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.

A Bad Week for Bees and Solar

It has been a bad week at Habitat Aid’s HQ. The spending axe has fallen – again – on renewables – which has effectively now halted the building of any solar farms not in the system from April 2016.

Solar Century site
Solar site seeded last year.
I know this is good news for some folk, but we’d been doing a lot of work for a small number of responsible developers who had gone the extra mile to massively increase biodiversity on previously knackered farmland.

The subsidy system has clearly had its problems, but it has meant that a lot has been achieved. Arguably its biggest issue with solar was that it was too successful! The government seems to have been pretty quick on the trigger.

When someone like Neil Woodford, doyen of City fund managers, writes an open letter to government about what’s going on you might reasonably suspect a serious issue. Neil is certainly not a left wing anti-capitalist dictating the climate change agenda, which is how Amber Rudd has characterised opposition to her views.

The other depressing news this week is the temporary lifting of the ban on neonicotinoids in East Anglia. The chemical involved is precisely the same one which has recently been linked to declines in bee populations in a large scale field trial.

Government has also portrayed this as a political issue. In fairness so have the environmentalists. For them the bad guys are large, well resourced anti-environment agribusinesses, served by their pro-business political servants. For government, the ban was imposed against their wishes and the NFU’s advice by interfering EU bureaucrats.

The Press perpetuates this politicization. The BBC report I’ve linked to above quotes Paul de Zyla from Friends of the Earth, and Radio 4 interviewed someone from 38 Degrees. These are both left leaning lobbying groups*. At the other end of the political spectrum, the next time I hear Nigel Lawson talk about climate change (or lack therof) the radio is going out of the window.

Ditto the next time I hear any environmental policies justified by their benefit to the hard working families of Britain. Er… wouldn’t “short term populism” be a bit more honest?

Left or right wing I’d say the same thing. Environmental issues should not be sacrificed on the altar of political dogma.

*To declare my interest, FoE are customers of ours.

The Tree Bumblebee

Bombus Hypnorum in old nest box The Tree Bumblebee, Bombus hypnorum, seems to be doing very nicely. They’re called Tree Bumblebees as they nest above ground – in tree hollows or, more obviously, in unused bird nest boxes. This makes them more noticeable than our other bumblebees, which typically nest in old mouse nests or similar underground sites. Compost heaps can be a favourite for Carder Bees, too, which can be rather more irritating than a bird box!

Helping on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust stand at garden shows over the last couple of years it’s apparent that people are noticing the Tree Bumblebee more and more. They tend to be a bit more aggressive than other bumblebees (which isn’t saying much!), with several whizzing around their nest – as pictured – and others looking like guard bees at the entrance to it. They’re easy to spot when they forage as they’re pretty distinctive – they’re ginger (head), black (thorax) and white (bottom). Despite their being short tongued bees they seem to be very adaptable, foraging on a wide range of flowers.

Bombus HypnorumWhat’s nice about Bombus hypnorum is that they’ve only been here since around 2001, when they hopped over the Channel and were spotted in Wiltshire. I would guess they’re now one of our more common bumblebees, despite some folk still claiming they’re a rare new import. Nevertheless, I was still chuffed to find a colony in our back garden in an old bird box, behaving very typically.
They’re an interesting illustration of the constant change in our flora and fauna. The Tree Bumblebee seems to be drifting north like other bumblebees, probably as its traditional range is getting too warm. As far as I’m aware Bombus hypnorum doesn’t do any harm, so it’s a benign “non-native” and a distinctive addition to our wildlife. Vive la difference!

Bees and Pesticides

The bees and pesticides argument rages on. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the current debate on neonicotinoids, but let’s just say the quality of it leaves something to be desired. There’s much bloody mindedness, politics, mudslinging and finger pointing going on. I’m pleased it has highlighted the decline in bee populations though, which seem to me to be the canary in the coal mine. A ban on neonicotinoids would of course be helpful, but I’m increasingly concerned that folk see this as an instant panacea. Once this single and high profile issue is sorted out – as I hope it will be – then will all be well again? I’m afraid it won’t.

We’re talking here mostly about honeybees and pesticides, as they’re the only bee we know much about. They have a lot to cope with at the moment other than neonicotinoids. For a start there has been the weather here. I have lost a really nice swarm which I hived last summer. Heartbreaking. I did everything right, but they just gave up. Most of my competent beekeeping friends report significant mortality over the extended winter, following last year’s filthy summer. These are experienced beekeepers who keep their bees really well; they’re not over-interventionist or “commercial”, nor do they just trust to luck. We’ve all dealt with the recent enemies of honeybees – nosema and varroa – but this is a new battle.

