The Garden Jungle (Dave Goulson)

I don’t think I’ve written a book review since third form, but felt moved to write briefly about Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle.

Spoiler alert: I would have been surprised if I didn’t like it. I’m familiar with Dave’s work as a scientist, author and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

OK, so the book’s not perfect. There are some things which didn’t quite work. The chapters are headed by recipes, which add to its charm, but which I’m not sure fit. It’s sometimes stylistically clunky. These are small things. This is a book I would love to have written, full of key ideas about fighting biodiversity loss and climate change. I couldn’t find anything I disagreed with either philosophically or in practical terms*, and came across many – possibly most – of the messages I’ve tried to communicate over the years.

Orchards, meadows, ponds, and – of course – a fantastical cast of small animals. These are some of my favourite things. How lovely to read about them and their importance here. And the section on chemicals deserves close attention too; Dave was one of the earliest to sound the alarm on the effects of neonicotinoids.

It is – of course – a book which is well informed and evidence based throughout. Concepts are delivered in an accessible, practical, non-preachy, and upbeat way. Dave’s enthusiasm for the subject drives the book on. He takes no prisoners; I loved the section on wildflower seed, for example.

I often – usually – almost always – have reservations about this sort of book. Last year we had “Rewilding”; I struggled to get past some odd misconceptions and to understand its broader relevance. “The Garden Jungle” is different. There are really empowering ideas here for us all, and the more of us who read this book the better. Let’s all get out in the garden and dig.

*although would probably buy my wildflower seed from… here!

Notre Dame and the Great Yellow

Like you, I watched appalled as Notre Dame burned. It felt like a complicated metaphor for all sorts of things, and a crushing visceral wound. It was amazing but not so surprising then, the fire’s embers still warm, that people, government and businesses had already pledged $800 million towards its reconstruction.

Notre Dame is a thing that can be rebuilt. It won’t be the same, of course, but it can and will happen. Other cathedrals have been rebuilt. We can understand something of the complications of that, and the scale of the project. We can agree on the importance and scale of the work. It will cost a lot of money, but not an unimaginable amount. And at the end of it there will be a physical manifestation of the generosity of donors, private and public.

Fund raisers in the environmental world would chew their arms off to be working on a project like this.

The Great Yellow, Bombus distinguendus (Credit: BBCT & Nick Owens)

Understandably – to an extent – funders ask for “measurable outputs”. Like a cathedral. Doing genetic research into a bumblebee* that’s going extinct is less attractive. How do you value its results? Are they going to have a clear message (probably not)? It’s somewhat lower key in terms of PR, as well. Science doesn’t necessarily give “value for money” in terms of “outputs” – that’s kind of the point.

In my own efforts to raise money, however, this hasn’t been the main blockage. While it’s true that the wealthy in the UK are really bad at giving, there are other problems afoot.

We still seem to have an issue with valuing nature. Giving to environmental causes, even in an animal friendly country like the UK, is under 6% of the total. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s the difficulty of it. If a species is going extinct you can’t just throw a few million quid at it and then guarantee its survival (a few million quid! We just need £20,000 to have a proper look at dear old Bombus distinguendus.)

In my experience, people readily buy into the evidence supporting declines in invertebrate numbers, for example. More often than not they agree on the reasons for them. They might also like the work that the charity does that I’m shaking the tin for. BUT they feel it’s hopeless.

Faced with global biodiversity “apocalypse” or climate change “armageddon” they give up. Or, rather, they don’t even start.

And it’s really, really important that they do. That YOU do.

Because the only way we can tackle these vast, complicated, worrying issues is through individual actions, translated into collective will. Our responses to them won’t be ideal – haven’t been ideal. Our financial commitment won’t have clear outcomes. Let’s give it a go, though. Together we can do this.

*The Great Yellow, Bombus distinguendus , in this case.

What’s Happening To Our Butterflies And Bees?

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?

Bees
Bye-bye bumblebees?

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.

Solutions

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.

Known Unknowns

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.

Plants For Bees In Late Winter

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.

Peacock Butterfly on Blackthorn

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.

Crocuses

Crocus tommasinianus
Honeybee and crocus

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)

Bumblebee queen and hellebore
Bombus terrestris queen and hellebore


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)

Honeybee and Cherry plum

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)

Almond blossom
Almond blossom

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.

*If you’re a fan you should plant pulmonaria.

Green Brexit Greenwash – and Some More Cheerful News

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.

*Sigh*

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.

Cheerful News
Photo: Stephen Vaughan

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.

 

 

Breakfast!

As you’d expect, we have lots of goodies around the garden for bees at this time of year. I’d already seen my honeybees on the crocuses and today – great excitement – two Bombus pratorum queens (the “Early bumblebee, well named) foraging on our generous helpings of hellebores.

