A Little Knowledge…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*More on this anon.

September in the Garden

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

*which occasionally get picked off by a passing hornet

National Honeybee Day: What We Need To Know

Dear Journalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Awesome”. Thanks.

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

Bees And Sugar Water – A Story Of Our Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ecological Apocalypse (Again)

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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.