Bees and Pesticides
Photo: Penn State University

Yesterday I went to a fascinating talk by Maryanne Frazier, of Penn State University’s Centre for Pollinator Research, on bees and pesticides. This reinforced the multiple challenges honeybees are facing. Like many honeybee scientists, Maryanne’s best guess is that there is no single smoking gun behind bee declines in the U.S., but rather a complicated matrix of factors weakening honeybees’ immune systems.

Bees and pesticides don’t mix, and the cocktail of pesticides her team are finding in pollen and wax are horrific. They found 31 pesticides in one pollen sample. The average is 6, which is bad enough*. These pesticides can have sub-lethal effects, they can be systemic (like neonicotinoids) and they impact on larva and adult bees in different ways, so their effects are difficult to assess.

What’s worse is that they can be synergistic, so that in combination their impact can be much more extreme than you can predict. Neonicotinoids are very toxic, but more traditional pesticides combine to have really unpleasant effects on colonies. This is true of fungicides and miticides too. Why do I mention miticides? The vast majority of wax in U.S. hives has traces of stuff called Fluvalinate, which was routinely used to wack varroa mites and combines unpleasantly with other pesticides. Fungicides too can be dangerous to bees as they impact microbial activity in the bee gut. Bees also suffer much more exposure to them, as they’re used indiscriminately.

There’s also an issue in the U.S. with the vast monocultures that migratory bee colonies are asked to pollinate. Honeybees are “polylectic” – that’s to say that like Bumblebees they prefer different types of forage to provide a varied and healthy diet. Large scale U.S. commercial beekeeping must add to the strees that these honeybees experience.

So what does Maryanne recommend we do?
1. Manage our honeybees better. We can’t just leave them to fend for themselves, but we can adopt better beekeeping practices. I’d like to think they’re the sort of things I promote already. Change wax regularly, leave lots of stores so artificial feeding is only necessary in dire circumstances, and leave be throughout the autumn and winter months. It’s not rocket science.
2. Provide diverse and season long sources of forage.
3. Improve our regulatory agencies. As in the U.K., U.S. regulators are only interested in the lethal effects of individual toxins on a small group of affected species, which is hopeless. Realistically, we’re not going to be able to stop people using pesticides and honeybees, with their vast ranges, are going to be exposed to them. We have to make sure that the damage that does to them is as limited as possible.
It’s worth pointing out that we can all help with points 2 and 3 by being bee friendly gardeners!

*I hasten to add that the honey itself has no problem. Most of these nasties are fat soluble rather than water soluble, so turn up in beeswax and not honey.

Neonicotinoids again

I’m sure the various campaigns to ban neonicotinoids waged by people like Buglife, the Friends of the Earth and the BBCT are going to carry the day in the UK. I’m confident not least because they are backed by inceasingly persuasive science and, recently, Brussels. A number of retailers have started taking neonicotinoid based products like Bayer’s Provado off the shelves. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee is hearing evidence about them too.
Just as I thought neonicotinoids were about to get booted into touch in the UK, the agrichemical business is fighting a spirited rearguard action to save them. I wanted to pick up one point in particular from that, which I heard repeated again on the radio this morning by a man from Syngenta.

Foraging bumblebee
Varroa has been a significant problem for honeybees. These are imported mites which attach themselves between the thoracic plates of honeybees and weaken the bees by sucking hemolymph. They also act as vectors for viral diseases. The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, has been defenceless against them. There are now treatments and ways of managing honeybee colonies which help the bees, and a lot of research is going on in this area.

The man from Syngenta said that bee losses were largely a consequence of varroa, not neonicotinoids. This is disingenuous. Recent research suggests the effects of neonicotinoids on honeybees are most marked when in combination with other problems, like the kind of viral diseases spread by Varroa destructor. The key point I wanted to make, though, is this. VARROA ONLY AFFECTS HONEYBEES. There is one honey bee in the UK. As I have blogged before, There are 26 Bumblebees and something over 240 species of solitary bees. Why are they declining? If it’s not varroa what is it? Some of the most persuasive recent research has looked at the impact of neonicotinoids on bumblebees. As for neonicotinoids’ effect on solitary bees (and butterflies, hoverflies, etc.), well… er… we don’t really know.

