The Ecological Apocalypse (Again)

Chris Packham hit the headlines this weekend by announcing that the UK was facing an ecological apocalypse. Yikes.

He’s right of course, but as apocalypses go it has been rather protracted. I wrote about a book called Silent Summer in 2010, which itself referenced an American book, Silent Spring (1962). Both featured similar conclusions. We have had over 50 years of ecological apocalypses.

And people don’t care about them.

They don’t care for three reasons.

Firstly, they are unaware they’re happening. This is partly a consequence of  Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Essentially,  new generations aren’t aware of the degradation of the natural environment because they’ve got nothing to compare it with. My mum had fond memories of country walks through clouds of butterflies. There were certainly reasonable numbers when I was small. Our children are delighted to see one. It’s also true that most people in the UK are now urban dwellers. To some degree or other they’re suffering from nature deficit disorder. They’re removed from the natural environment, physically and psychologically.

Secondly – perhaps as a consequence – people in the UK don’t really care about the natural world.  This might seem odd in a nation of Springwatch viewers, animal lovers etc etc but nature has never polled well here. Political parties of all colours have ignored it for years as a result. Voters vote for all sorts of reasons, but environmental policies ain’t one of them. Ask any Green Party activist.

Ecological Apocalypse
Not you again…

Lastly, those that are listening are suffering from apocalypse fatigue, as noted above. There are only so many apocalypses anyone can bear. One apocalypse is overwhelming enough, but when they come along one after the other you can only do one of two things. Hide under the sofa or convince yourself that the experts are all wrong and that things will get better. Tell anyone who will listen that around you the birds are doing well and the countryside looks lovely and green (etc. etc.).

What was so interesting about the Blue Planet effect is that, while the problems it portrayed are really massive (e.g. global warming, ocean acidification…), people felt they could do something to help. They could fight their own battles as individuals or groups against plastic.

And this is the answer. We don’t need apocalypses. We need to understand what is happening (in a hurry!) and communicate it effectively. Extinction is an ugly word and one people respond to. We need to feel we can do something ourselves that will have a material effect on the problem. If it actually does have a material effect that’s even better. As Chris Packham says, we can fix this.

Not an Ecological ApocalypseThere are projects that do this. I went to one yesterday, with a collection of very jolly mayors. Making a Buzz for the Coast is a great initiative*  helping bumblebees and other pollinators along 130 odd miles of Kent coast. It has partners across government, NGOs, corporates and communities and will very definitely make a difference.

*very kindly endorsed by Mr. Packham, too!

Back From The Brink (“BftB”)

I popped up to Windsor Great Park yesterday for the launch of a project called “Back From The Brink“, or BftB. What a fascinating time I had.

Back from the Brink
Daisy and me and Stan the stag beetle

BftB is aiming to save 20 of our most threatened species from extinction. It’s going to run 19 projects across England and involves seven of the country’s leading wildlife conservation charities. This in itself is great news –  this number of specialist NGOs working together is fantastic. Natural England are also involved, and the government seem keen too (it’s free!). I was there with my Bumblebee Conservation Trust hat on. Daisy from the Trust is running a project to help the Shrill Carder Bee, which by a happy accident can be found – if you’re very lucky – a few miles down the road from us in Somerset.

Back from the Brink planting
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow…

The day itself was very good fun. There were some excellent speeches, particularly by Sir Peter Luff, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who are the main funders of the project. The presentations and then tree planting in the Park with schoolchildren reinforced two key elements of what programmes like Back From The Brink have to do. They have to connect and engage. David Lindo, the urban birder, was very good on this. We must demystify nature and use social media more effectively to get people to understand it’s not something that just happens “in the country”. It’s all around them, and it’s fascinating.

The kids loved the planting. It was hard not to wonder whether any of the oak whips they were planting would live as long as the magnificent Signing Oak overseeing us like an ancient guardian.  This wonderful tree, with all its social history, seemed to represent the kind of legacy we must not lose.

Back from the Brink
Violet Click Beetle home?

After lunch on the hoof we adjourned to the forest, where in a section of ancient beech the Violet Click Beetle is hanging on. It’s only found in three places in the UK, so “rare” would be an understatement. The Crown Estate is running a project to try to save it. It’s a classic illustration of how tricky some of BftB’s work is going to be. Violet click beetle larvae live inside the base of veteran beech and ash trees, of which there are very few left. Windsor forest has some lovely ancient beech, but there is a 50-100 year break in the continuity of trees. After the veterans then nothing until young, non-decaying trees. No decay, no Violet click beetle. What to do? Sarah Henshall explained two approaches – making an artificial decaying tree trunk, and for the longer term, fungal inoculation of younger trees to accelerate decay.

