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?

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.


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.

Weed or Wildflower? Which is Which?

I always tell punters one man’s weed is another one’s wildflower. I’m not sure that’s strictly true in most cases. Problematic plants? I know dandelions and plantains can be a struggle for some in the garden, for example, despite their – to my mind – obvious allure.

Wildflower meadow
I see no weeds

Bittercress, dock and nettle – weed, I think, while acknowledging that “weed” isn’t all bad. I have a designated nettle patch that caterpillars much through. And – really – what’s the difference between Rumex obtusifolius (bad), Rumex acetosa (good) and – my favourite dock – Rumex hydrolapathum (fantastic).

I guess it’s a question of degree. We have a little video about making wildflower meadows, in which I made the mistake of saying weed out any thistles. Well, I say a mistake – it’s not; thistles are very efficient colonisers and a real pain in a new wildflower meadow. That’s not to say they aren’t good plants for pollinators and can be very pretty – as was pointed out to me in no uncertain terms (!) – but they can take over. Diversity is what you’re aiming for, and a field full of thistles isn’t that.

Anyway, Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal would not even hit my top 50 of “difficult” plants. We must have sold hundreds of kilos of BFT and Self-heal seed over the years, and thousands of plug plants. They are pretty, small wildflowers. Self-heal is in our flowering lawn mix and Birdsfoot trefoil looks like a native snapdragon. Good plants for a variety of pollinators, BFT particularly good for some bumbles.

I digress.

The point is, according to Farmer’s Weekly, that these two plants are on the naughty step. They are, apparently, “unwanted weeds”, albeit good weeds insofar as they improve fat levels in the lambs that eat them. Hurrah!

This is really irking, but an interesting insight into the psyche of Farmer’s Weekly readers. Many farmers still treat anything not the right sort of grass as a weed.

This has got to stop. I can understand farmers antipathy towards species like black grass and dock. But Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal? For starters, plants like this are good for livestock. You can buy grazing grass mixes which include them. They also have really important ecological value and their numbers are declining.

Perhaps Farmer’s Weekly should start to call them herbs, if they can’t bear “wildflowers”.








Wildflower Meadows: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

We sell a fair amount of seed for wildflower meadows. You might say wildflower meadows are a bit of an obsession, in fact. We do everything we can to make sure they’re going to work for our clients. We know where the seed has come from, we do random germination tests, we know how old it is and how it has been stored. We post guides and videos about how to make wildflower meadows. Things still seem to go wrong though… here are the three biggest bloopers folk commit.

1. What Is Your Seed and What Will It Do?

Do you know what you want to create and will the seed mix you buy give you that? Do you know what a “traditional” hay meadow will look like? Is that what you want? IF yes then remember… good things come to those who wait. Wait until you’ve done your prep. Wait until the right window to sow. Most importantly, wait for your meadow flowers to develop. They are    s      l      o      w growing perennials, which won’t flower in year one. Many might not in year two. Take pleasure in watching it develop. This hints at the next question…

2. Would You Sow Carrot Seed Onto Your Lawn?
No no and thrice no! And wildflower seed is often equally small and much more slow growing. Don’t chuck it on an existing pasture or lawn. If soil fertility is anything but LOW and there are any aggressive grasses about (which there almost certainly will be), your wildflower seed will end up being a waste of £££. There are exceptions to this*, but this is true of well over 90% of the sites we deal with. Clear a little space to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take it over. Create a little strip to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take it over. Scarify some of the grass off to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take over. You get the picture.

3. Be Brutal
There are some plants you don’t want in your meadow. Thistles have great biodiversity value but get everywhere. Dock looks like Sorrel, but is much less retiring. Nettles are great food plants for caterpillars but a curse in wildflower meadows. No thanks; all these need to go, and BEFORE they have any chance of setting seed. Don’t leave those thistles flowering because they’re a great food source for bees. Have them out, unless you want a thistle plantation.
Cut the grass before September. Please, please don’t wait until the last Knapweed has finished flowering. The grass will collapse before then and be virtually uncuttable. If you don’t cut it promptly and over the winter I guarantee you will soon be looking at a field full of grass, not a wildflower in sight. And that would be a great shame.

