Last week entomologist Liam Olds published a fascinating study on invertebrates living on colliery spoil heaps in the south Wales valleys. If you assumed this might have been a tough assignment, then think again. It turns out old slag heaps are insect nirvana.
Liam found a whopping 901 invertebrate species on the 15 sites he investigated, of which over 20% are rare. Lots of exciting solitary bees, which caught my eye in particular.
This won’t come as a surprise to ecologists or botanists. Low nutrient soils are great for wildflowers, and the slower they grow the more diversity you get. Liam’s spoil heaps would have started off life looking like lunar landscapes, made up of barren crushed rock. Even as they develop, friable soils mean bare patches, colonised by lichen and mosses.
This diversity is further enhanced by the mixture of waste in the spoil heaps. It means their soils can be a mix of acidic and calcareous, which support different types of plants. Diverse native flora means diverse fauna.
While Liam says they now need managing, it’s also clear that biodiversity in these spoil heaps has benefited massively from lack of interventions in the past. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to a lot of farmland.
We still seem to think that many farm landscapes – particularly involving grass – are automatically good for wildlife. Some are, of course, and hats off to the farmers who work so hard – and often thanklessly – to achieve that. They’re not by definition, however. Green is not necessarily good. Farms are often terrible for wildlife. They are, or course, principally food production units, usually run by people who have to make money.
It might be counter-intuitive, but sometimes seemingly unpromising brown field sites can offer much, much more. They should be protected.
Insectageddon! scream the headlines. Really? And why should this be? The more bizarre claims on social media I’ve seen recently range from Electro Motive Force to chemtrails (again – groan). What is actually happening to our butterflies and bees here in the UK?
Rather than just getting annoyed with people on Twitter, I thought it might be helpful to write a quick blog based on the most recent evidence update from the National Pollinator Strategy Plan.
This is a good thing. It’s a 10 year plan to protect our pollinators. It includes a range of government, commercial, academic and non-government organisations. Recently a group of involved scientists specialising in bees and other pollinators published an evidence update for it. There are several findings here which might surprise you.
The Big Picture
To start with, what are the pollinators we’re talking about? The main species are butterflies and bees, moths, hoverflies, and then there are others like wasps and beetles.
Very broadly speaking, most pollinators declined significantly from the 1950s – 1990. This is particularly true of less generalist species needing particular habitats and/or food. Take butterflies, for example; their numbers overall are down something like 40% from the mid seventies, but “habitat specialist” species are down by over 60%.
Since 1990 the trend has been down, but not so dramatically. In the short term a number of species actually seem to have stabilised. Phew!
This trend seems to be true of “wild” bees – that’s to say, solitary bees (we have around 250 different types!) and bumblebees. Two of our 24 bumblebee species are on the verge of extinction here, for example, although some of the more common bumblebees are doing ok. Wild bees exhibit the same trend we’re seeing in other invertebrates. The more common generalists are doing less badly than rarer specialist species.
Over the last decade the number of honeybees in the UK has gone UP – and by quite a lot, seemingly over 50% – as more people have taken up beekeeping and we’ve got better at disease control. This isn’t quite the great news it sounds like, as wild bees do the bulk of our pollinating and we’re only talking about one type of bee here.
Declines in nectar resources appear to have slowed since the 1970s and they actually increased from 1998 – 2007. They’re still estimated to be below prewar levels, and the diversity of nectar-producing plants has continued to decline.
We are beginning to see some shortfalls in production (e.g. in apples) as a possible consequence of falling pollinator numbers.
Causes of Declines
Habitat loss and fragmentation and intensive land management have reduced food and nesting resources. Not only has this lead to declines in overall numbers, but it has disproportionately affected rarer, specialist species.
Chemicals to control pests and weeds, including neonicotinoids, have had a range of direct and indirect affects on pollinators. Urban insect pollinator communities are dominated by common, generalist species; we can see this pretty clearly for butterflies and bees.
Climate change will (continue to) have a number of impacts. Species range has and will change further, as will seasonal activity. The threat from invasive alien plants and predators will also increase.
The impact of the varroa mite on honeybee colonies appears to have been lessened by effective management techniques. We import bumblebees to pollinate crops like tomatoes, which can bring pests and disease.
Plant more flowers, and the right kind of flowers. This could include wildflower field margins and strips.
Protect and restore the flower rich semi-natural habitats we have – e.g. wildflower meadows, heathlands, broad leafed woodland.
Change the management of existing hedges, field margins, road verges, railway embankments, grassland, public green spaces, etc.. These are all potential sites for a wide range of wild pollinators.
Adopt more wildlife friendly land management practices, including organic farming and managing for ecosystem services. Hopefully we’ll start to pay farmers to do this.
A phrase which recurs in the evidence summary is “established but incomplete”. We spend so little on this kind of research it’s not surprising. And it’s complicated. We know a lot about honeybees, a reasonable amount about butterflies and moths, and less about bumblebees. Very little about other pollinators. The challenge is to have more “well established” facts. Let’s leave absolutely no doubt that some of the things you read about butterflies and bees are fake news. We’re working on it.
In the meantime, at the very least we can all plant or sow plants for pollinators – more of the right sort of flowers – and buy organic food as much as we can afford to. Plants are – as usual – the key.