We have plenty of other early season pollen and nectar available too. It’s particularly important for bumblebee queens to fatten up again after a winter spent hibernating, and for honeybees to find pollen for their young as their colonies start to expand again. Myrobalan, cherry plum, is particularly valuable as it comes into blossom so early – what a great plant. Quick growing, tough as old boots, it was often used as a windbreak around orchards and lays very nicely in a hedge.

Less traditional are the wacky willows I’ve planted down by the pond, which flower exotically at odd times of year. These will be pollarded in traditional Somerset style. Good fun. The bees seem to like them too, covered as they are with masses of yellow pollen.

I’ve been sad that our lungwort has failed to attract any hairy-footed flower bees this year. There were some around the old back garden, before we built out new house, and I planted their favourite plant in reasonable numbers. Oh well. I’ll divide them up and we’ll see if that improves things. I’ve been pleased to see a random Coltsfoot plant appear in the meadow, though. It’s an odd looking thing, but a lovely splash of yellow before the dandelions get going. Good native bee plant too.

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
Stop!
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.

Three Bees

There’s often general confusion between different types of bees, and I thought it might be helpful to clarify who’s who in a brief introduction. In the U.K. we have honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees, and each are quite distinct. They all collect pollen (for protein) and nectar (carbohydrates) from flowers, but live in different ways and have different problems.

Honeybees
Bee_plants_crocusThere’s one species of honeybee in the UK – the European or western honeybee Apis Mellifera (Apis = bee, mellifera = honey producing).They can look darker or yellower, though, as there are different strains around. They are social bees, living in highly organized colonies of up to 60,000 bees, where they store large amounts of honey to eat throughout the winter. They travel up to 12km to find the nectar and pollen they need, and they forage in groups. Each colony usually has a single queen, who typically survives for several years. These are the bees we keep, and are most commonly mistaken for wasps.

Bumblebees
White-tailed_bumbles_sedumThere are currently 25 different species of bumblebee in the UK, although only 7 are common (including a recent import from France). Different species have different length tongues, adapted to collect nectar from different sorts of flowers; longer tongued bumblebees can access flowers honeybees and solitary bees can’t. People notice the queen bumblebees in particular, as they look for nest sites in the spring after hibernating or when the new queens fatten themselves up in the autumn (as in the photo). They’re big bees! Most bumblebees nest underground, often in deserted mouseholes or in places like compost heaps, and colonies are very small – only a few hundred. They’re not as well organized as honeybees and produce no food stores to over-winter on; the queens only last a season and the colonies break up in the autumn. They’re not as mobile either, and forage on their own over much shorter distances. They’re visually easy to distinguish from honeybees; they’re much furrier.

Solitary Bees
solitary-bee-3Astonishingly there are over 240 species in the UK. Hardly noticed, they go busily about the garden, typically nesting in the ground (mining bees), in wall crevices (cavity nesters) or in decaying wood (carpenter bees), according to the species. They can do well in the solitary bee boxes you can buy or make. They have relatively simple and short lives, which are concentrated on producing and safeguarding their eggs. These are sometimes protected with physical barriers constructed by the bees, typically made of mud or leaves – cut in neat half circles from plants like roses. We know remarkably little about solitary bees, which are thought to be the major pollinators of flowers in the UK. Oh, and they’re stingless.

Mimics
Hoverfly_Helophilus_trivittatus_asterThere are lots of flies which mimic all three types of bees for their own sometimes nefarious purposes. Hoverflies are often mistaken for them, but once you’ve got your eye in you’ll be able to see they fly very differently; hoverflies…er… hover.

Bee Problems
Honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees have their own diseases and parasites, which are much more problemmatic when in combination with the issues below. The best known is probably the varroa mite, which has done terrible damage to European honeybee populations – to the extent that there are pretty much no wild colonies left in Britain. It is now treatable in the apiary, but colonies need careful monitoring.
There are a cocktail of other nasties which effect all bees more or less, depending on your point of view:
1. Habitat loss: there are fewer flowers around and fewer of the right sorts of flowers, particularly wildflowers. Bees also need a variety of pollen and nectar sources pretty much throughout the year, from early bulbs to winter flowering shrubs and trees. You can do your bit to help by planting some bee friendly plants, particularly those flowering outside the summer months. Different flowers are good for different bees; I’d recommend Plants for Bees as an invaluable guide.
2. Climate change: warmer winters mean bumblebee queens break hibernation and honey bees become active before spring – i.e. before there are flowers out. The queens use up their fat reserves too quickly and the honeybees their honey, so they starve to death. This can be the single biggest cause of honeybee deaths in a bad year.
3. Pesticides: This is the debate which currently causes the most heat and noise. We’re now using systemic pesticides, neonicotinoids, whose introduction in different countries seems to have coincided suspiciously with dramatic declines in bee numbers. As they’re systemic they effect any insect that feeds off treated plants, which unfortunately includes the insects feeding off the pollen and nectar these plants produce. There’s mounting evidence suggesting the damage to bees from them is significant.*

*Since this post was first written, in 2012, this evidence has continued to accumulate. Neonicotinoids seem to have affected a wide range of animals very badly and their impact will take many years to properly evaluate.