If all this is too worrying and you are to horticulture what I am to blacksmithing, just get us to do the whole thing for you.

Wildflower meadow
What’s all the fuss about?

*I can hear you thinking you might be one. If you think you might, get in touch. I’d be interested to hear from you and we can cook up a strategy for your site.


The Magic of Green Roofs

It has been three years since we planted the green roof for our new house with wildflower plug plants, which has turned out to be a fabulous success. For many, “green roof” is synonymous with “sedum roof”, p1080079we started off by colour bombing it with annuals while the slower growing perennials developed.
This sense of progression and change – like a wildflower meadow – is part of its fascination. Fortunately I can see it from my office window on the first floor! Its colours change through the season and species come and go depending on the weather. It’s much past its best now, but still lovely.

Green Roof in 2014
Green Roof in 2014
Also like a wildflower meadow, the roof serves as a wonderful habitat for all sorts of invertebrates and birds as well. Our wagtails love it, and we see different finches on it regularly too. Fingers crossed we might even have something nest on it next year!
p1080073Conditions on the roof are almost opposite to the wet clay hereabouts, so we can create diversity as well as a very different look with it. Wild Thyme and Scabious (pictured) do very well on it, for example, which we would never see normally here. There are some areas where the growing substrate is evidently more fertile than in others and the moisture retention in the substrate also varies, which gives diversity to the flora and flora within the roof too. Some areas still have a lot of bare earth, whereas others have almost tussocky grass.
p1080085It can be pretty hostile for the plants on the roof, which means I don’t need to do much more than weed it a couple of times a year. Things don’t grow to great size, and annual weeds generally don’t survive at all. In the first year I watered it a couple of times but now I don’t bother. I’ve just sown some Yellow Rattle this year to keep the grasses down a bit in some sections, too. What’s not to like?

What Does Yellow Rattle Look Like?

Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor
Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor
I’m often asked about Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor. It’s an attractive annual wildflower, good for bees, and which used to be common. Farmers didn’t want it in their meadows, however, as it parasitises grass and reduces its vigour. This makes it invaluable in establishing wildflowers in an existing sward, particularly where the grasses are vigorous and aggressive. I’ve written about it before extolling its virtues and explaining establishment.

Grass without Rattle
Grass without Rattle
I wanted to share some photos today, however. It’s difficult to explain what grass with Rhinanthus minor in it looks like; it doesn’t look sick but is much reduced in vigour. I thought a couple of pictures from one of of our meadow areas would illustrate that. This is an area
Grass with Yellow Rattle
Grass with Yellow Rattle
with relatively fertile soil and well established vigorous grasses. The grass without Rattle has already formed a thick sward up to two feet tall.
The area next to it which I seeded with Rhinanthus last autumn looks quite different. It had the same grasses and the same soil. The grass doesn’t look diseased or unhealthy – it’s just much reduced in volume and in size, to a height of about 6 inches in this case.

We sell Yellow Rattle seed through our sister website BritishWildflowerMeadowSeeds.co.uk.

When is a Wildflower not a Wildflower?

I am happy to report that this year Swansea is going to be more colourful than ever, due to the council sowing over 40,000 square metres of flowers this spring. Well done Swansea Council.

Swansea roundaboutLet’s just get this straight, though. Most of the “wildflowers” they are sowing might be wildflowers, but they’re wild in places much more exotic than the principality. Like South America or California. I’m not going to get into any debate in this blog about the relative merits of this kind of planting as against using our own wildflowers – what I want to say is much more simple.