I did agree with the man from Syngenta when he said that banning neonicotinoids might not halt bee declines, and if it happens there’s a danger bees will disappear off the map of public awareness. There’s climate change, habitat loss, disease, new predators – all sorts of threats which still have to be dealt with.

“Official: Mobile Phones are Killing Bees”

This has been the headline across social media this week, which has been blithely repeated and repeated with increasing excitement as if it is fact. Some bloke in Switzerland has published a paper which suggests that “active mobile phone handsets in beehives noticeably induce the rate of worker piping”, which apparently they do when you put a handset in a hive. This becomes “mobile phones are killing honeybees” in the hands of the Daily Mail, the latest in a line of similar stories which have been debunked.
It would be great if mobile phones did kill bees, but I very much doubt they do anymore than solar storms or power lines. “Great” because it would give us a single target to tackle. The truth is much more complicated, as bee scientist Jamie Ellis points out in BBKA News:

I think there is compelling reason to believe that synergisms between stressors are more problemmatic for a colony than any one stressor. There seems to be a growing body of evidence to support this assertion. Regardless, I think it benefits everyone involved with this issue to look at the data critically and approach these losses reasonably.

I have talked about this before in the context of neonicotinoids, which unlike phones really are problematic – but one of several/many problems. Unfortunately, in this case as many others in the natural world, the truth is too complicated and fuzzy for the 140 characters of a Twitter message or, if you are a reader of a blog like this, 1040. Anyway, it gives me a feeble excuse to post a nice picture of a Bombus lapidarius queen on our demo meadow a couple of days ago. Yes, I know it’s a bumblebee not a honeybee – but then who cares? Certainly not the Daily Mail…


Apparently Twitter is in a mess this afternoon as spammers have rather brilliantly taken advantage of a flaw in the microblogging site’s security to shunt loads of largely pornographic spam onto people’s desktops. It’s a bit of a relief, to be honest. We (the corporate “we”) Tweet regularly, as the powers that be reckon it’s a good thing for us and some of the folk we promote. I’m not so sure – for a start it’s the IT department (i.e. me) that has to do it. Secondly, I’ve got about a million other things to do in an average day. Last off, what am I trying to do and who am I on Twitter?

I belong to classes two, three and five of the five types of micro-bloggers:
1. PERSONALITIES (Stephen Fry)
2. Corporates (Jamie Oliver)
3. [Wannabe] Activists (Sarah Brown)
4. The under-employed and restless (no names mentioned)
5. Home workers (media professionals, mums, etc.)

Originally it was an amusing instant messaging service for fans and friends and used by people like me as a noticeboard, increasingly now for corporates but sometimes for interesting stuff. The communication is sometimes two way but mostly and increasingly not. There’s an awful lot of rubbish on it which gets regurgitated constantly, and you can’t target a potential audience or market. You can’t communicate properly with a group of followers and you can’t prioritise your messages. What chance of someone reading your message when they’re receiving tweets from another 5,000 people? The biggest problem, however, is its original appeal; the lack of reliability and discernment over the messages people chose to post.

It’s not so much that nothing worthwhile can be said in 140 characters (I think therefore I am (22)) or that Tweets are of themselves misleading. Most of the damage is done in the links the Twitterati cheerfully carry, however, and in the authority which they consequently assume. A good little example recently – a story about some poor bloke who was attacked and nearly killed by Africanised honeybees in Texas. Apart from bees going extinct, the best bee story is a bee attack story, so it attracted widescale coverage (the Press officially love bees, but they’re also on the list of scary and arcane country things like snakes and eggs coming out of hens’ bottoms and Lib Dem MPs). Anyway, the point is that we don’t have bees like this in the UK. You’re about as likely to be the victim of this kind of attack here as you are of being killed by an adder or an enraged chicken. Or becoming a Lib Dem MP. Unfortunately various well meaning tweeting members of the bee lobby picked the story up as it was bee related, and carried links to it. You know from experience that if you read a story in The Sun it only might be true, but if it’s endorsed by your tweeting bee friend then it’s a cause for real concern. And people are at least sensibly nervous of bees as everyone’s been stung at some point; before long folk are tweeting about the times they’ve been stung, how they were chased by a swarm, how their dog was attacked, etc.,etc.. As if this wasn’t bad enough the same story will pop out of the woodwork all over again in a few months time once it has gone around the virtual globe a couple of times. I increasingly read news stories via Twitter which were news six months ago. If we’re not going to pay for decent journalists and decent content any more we need to learn to be much more careful about who we read and what we’re reading as well as when we’re reading it.

We also need to be careful about thinking that the twittersphere and the blogosphere are the real world. Is Stephen Fry more important than the Prime Minister because he has 100,000 more folk following him on Twitter? Perhaps put it a different way; am I one of the most influential people in Somerset because I am one of the top 10 Tweeters by followers in the county? Er… I don’t think so. Entertainment and reality are uneasy bedfellows and increasingly as confused as spin and fact. It’s the people actually doing stuff in the real world who matter.

Garden Plants for Butterflies and Bees

Symphytum officinale
Not so good for honeybees...
We’re often asked to come up with a top ten list of garden plants for butterflies and bees, and I’m never quite sure what to say. IBRA (the International Bee Research Association) produce an excellent book, Plants for Bees, with notes telling you whether a plant is particularly good for nectar or pollen, or for bumblebees as opposed to honeybees. It helpfully also covers trees and native plants, which are, of course, important as food plants for butterfly and moth larvae. The British Beekeepers’ Association provide a helpful list, as do the standard beekeeping books I use. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation have good summaries on their websites too. Anway, everyone I talk to or read seems to have their own favourites so I’m just going to come up with some general guidelines pinched from various reliable sources:

    1. Always prefer single flowered cultivars over double flowered.
    2. Don’t buy the fancy hybrids you saw on offer at the local garden centre. If they’re not sterile the chances are that any pollen or nectar they have will be inaccessible. Think wildflowers, or cottage garden perennials, or herbs.
    3. Try to ensure that you provide a continuous supply of forage throughout the active season for bees and butterflies. Different butterfly species and different generations are around from spring until autumn. The trend towards warmer winters means bees could be flying almost any time throughout the year; they need pollen particularly in the spring and early summer for their brood, then increasingly nectar for honey. Traditionally beekeepers referred to a period in mid summer as the “June gap”, when there is often a temporary shortage of flowers which it is useful to compensate for too.
    4. Plant in clumps. Jan Miller makes this point in her helpful article in the latest edition of The Cottage Gardener; butterflies can’t see well and will find groups of flowers more easily.
    5. Plant a variety of plants. Bees seem to be healthier if they are not surrounded by a monoculture, and on a practical basis different species need different sorts of flowers as they have different length tongues. Long tongued bumblebees and solitary bees like the Hairy Footed Flower Bee love comfrey, for example, but short tongued honeybees can’t reach its nectaries.
    6. If you’re particularly keen on bumblebees, concentrate on plants from the pea family (Fabaceae), like the Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) or Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Dave Goulson explains why in his book “Bumblebees”; Fabaceae pollen has the richest protein and highest proportion of essential amino acids. These plants are also of great importance as a source of nectar.
    7. Plant British plants, particularly for butterflies. They need natives to provide food for their larvae, and most need very specific plants. Yellow Brimstones will come to your garden only if you plant Buckthorn. Andrew George’s book “The Butterfly Friendly Garden” has an excellent list of native plants and their associated butterfly species.
    8. Plant helpful trees if you can. There are a lot of flowers on an apple tree.
    9. Make a wildlife pond. Not only will you then be able to grow several of our most beautiful and nectar rich wildflowers (which we’d be happy to sell you!), but the water is good for every insect in the garden. For bees specifically, honeybees collect water (for their brood, to maintain humidity in the brood nest, and to dilute their own honey), and the mud is useful for mason bees to make their nests.
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud At The Pondside

Help for Bees

BBKA Calendar
BBKA Calendar
Today we’ve launched our historical herb collections, some of which might sound frivolous (Plague Garden?), but all of which actually have a serious intent. Although they’re a bit of fun, the collections’ historical context allows us to promote some unusual and half-forgotten herbs and native plants, and true species rather than less useful modern cultivars. All good stuff for pollinators, which is why half of the profit we make on them is going to either the LASI at Sussex University or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. There are lots of good plants in the British Beekeeper’s Association 2010 (there’s a depressing thought) calendar as well, which I had a sneak preview of today. It seems like an ideal stocking filler for the beekeeper in your life, but perhaps more importantly there’s a lot of gardening advice here and information for anyone with a general interest in helping wildlife. Nice photos too. Profits all go to the BBKA; you can pre-order directly from them here.