Hampton Court Flower Show

The great and good admire our bumblarium
I’m just back from a busy but fun three days at Hampton Court with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and our bumblarium. The bees behaved beautifully, and the only hitch was the wet, which gave us some problems with condensation. We had gazillions of folk through the bee tent, which we shared with the Beekeepers’ Association and the RHS, who were promoting their Plants for Pollinators campaign. It was handy to have a bumblebee colony and honeybee observation hive next to each other so people could appreciate the differences between them, and to have the balance of the native flowers in the bumblarium together with the list of traditional garden plants the RHS recommend. The punters’ increasing awareness of gardens as habitats was really encouraging, as was their evident pleasure in seeing the bees.
All good stuff, and much of the show was very on message this year. I was particularly pleased to see Mat Byway’s Applebee garden, which we’d supplied some flowers to and which had been put together at breakneck speed. The Floral marquee had the usual stunning display from one of our suppliers, Downderry Nursery, from whom I’m buying lavender for the landscaping project here. I think we might feature lavender in the bumblarium next year.
I also had a chance to wander around the roses by way of planning my rose bed at Hookgate, which will include some real beauties. I’ve got a lot of favourites to squeeze in, but I also wanted to include some less familiar, bee friendly single roses like Sweet Pretty and Dainty Bess, which I found at the Pococks Roses stand.
My only regret about the show was missing Mark “Otter Farm” Diacono’s offer of free bucolic cocktails, but if he doesn’t run out I’m sure he’ll be delighted to serve you at his stand in the GYO section. Cheers!

The Biggest Bumblarium in the World

Here is the biggest bumblarium in the world, shown at its inaugural outing at the Gardener’s World Show at the NEC. I borrowed the idea from those nice folk at Wildflower Turf, whose lovely product (sold by us!) the bumblarium features. They put me in touch with Robin Dean of Red Beehive who had made a version for them which was hugely successful at the Ecobuild Show. Robin knocked up this one for us, and it was brilliant in attracting people to the stand we shared with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The bumblarium is like a vivarium for bumblebees, with a little colony of Bombus terrestris spp. audax (Buff-tailed bumblebees) and a wildflower meadow floor for them to play in. It excited a fair amount of interest and the cost and palaver of putting it up was further justified by getting a “Highly Commended” for it. The wildflower turf looked brilliant. The diversity of species in it – over 25 – meant we could have a competition asking people to name five of them. So what did we learn?

Oldies know their wildflowers much better than the young, but that’s not saying much! One lady asked me to identify the plant taking over her front garden as she hadn’t seen it before and she wondered if it was something so rare she should leave it. She’d even brought a cutting along to show me. Creeping Buttercup.

Many gardeners have a “wild section” in their garden which they leave untended. All well and dandy, but I did wonder how much more helpful a regime of relaxed management might be for bees. Dock and nettle aren’t renowned for their qualities as bee plants.

Another oddity which keeps coming up is the way people buy wildflower seeds and sow them. Even careful gardeners, who might spend hours at a horticultural show finding exactly the cultivar they wanted, cheerfully buy an unidentified packet of wildflower seed and just fling it on the lawn. They’re then disappointed when it doesn’t work – perhaps it’s just as well! I kept on suggesting people look at our how to make a wildflower meadow area video.

My longer term worry about wildflowers is the way they are becoming exclusively identified with a particular look – i.e. hay meadow – and that people aren’t using them in combination with cultivars in more formal schemes. If I had a small urban garden I’m not sure I’d have a meadow area myself, to be honest.

Most people are profoundly in the dark about different types of bees. We spent ages explaining the differences between bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees.

The Tree Bee, a recent arrival from France, is turning into something of a nuisance. A lot of people had problems with them taking over nestboxes, and their behaviour and predilection for raised nest sites means they’re not just obvious but also more likely to be annoying.

I was saddened to meet people who had bought bumblebees off the internet to put in their gardens. There’s a lively trade in bumblebee colonies to pollinate fruit in greenhouses – it’s how we got our bumblarium bees – but to buy them at vast expense for your own garden seems very peculiar, quite apart from any bio-hazard they may bring in. These colonies should be sourced very carefully and not overseas. Plant the right plants and they will come.