Back From The Brink’s work is going to be as difficult as it is important. I hope too that it will serve as a template for conservation NGOs to work together under the same umbrella. It’s so important that we don’t just save some of our flora and fauna from extinction, but that we tell their stories too.

 

 

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.

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!

Native And Exotic Plants In The Garden

Robin Lane-Fox wrote a bad tempered piece in last weekend’s FT about “exotic” v. “native” plants in the garden. He’s a respected plantsman, and so I wasn’t surprised to read he was against using native plants in the garden. I’m entirely sympathetic to this view; we are all masters and mistresses of our own gardens, and should do with them whatever we most enjoy. What did surprise me, however, is that he repeated the mantra that our wildlife was oblivious to the difference between (plain) native plants and attractive exotics. It’s true that disease threatens many of our “native” tree species. Sadly we would do well to think about alternatives for planting schemes. When we do, it would also be advisable to source them from UK nurseries so that a raft of new diseases doesn’t reach our shores. Improved biosecurity and more UK grown plants may be rare Brexit dividends.

Plants for Pollinators
It’s also right that “exotic” plants can be at least as beneficial to some wildlife as “native” plants – in some cases more so. Many bees, butterflies and other pollinators benefit from the longer and different flowering periods. There’s also the heavy nectar production of some attractive exotic flowers. We sell a fantastic seed mix from Flowerscapes which illustrates this. However – and this is a big but – it’s wrong to think of plants purely as providers of pollen and nectar. Even if we did there are bee species which are oligoleges – i.e. they feed from a specific plant genus or even single plant species.

Plant Food
I imagine there are no Brimstone butterflies in the doubtlessly beautiful Lane-Fox garden. Brimstone larvae dine exclusively on the leaves of one of our dullest looking shrubs, Buckthorns*. Many moth and butterfly larvae have similarly exclusive or nearly exclusive relationships with other native plants as do many thousands of insects. This includes the Blackthorn so disliked by Mr Lane-Fox.  Quercus robur – that’s the English oak, not your imported tat – supports up to 400 different species of herbivore insects in the UK. This kind of dependence is true of amphibians and mammals – no boring old hazel, no boring old dormice.

My own garden is less ornamental and more nature reserve, but that’s what gives me pleasure. It’s a smorgasbord of natives and exotics, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s also full of the munching, buzzing, swimming things which can’t survive in the surrounding farmland.

*Our bees also seem very partial to Purging Buckthorn‘s inconspicuous little flowers.

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.

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.

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

Plants for Bugs

Last week the RHS published the first paper from its “Plants for Bugs” four-year study in the Journal of Applied Ecology. It’s an interesting read, not least because so little research has been done in this area. According to the RHS website the key messages for gardeners are:

The best strategy for gardeners wanting to support pollinating insects in gardens is to plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions.

Emphasis should be given to plants native to the UK and the northern hemisphere, though exotic plants from the southern hemisphere can be used to extend the season (there are a greater proportion of exotic plants flowering later in the season compared to UK native and northern hemisphere plants) and provide nectar and pollen for some specific pollinators.

Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.

This is all good stuff, and I absolutely agree with it. But – and you knew there was a but coming – I do have two complaints about the way this is being spun.

First off, there’s a question of emphasis. The accompanying social media blurb from the RHS says:

Native plants alone may not be the best option for supporting pollinating insects in UK gardens!

Well, yes, but non-natives alone DEFINITELY aren’t. I can’t see the headline reading “Exotic plants alone are definitely not the best option for supporting pollinating insects in UK gardens” Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive, or perhaps not. The RHS are hardly likely to discourage people from growing exotic cultivars, after all – it’s what they do.

Secondly, identifying what provides the “best” nectar and pollen for certain pollinators is very helpful, but it’s not the bee all (geddit?) and end all. Take butterflies, for example.

Like some solitary bees and many other “bugs” they have developed relationships with very specific plants. In the case of butterflies it’s as food plants for their caterpillars; Yellow Brimstone caterpillars eat Buckthorn, for example. I know some butterflies and moths can adapt to non-native plants, but not all. It’s also true that some of our own insects like non-native plants for non dietary reasons; the wool carder bee just loves Stachys byzantina, with which it lines its nest.

In other words, choosing plants for bugs is not just about native v. non-native or pollen and nectar. It’s more complicated than that. As usual.

Honey bee
One of our honey bees enjoying a non-native scoff from Geranium ‘Rozanne’, a favourite in the garden