What is Going on Out There?

When I was slogging through Physical Science O Level (Grade C, which shows there is a God) I think I assumed that the Victorians had done all the hard work in our back gardens, dissecting, pinning and establishing elaborate taxonomies. Perhaps that’s why we gave up doing it, so that books like Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden, containing 30 years of acute observation, are now so startling.
I’m often reminded about how little we know about what is happening outside our back doors when people start discussing bees, which you might think we know a great deal about. Last weekend I pootled off to enjoy a pint and the carvery at the Somerset Beekeepers’ annual bash and catch up with a few folk. Francis Ratnieks, he of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at Sussex, was the key speaker. Francis is the only professor of apiculture in the country, which gives you a sense of the scale of research done here as well as how over-worked his lab must be. Power to him for flogging down to Somerset, completely unpaid, on a Saturday.
Whenever I listen to Francis I come away with the same feelings – how sensible and practical the approach of his group is and how little we know about honeybees. Take flowers, for example. There are endless lists of good bee plants available on websites, in books, and through lectures. I’m aware of academic work that has been done on various seed mixes and agricultural schemes as well, but it turns out not much has been done on garden plants. The Lab in Sussex now have a PhD student measuring the popularity of 30 perennials with honeybees – just the sort of thing your Victorian rector would have done.
Francis reckons the important thing is to help honeybees through the July/August gap, when, counter-intuitively, there are now few flowers in the countryside. Lavender and Borage are his top tips. I’m sure this is true, but I’m not so confident it should be a gardener’s sole priority. In Somerset a major source of colony loss over the last few years has been starvation; warm winter days mean bees fly and use their honey stores too quickly, as there is no forage to be had. By the spring they’ve starved to death. Queen bumblebees use up their reserves too quickly too. It makes sense to me and others – although of course we can’t prove it – for gardeners to concentrate on providing all year round nectar and pollen as much as filling any other gaps there might be in forage locally.
The same lack of certainty fuels the fire of impassioned debate about bees in other areas, most notably the effects of the new generation of systemic pesticides. How pernicious neonicitinoids are no-one really knows – which is a very good reason why they should be banned. We are as far from being well informed about honeybees as I was from getting an A in my Physical Science – and this is an insect we know relatively lots about. Keep up the good work, LASI!

Habitat Aid Newsletter No.5: 13th May 2010

This cold dry weather is a nightmare, but I suppose at least it’s given me time to sit down and write a newsletter. I’ve been a very busy boy over the last month, so much to catch up on.

We ran our first course in April, which seems to have been a great success. Tutored by Hugh Roberts of Environments for People we all learnt how to build a wildlife pond, now sitting in front of me. Thanks to Hugh and to our wetland plant supplier Gower Wildflowers. The pond’s already populated by a selection of interesting looking invertebrae, and the swallows are collecting mud from it as I write. All very rewarding. Next off are our meadow days, run by Sue Everett, on the 11th and 12th June.

I flogged up to Sheffield last week to go to an intriguing workshop on Green Roofs and Living Walls, which is an area we’re keen to get more involved with. We already have a relationship with a consultant, and supply generic native seed and plug mixes for green roofs, but hope to do a lot more in future to encourage folk to plant native plants rather than just use the sedum mats they have done in the past. Green Roofs in particular seem to me to be a fantastic and practical way to encourage biodiversity in urban areas – among other advantages!Green roof in Sheffield

I also hope we can do more work with seeds, where we are starting to supply end business customers directly. After a successful trial we are supplying the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA Enterprises Ltd.) with two native seed mixes particularly helpful for bees, which I have high hopes for. We’re also supplying Flowerworld with the seed for a 50,000 sachet promotion at Morrisons to promote the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Our other bee related news is that we’re expanding our range of plants and exotic trees for bees as a result of some suggestions from Andy Willis at the BBKA Spring Convention and Norman Carreck at the Laboratory for Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex. They’ll be supplied by R.V.Roger and available from this autumn.

We are seeing the first fruits of our work with designers, sourcing native plants for some very exciting schemes. We’re both promoting those currently working with habitat creation in mind, and encouraging others to think about it more.

As to life here, Kingsley the new ram has been a success and the mad Runner Ducks are laying again, albeit mostly not in their Duck house. My bees are happy too, and I’ve set up a couple of bait hives for them. Mike the gardener’s grand veg plot looks great and our various mini-meadows look promising too – if only it would rain!

Poll Dorset in the orchard
Post Kingsley moment in the orchard

Bee Beano

I went to a day hosted by the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex last week to catch up with their latest work, to learn more about honeybees, and to network. What a good day it was. Two aspects of the event struck me as being particularly helpful.
LASII always enjoy listening to scientists talking about bees, particularly those of practical bent. I am regularly confused by (mis)information proffered by journalists and enthusiasts who often have some sort of agenda of their own. These arguments can understandably generate a lot of heat as a consequence, so it was particularly refreshing to bathe in the cool waters of scientific enquiry for a day. I learnt a lot, some of which I should have known but didn’t, and a fair bit that was completely new to me (including, by the way, that the pinky red colour that Horse Chestnut flowers turn means that they have been pollinated).
The second helpful thing was the mix of folk there. I’ve been struck over the last year by the dislocation there can be between conservationists/ecologists and the commercial sector. Events like this are brilliant in getting people to understand where the different sides are coming from. There is a very commercial relevance to honeybees of course, and that was reflected by the attendees. Rowse Honey, Waitrose and Burt’s Bees are major funders of the lab, and Marks and Spencer were there too, together with some commercial beekeepers. There were government bodies as well as teachers, journalists, and folk from a wide range of conservation charities, local and national.
Congratulations to LASI and the University of Sussex for coming up with the idea. I’m sure it will grow and become an important date in the Bee Calendar.

Holistic Beekeeping

HoneybeeA bee blog is always good for a bit of a punch up, so time for a quick thought before I start to go through all my spare frames as the snow starts to fall again.
Late last year I went to a lecture from a holistic beekeeper, hosted by my local Association. I went feeling antagonistic but left in contemplative mood. It turns out my approach is intuitively more “holistic” than I’d thought.
By way of background for non apiarists, there is of course a great deal of research going on (not least at the excellent Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex) and speculation in bee circles about the well-publicized declines in honeybee numbers. One argument is that a contributory factor to hive mortality has been the over-commercialization of bee keeping. Current practices can be pretty aggressive and interventionist, particularly in some places in the world, so no surprise, the theory goes, that these parts are where problems like Colony Collapse Disorder have become such an issue. The holistic camp see these apiaries as the equivalent of battery chicken farms; the parallel is alluring as they have been created by similar commercial pressures.
Personally I think that’s going a bit far, but I do sympathize. This isn’t going to get technical – I’m absolutely not qualified to do that – but there are some things I do which just make sense to me personally and which “natural beekeepers” would approve of. Whenever possible I use mechanical rather than chemical intervention (although this is tricky for proper disease control), and keep it to a minimum.
The BBKA has been giving alternative beekeeping some airplay recently – hats off to them – and beekeepers can follow the link to find out more about holistic beekeeping and the Warre hive. As for honey consumers rather than producers the message is simpler – as usual, if you can, buy local.
Related posts: Honeybees LASI

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.