Climate change means that bees are struggling in late winter. Honeybees and bumblebee queens are out and about in the second half of February as I write, with the temperature getting up to the mid teens in Somerset. Honeybees will fly above 12 degrees, bumblebees in colder weather. The earliest solitary bees, like the gorgeous Hairy-footed flower bee* (Anthophora plumipes), are around too. And this is problematic. Bees need nectar (for sugars and water) and pollen (for protein). Particularly early in the season they need to collect this food for their developing larvae. But where can they find it? They’re in real danger of starving. Winter bee plants are essential – and let’s not forget for overwintering butterflies too.
Blackthorn, traditionally the saviour of country beekeepers, is days away from flowering here. Most willows are in bud. There just aren’t many native flowers out. It’s a really critical time, particularly for bumblebee queens. This is a new phenomenon. The good guides, like Plants For Bees, aren’t confident about which plants work for all these bees in mid-February, because in the past it has been too early for them. The only bees you tended to see on the odd warm February day were honeybees out on a quick cleansing flight.
So how can you help? Here are five plant ideas for your garden.
Mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun‘)
You can plant several really good flowers and trees which aren’t just flowering now – some have already been out for weeks. Mahonia falls into this category. It’s an excellent winter bee plant, particularly a variety like ‘Winter Sun’. Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee, now seems to have two generations in a year in some parts of the south, and this is a particularly important plant for it.
The crocuses have been out for week or so, in contrast. They might not flower long, but – boy – they seem to be an excellent plant for a range of bees. They produce prolific amounts of yellow/orange pollen, and are also popular with hoverflies. Go for Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) or Dutch crocus (Crocus vernus).
Hellebore (Helleborus niger)
Our hellebores have been flowering for weeks. Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, is the first in flower. They have whitish pollen which doesn’t seem to be produced in vast quantities, but is invaluable at this time of year. Good winter bee plants.
Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera)
We also have a couple of small trees which are highly decorative and early in blossom. The very first is Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), which is easily confused with Blackthorn as it’s often found in hedges and its flowers are similar. It’s not as spiny, however; the young growth is green, the flowers have stalks, and it flowers earlier. Cherry plum is in my top 10 of under-rated native plants (it was introduced here ages ago and is now fully naturalised). It’s tough – often used as a windbreak – and has this very early flowering period. It’s a good hedge plant and sometimes produces fruit which the birds like.
Almond (Prunus dulcis)
Cherry plum is regularly in flower in mid-February, and just beats our Almond trees(Prunus dulcis). It will have to get hotter yet for us to have nuts, but the fabulous delicate and early pink blossom is reason enough to grow them. Honeybees pollinate almond orchards in California (where they’re treated scandalously). Here they seem to like them too.
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.
Andy 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.
The 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
*Sorry to labour the point, but it seems necessary.
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.
My 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.
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.
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.
There 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.
I have read a great deal about the government’s plans for the environment – a Green Brexit. I have heard Michael Gove speak about it, earlier this year. I read my notes from that Conference over the weekend, to make sure I wasn’t suffering from sudden onset early Alzheimers.
Yes, he did indeed promise a “global gold standard” in “strengthened environmental protection measures”. He explicitly outlined the need for an environmental regulator “with teeth”, backed by legislation. This Green Brexit was all somewhat unexpected but, on the face of it, rather exciting.
It turns out that after all these were – well – not promises. I’m not sure what they were. They actually… er… didn’t represent government policy, but were aspirations, whatever on earth that means. The government has announced plans for a new regulatory body for the environment which is purely advisory. It cannot prosecute. What the hell use is this? It’s like having a court which can’t send offenders to jail. Gove has apparently caved in to pressure from the Treasury, who have always seen green regulation as a form of tax on business. Hideously regressive thinking.
Even if this plan is overturned in the Lords – and the signs are encouraging that it might be – I found this news profoundly depressing. Firstly, the Green Brexit landscape Gove has been talking about – aspirationally – will involve significant short term cost, for the tax payer and the consumer (for long term gain). If the Treasury baulks at the first step in this process, what chance does this vision have of coming to fruition? It has got two hopes, and Bob has just left the building.
Second off, Michael Gove presented his plans for the environment post Brexit as POLICY. It clearly wasn’t, and he is no position to deliver them.
Thirdly, this kind of thing massively undermines public trust in the political process. It seems to happen repeatedly these days. People are fed up with being treated with this sort of contempt. Too many of our politicians don’t seem to understand this, including, it seems, Michael Gove.
Moving on to more positive news.
One of the reasons I haven’t written much recently is because I’ve been holding down two jobs. One for Habitat Aid, which pays the bills, and the other as a flag waver for the estimable Bumblebee Conservation Trust, for whom I’m a trustee. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bees generally, and I’m a big fan of the Trust for a variety of reasons. I’ve supported them through the business for 10 years now, and watched them do some really good things.
Anyway, I have been organising some events to raise their profile and some money for a new long term investment fund. We’ve been talking about the project to save the Shrill carder bee too. These evenings have gone really well – due to the enthusiasm of the BBCT folk, those involved at the venues, the people who turned up and, most of all, those who signed the cheques. We’ve had nice fuzzy noises from some great and good who couldn’t make the evenings but want to help. It has been tremendously heart warming and encouraging. Thank you all.
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.
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.
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.
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.