiversity to what is going on here. It is extraordinary that we know so little about how intensive agriculture is harming our wildlife and how little we are doing about it. It is extraordinary that we seem to have so little political will to tackle this issue, as we are supposedly a nation of nature lovers.
As worrying is that we are becoming so removed from nature. “The countryside” is rapidly becoming the preserve of retirees from the suburbs, whose vision of bucolic bliss is living next to the 18th green of Liam Fox’s favourite golf course. Over and over again I find myself arguing against different varieties of green desert. This is not rocket science, nor UK specific, of course. We were in Italy in the summer. Week one in the woods outside Perugia. All manner of buzzing flying things. Week two 50km down the road. Surrounded by picturesque vineyards and orchards, flying buzzing things nil.
Part of me hopes that Brexit will bring such horrendous problems for farmers that our preconceptions about food security and land use will be turned upside down. We cannot continue to pay absurdly low prices for food for which we are paying such a horrendous hidden cost in subsidy and environmental damage. We must change the way we use land or write off our environment completely.

A Little Reason

I tend to avoid social media these days. I don’t object to the polarisation of opinions that it creates so much as the post-factual nature of much of the debate. I first came across this with bees, about which I must have read hundreds of thousands of words of uninformed comment over the years. It’s not just bees though; it’s every issue I have an interest in. Meadows, fresh water habitats, butterflies and moths, orchards… invariably reasoned well informed voices are drowned out by folk with an agenda.
There’s generally no arguing with these points of view, based as they are on belief or misconception and expressed aggressively. All we can do is to help the under-funded and unheralded science based projects and NGOs who continue to work quietly away at improving our understanding of the natural world around us. This is part of the raison d’etre of Habitat Aid. I posted cheques for £14000 to some of my favourite charity partners today from our recent website sales, which will make a huge difference to some of the heroic small charities we work with. Good luck, and keep up the good work.
charities

The Environment and Brexit

andreaIt was disappointing but predictable that the environment didn’t feature in the Brexit debate. It’s just not seen as a vote winner – yet. The vast majority of environmentalists were “remainers”, including the Wildlife Trusts, who pointed to the raft of EU regulation which has protected endangered habitats and species, improved water and air quality, restricted planning consents, encouraged renewable energy, etc..There are also concerns that cuts in farming subsidies following Brexit might lead to lower benefits for farmers wanting to improve biodiversity on their patch.
We wait to see what a post Brexit world is going to look like, specifically a post Brexit world with Andrea Leadsom as Minister for the Environment. Commentators are studying the tea leaves. She seems to have been a climate change sceptic with an inconsistent voting record – mixed on fracking and fuel taxes. She voted for the sale of State owned forests and wants the fox hunting ban repealed.
While not wanting to pre-judge her, I’m rather gloomy. UK governments at both ends of the political spectrum have been poor on the environment, left to their own devices. As for the current administration, it’s clearly not a priority for them, as this week’s abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change suggests.
Agri-environment schemes will look like luscious low hanging fruit for a new administration keen to cut “red tape” and subsidies. Stand by for much talk about the New Zealand experience. My guess is that we will head towards even more intensive use of farmland with many small scale producers going bust, particularly if casual labour becomes more expensive. I just don’t see a willingness to embrace progressive ideas on land use either, to combat flooding, for example. Sadly, as usual, the environment looks set to become an ideological football.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor
Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor
I’m often asked about Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor. It’s an attractive annual wildflower, good for bees, and which used to be common. Farmers don’t want Rattle in their meadows, however, as it parasitises grass and reduces its vigour. This makes it invaluable in establishing wildflowers in an existing sward, particularly where the grasses are vigorous and aggressive. I’ve written about it before extolling its virtues and explaining establishment.
I wanted to share some photos today,
Grass without Rattle
Grass without Rattle
however. It’s difficult to explain what grass with Rattle in it looks like; it doesn’t look sick but is much reduced in vigour. I thought a couple of pictures from one of of our meadow areas would illustrate that. This is an area
Grass with Yellow Rattle
Grass with Yellow Rattle
with relatively fertile soil and well established vigorous grasses. The grass without Rattle has already formed a thick sward up to two feet tall.
The area next to it which I seeded with Rhinanthus last autumn looks quite different. It had the same grasses and the same soil. The grass doesn’t look diseased or unhealthy – it’s just much reduced in volume and in size, to a height of about 6 inches in this case.