In the UK people understand “wildflowers” to be British wildflowers. Simple. Not Californian poppies or Gaillardia, but species naturally occurring here (no, I’m not going to get into the argument about how long a plant has to be here before it is “native”). I reckon they can also reasonably expect any “wildflower” seed they buy to be harvested here from plants grown here.

That’s it.

Our Specialist Solar Seed Mixes

We have supplied specialist solar seed mixes to over seventy solar farms or parks in the UK, most of which we have seeded too.

These are usually mixes of British native wild flowers and grasses in combination. Seed mixes like this significantly enhance biodiversity on what was typically agricultural land, and are also relatively easy and cheap to manage. This is particularly true if the sites are grazed through the winter.

Solar seed mixes are also – in our experience – surprisingly easy to establish. The sites we’re working on are usually low grade land, so competition from aggressive weeds is less than you might think. In any case, starved of chemical enhancement, “fertile” soils often become infertile very quickly!

The caveat to these comments on ease of management and establishment is that is that weed management has to be done promptly and pro-actively. We sometimes find that neither budget nor management system allows for this.

Solar site in Hampshire, poor calcareous soil, 6 months after seeding (freakishly good!)
Solar site in Hampshire, 6 months after seeding, poor calcareous soil. Freakishly good result, using local direct harvest mix.

There is absolutely no “one size fits all” approach, as you might think if you read the blurb on some suppliers’ websites. There’s a whole range of options, to fit budget and site specifics. We work with ecologists and developers to come up with an ecologically appropriate solution specific to an individual site, which won’t break the bank.

There are some guidelines which we follow, however.

1. Always, always use seed with documented UK provenance.

2. Always, always use wild species, not agricultural cultivars. Cultivars of wild flowers, like Bird’s foot trefoil, don’t last very long and don’t benefit wildlife to the same degree that the wild plants do. “Wild flower” and grass cultivars grow much faster and much bigger; they will need a lot more cutting. Buying seed mixes consisting of agricultural cultivars is a false economy.

3. If possible, use a direct harvest seed mix with local provenance. This will be more appropriate, produce better results, and – frankly – look good in terms of corporate PR. These mixes are also typically great value for money, given their high floristic content.

4. Don’t be tempted to seed at less than 30kg/Ha – 40kg is ideal. There are some folk who recommend seeding down to 20kg. This won’t give you a reliable result.

5. Always find an experienced seeding contractor (like one of ours!). Sowing wild flower seed is a very different thing to drilling wheat.

6. Try to use a minimum of 80:20 grasses to wild flowers, if your budget allows. Sometimes specifications are 90:10 or even less, which mixes are cheaper but much less effective.

7. Don’t be tempted to use commercial “bird seed” mixes. These look cheap, but have limited value to invertebrates and require regular reseeding. A traditional wild flower meadow mix will not.

8. Look at the design of the site. The width of the arrays themselves as well as the alleys between them can dictate the solar seed mixes which will work best.

9. Manage expectations. Wild flower meadows aren’t built in a day. The longer they take to establish the more diverse they can end up.

10. Try to ensure the site operator follows an appropriate management regime.

Seed mixes for solar sites
Site in Oxfordshire, 18 months after seeding. Difficult, heavy soil.

Road Verges and Wildflowers

Floristic verge
Our verge, 2014
There has been a sad little story in the Press over the last couple of days about the hamlet of Owermoigne. Apparently Dorset Council have failed to mow the grass – and weeds – for eight months, although they promised to mow it seven times a year. The BBC website shows pictures of waist high grass and dock. This has meant the village has had to withdraw from a “best kept village competition”, although since the story broke the council has cut it again.

Why is this a sad little story? Firstly, if the council hadn’t mowed the bejeesus out of the village verges over the years this problem would not exist. There would be a riot of wildflowers instead of the only weeds and grasses aggressive enough to have survived this regime. Taking a “hay cut” after mid July and just keeping them tidy throughout the autumn and winter would have saved the taxpayer a small fortune too. Plantlife have been promoting proper verge management to encourage wildflowers and – who knows – it might catch on.

Secondly, if the verges of Owermoigne had been managed in a low cost wildflower friendly way over the years, you know what? I bet there’s no way the village would have won awards in the best kept village competition in 2004, 2005 and 2011. That’s the really depressing thing; it seems like we want all of our public spaces to look like the playing fields we no longer have.

A meadow in winter

We have some meadow areas in our field here. They’re now just starting their third year, and coming on nicely. We’re using them to show off some of the different seed mixes we sell, so they’d better do well!

Meadows in winterOne thing many people don’t do is to keep their meadows cut short over the winter. If you want a tussocky look with a lot of grasses – great for voles, thence raptors – that’s one thing, but for a “traditional” hay meadow look you need to cut it short. And keep it short until the spring. Your medieval farmer would have taken the hay cut then have livestock in the field for most if not all of the winter. Hooves pushed seed into the mud and the grass was nibbled low. I use a sit on mechanical sheep to achieve the same effect.

Keeping your meadow like this in winter not only makes it tidy, but also allows sunlight to reach the perennial wildflowers. These typically form low lying rosettes which aren’t harmed by cutting, even very tightly. Most over-wintering insects, eggs and larvae are unharmed too, particularly as we do leave areas around the margins which we will only cut every 3 years in rotation. Mowing also gives wildflower seeds a chance to germinate and flourish. I’m thinking particularly of Yellow Rattle, which is an early germinating annual. It’s also true that removing the cuttings will reduce fertility.

If we didn’t cut our meadow areas like this the grasses would take over and we would lose the diversity and colour wildflowers bring.

A Sense of Perspective

WildflowersI’ve just got back from an indecently long hols in France, which, yes, was lovely thank you. We did a round trip, with three days of World War One battlefields before heading down south for some sun (and fab wildflowers!), then up through Brittany after dropping our youngest off for his French exchange.

Joseph Charles Smith
Great Uncle Joe
The first leg was pretty sobering. I’d done some homework on relatives in the war before leaving; all the men of that generation in the family fought on the Western Front. I had grandfathers who somehow survived and great uncles who were killed. I won’t bore you with the details, but their individual stories are both unexceptional and moving. In particular, the odds of my father’s father surviving* were very long indeed. It’s a miracle I’m here.

The stories of these men put current worries into perspective. Is this something we have trouble doing, in everyday life as well as in politics? In a complicated and news saturated world we increasingly just respond to simplified cues suggested by the media.

It happens on the environmental front too. Dave Goulson, in his new book “A Buzz in the Meadow”, asks why we are apparently so unconcerned about collapsing insect numbers while at the same time as getting in a state about the cuddly panda, an animal with no known ecological value other than just existing.

In a similar vein, I was talking to the MD of a renewable energy firm about the abuse he has had at planning meetings. He has even had death threats, bizarrely. He runs a genuinely ethical business and is committed to community engagement, reducing fossil fuel emissions, etc etc. He was at a dinner where he sat next to a director of BAT, the cigarette makers. Out of curiosity he asked him how many threats he had had over the years. None. How weird is that? Our local town has a FB page and the size of the threads on potential nearby renewable projects dwarfs anything else on it. Apparently folk are as hostile to renewables as they are to fracking – when they’re proposed on local sites. They’re a lot more wound up about it than any other issue out there.

Come on people, let’s think about what history and science can teach us and get our sense of perspective back.

*Cpl. A.B. Mann, Machine Gun Corps (36% casualty rate), served with 51st Highland Division (25%), 1916-1918. Fought at the Somme (High Wood and Beaumont Hamel), Passchendaele (Pilckem Ridge), Arras (Roeux), Cambrai (Flesquieres), Bapaume, etc. As a completely irrelevant aside, somehow the thought of this 18 year old from Streatham fighting in the desperate circumstances of industrialized war to the skirl of the pipes makes me very opposed to Scottish independence… And talking of the pipes: