Tuesday, 15 November 2016

A very simple way to help wildlife...

Spoon billed sandpiper. 200 breeding pairs left in the world
Wildlife documentaries are being viewed and talked about by more people than ever before. We love them.

We love wildlife!

Yet this same wildlife that we love to watch and learn about on TVs or other devices is suffering unprecedented declines. We watch, in awe of the magnificent and diverse creatures we share this planet with, then we go shopping and buy food and products that contribute directly to their decline.

I could write a list of all the things we buy that cause damage, directly and indirectly, to the planet's ecosystems (and to human beings less fortunate than ourselves) but I'd be here all day. Things that contain palm oil, are wrapped in plastic, or have been grown using pesticides spring to mind to start with.

The bottom line is that we have the intelligence and the technical backup to search for information.... and we have the freedom of choice to make decisions and changes. If we all made a few changes and spent the money we have in our pockets in a more wildlife/human friendly way we would collectively make a difference.

Planting more flowers for pollinators, leaving wild areas in our gardens for wildlife, signing petitions, planting trees etc are all vitally important, but if we don't simultaneously look at what we buy and where/how we spend our money, then this is all for nothing.

Children get this when it is explained to them. Adults should too.

I know it is not easy to make changes and that the more ethical and environmentally sound choices are often more expensive. But that doesn't men we shouldn't at least try.

Do please watch the beautiful and powerful series China: Between Clouds and Dreams - it says it all!

x

Monday, 17 October 2016

Non-native invasive species. Friends or foe?


I've been thinking a great deal over the last few years about 'non-native invasive species' and wondering whether some might actually be more 'friend' than 'foe'.

Species like the Asian hornet are clearly a great threat to diversity because if they establish a foothold in the UK, they have the potential to wreak havoc on our bee population which, as well as being a concern in its own right, will of course have a knock on effect on the plants our native bees currently pollinate and the eco systems these plants support.

But what about other recent arrivals? What about Ivy bees and Tree bumblebees? Unlike the Asian hornet these species are not 'predators' nor have they arrived via human agency. But could they be competing with our existing population of bees (and other insects) for foraging and habitat? Do we know yet if this is the case? Does it matter? If not, why not? Maybe these and other new species arriving from Northern Europe will prove better equipped to deal with an ever changing landscape and climate that our existing bee species might struggle with in the future. 

And then there's Himalayan balsam. This plant is vilified by most, but having established itself is now providing much needed late season nectar and pollen for our native pollinators. Maybe, in time, it will turn out to have other benefits that we don't yet know about? Perhaps it will be better able to cope with climate change, rising temperatures and flooding than some of our native plants? And what would be the consequences to the eco systems it now helps to support if we were to pull it all up and completely eliminate it? I don't know the answers to these questions, but can't help wondering.

Food for thought.... and as an aside, I think we would do well to remember that we, the human race, cause more damage to biodiversity than all the invasive plants put together. When human beings talk about 'invasive species', the expression 'pots and kettles' springs to mind.

Against this backdrop of our (innate?) fear of non native invasive species taking over our countryside, is the current trend for more and more people to keep honeybees in towns and cities. I find myself unable to reconcile the fear of the former with the acceptance and encouragement of the latter.  Do those who set up new hives plant more pollen and nectar rich plants to help sustain their increasing honeybee populations? If not, and if natural resources are limited, do these hives then need to be routinely fed on sugar water over winter? And how do native bumblebees, solitary bees and other pollinators cope when tens of thousands of extra (managed) honeybees are suddenly introduced to an area where the existing floral resources are already depleted?

I ask these last questions (about bees) because where I live in Shaftesbury, North Dorset, I have seen a huge increase in the number of honeybee hive being kept by local beekeepers over the last couple of years. Where these colonies are at their most dense I am now noticing that bumblebees are conspicuous by their absence on sedum and other plants popular with the honeybees, whereas further out of Shaftesbury, in surrounding villages where there are not so many beehives, the sedum, at least, is covered in bumblebees and butterflies in the autumn. 

So many questions, but not many answers.  On balance, I have to say I am no longer sure what to think, per se, about non-native invasive species.... especially when I am noticing, first hand, our native wild bees being outcompeted on some flowering plants by the increase in popularity for keeping honeybees.

If you are interested in exploring these questions further, you might like to read The New Wild by Fred Pearce. A very thought provoking book!

Also, check out this post on Biff Vernon's Blogspot.

With many thanks to twitter friend @dolly_and_dj for allowing me to use her beautiful photograph x

P.S. I should add (in case it appears that I am picking on beekeepers) that my partner and I have a few hives ourselves and are fortunate enough to be able to keep our bees out of town in an area where there are very few other beekeepers.


Sunday, 9 October 2016

Have you seen this bee?!


Ivy bee Colletes hederae
It's Sunday 9th October. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and the Ivy is in full flower.

Common Ivy Hedera helix provides an abundance of autumn pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinators. So sweet and powerful is its scent that you can usually locate flowering ivy by smell alone, but if your sense of smell fails you, just close your eyes and listen.... for, on a day like this, it is literally alive with the buzzing and humming of insects.

If you find a patch of flowering ivy, perhaps you might consider taking a little time out to stop and look more closely at the myriad insect species feasting upon its rewards. On a warm day like this you are likely to see honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, wasps, flies, hoverflies AND - depending on where in the country you live - Ivy bees

Ivy bees Colletes hederae are relatively new to the UK. They were first recorded in Dorset in the early 2000's, but have since been recorded in other southern counties. They are now expanding their range north and have, this week, been recorded for the first time in Heysham, Lancashire.

Ivy bees are 'solitary bees'. They do not live in social colonies like honey bees or bumblebees, but nest alongside each other in large aggregations, usually in banks of compacted sandy soil.

BWARS (Bees, Wasps & Ants recording Society) are mapping and monitoring the spread of this bee, but need our help to do this. All they ask, is that you take photos of any Ivy bees you see and submit them on line to the BWARS mapping project or on iRecord . Either will do.

I shall add a couple of photos below of other insects that people often mistake for Ivy bees, but if you're still not sure, upload your photo to iRecord and someone in the know will help you identify it.

iRecord is SO worth signing up to anyway, because it is a wonderful way to manage all your wildlife sightings.


So, have an adventure! Make some sandwiches, dig out a flask, get your walking boots on, stick your camera in your bag and become a citizen scientist!  Of course you may have ivy growing and flowering in your back garden, in which case I suggest you grab a cup of tea and a deck chair instead of your walking boots and rucksack. Either way, today might be the day you find and identify your first Ivy.... and if you live up North you might just be the first to record an Ivy bee in your neck of the woods.

Here's the link for iRecord again - iRecord

A fact sheet about Ivy bees - Fact sheet

Submit sightings here - BWARS mapping project

And finally, some photographs of insects that are NOT Ivy bees.....

N.B You can easily tell the wasps apart because they are predominantly yellow, but hoverflies can sometimes be quite confusing. The hoverfly in the photo below behaves for all the world as though it were a bee, but check out its large 'fly eyes' and short antennae and you will see they are very different to those of a bee. Bees have more oval shaped eyes and long antennae.

If it is carrying pollen on its legs then it is definitely either a honeybee, a bumblebee or a solitary bee. Other insects do not carry pollen. However, if it's not carrying pollen it could still be a bee because bees also forage for nectar.

Honey bee Apis mellifera
Bumblebee Bombus terrestris photo by Gordon England 

Hoverfly Eristalis pertinax



Common wasp Vespula vulgaris






Sunday, 2 October 2016

Asian Hornets and Human Beings: what do they have in common?

Asian hornet Vespa velutina (Image from Wildlife Trusts)
I've been thinking a great deal about the Asian hornet, Vespa velutina, which could wreak havoc on honeybees and native wild bees in the UK if left unchecked.

For those who are unaware, an Asian hornet nest was found recently near Tetbury, Gloucestershire. It has now been destroyed; hopefully before any new queens had a chance to emerge and disperse.

The discovery of this non-native invasive species has understandably caused great alarm and concern- especially amongst the beekeeping community- and the response from the authorities has been to act swiftly to try and prevent this species from colonising.

None of the responses in the mainstream media or social media 
to the potential invasion of the Asian hornet surprise me. Indeed most have been entirely appropriate. However they have left me wondering what it is in human beings that make us (seemingly) oblivious to our own impact on the natural world; or at least unwilling to do what is needed to check that impact.  

The damage to native eco systems caused by non-native invasive species - no matter how serious and how huge - pales into insignificance compared with the damage we, as a race, cause to the planet as a whole.
If there is a higher intelligence out there, watching our progress as we explore space and other planets, I should think they are probably on red alert by now. I can just imagine the headlines if we ever managed to colonise one of these planets.....
"Alert! Human colony found on planet xMy$7z! Individuals and groups of this (highly intelligent and social) species have been spotted building structures on the mountains above &^^^%. Humans vary in temperament. Some forms are mild, respectful, thoughtful and gentle; wishing only to share our resources and work alongside local native inhabitants for the greater good of the whole. These forms may not pose a threat and could even contribute and add ecological value to the existing community of flora and fauna. Other forms however can be extremely aggressive, demanding and controlling, even when unprovoked.

Collectively this species poses one of the biggest threats in the solar system to an unprotected planet. Their voraciousness knows no bounds. They have already colonised and destroyed Planet Earth. Approach with care and please notify the intergalactic authorities if you see one of these individuals or groups in your zone. Etc, etc....."


An interesting and balanced article about the Asian hornet from a beekeeper in France who has first hand experience of this species - Asian Hornet

Useful identification guide here - Wildlife Trusts: Asian hornet

Friday, 26 August 2016

RIVERS OF FLOWERS!



There are around 352,000 known species of flowering plant on this planet and around 87% of these are pollinated by insects and other animal pollinators.

Animal pollinators include 200,000 different species of birds, beetles, bees, moths, bats, flies, hover-flies, wasps, butterflies and small mammals.

The mutualistic relationship between these flowering plants and their pollinators has been evolving for over 100,000 million years, during which time both plant and pollinator have adapted and developed physical and behavioural characteristics so that each is now mutually dependent upon the other.

Fortunately it is rare for one plant to be reliant upon just one pollinator (and vica versa) - but there is a limit to how many individual plants or pollinators you remove from an eco system before that entire eco-system collapses.

As most of the planet's eco-systems rely upon the interaction between plant and pollinator for their survival - it is of paramount importance that we do everything we can to maintain this delicate balance.

Bees and other pollinators are not only important for their value as pollinators of food for human beings. Their importance stretches WAY beyond this! For instance.....when we lose the wildflowers that provide seeds for small farmland birds we lose those farmland birds.

Also, bees need the wild plants that they have co-evolved with to sustain them with pollen and nectar during times when the mono crops that now cover most of our countryside are not flowering.

From a human-centric point of view, we cannot rely on limited amount of monoculture crops to feed the world. We need to maintain biodiversity, because without it we will spiral into an extinction vortex.

All life in interconnected and pollinators need flowers - need pollinators - need flowers - need pollinators. It's very simple really.......

We need to plant  RIVERS OF FLOWERS !!!

Remember to source seeds and plants that have been grown organically and without using peat.

Try  Caves Folly  http://peatfreeplants.org.uk/ or Bee Happy Plants https://beehappyplants.co.uk/

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

It's not just about bees.....

Looking back through my blog posts and social media feeds, it is obvious that I write and talk a great deal about bees; their importance as pollinators; their beauty; the fascinating relationship they have with flowering plants; the differences between species; reasons for their decline (pesticides, habitat loss, climate change etc); and how we can help them survive.

Despite how it may appear on the surface though, these issues and the concerns they raise are neither as insular nor are they as 'bee-centric' as they seem. In fact, the issues affecting bees are simultaneously affecting all life on earth. Here are a few examples.....


1. At the same time that scientific advice and research supporting a call for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides is often ignored or buried, information and research addressing myriad other issues is also ignored and buried. 

2. Pesticides (including insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) don't only harm bees. They harm other wildlife and, of course, human beings. They do this directly and indirectly.

3. Habitat loss and intensive agriculture do not just affect bees. They affect all other wildlife and are causing loss of biodiversity on a catastrophic scale.

4. As we continue to lose bee populations/species we will simultaneously continue to lose the plants rely upon them for pollination. This, in turn, will bring about the loss of more wild flowers, farmland birds, small mammals and, ultimately, the collapse of entire eco-systems.

5. Whilst multinational agrochemical corporations like Bayer & Syngenta continue to manufacture toxic bee killing chemicals like neonicotinoids, other equally powerful corporations like Monsanto, Dupont, BASF and Dow Chemical are manufacturing similarly toxic and damaging substances that are gradually poisoning our planet.

6. Climate change is already causing irreversible problems for some bee species…. but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Bees are just one of the many canaries in this particular mineshaft.

7. Disease & infection in bee populations (honeybees & wild bees) is symptomatic of what is happening on a wider scale with birds, bats, amphibians, human beings etc. etc.

So, it's not just about bees. But... planting flowers for pollinators, getting to know and recognise the bees and other insects in your garden, not using pesticides, signing petitions asking our government to listen to our views on the neonicotinoid issue etc.... are all part of a far bigger picture. Those of us who campaign to raise awareness of bee decline may appear to be focussed on just one single issue, but nothing works in isolation.

Everything is interconnected and if we get it right for bees, it follows that we will get it right for ALL life on earthLearning to fall in love with bees is just one of the many ways we can re-establish our relationship and connection with the wonderful world around us.
Vive les abeilles!




Wednesday, 27 July 2016

When is a bee not a bee?

If you were to read an article about lions, but the photograph accompanying it was one of a tiger, you would probably notice straight away.... and you'd be surprised. But would you notice if an article about bees were accompanied by a photograph of a hoverfly? Possibly not. However, the internet is awash with wonderful, well researched, articles about bees that have been illustrated with photographs of hoverflies. In fact it's not just internet articles that get this wrong; one of the best reference books on the world's native bee species sports an image of a hoverfly on its front cover. Christopher O'toole and Anthony Raw must have been dismayed when the first edition of their wonderfully informative book hit the book shops in this guise!

So why do certain hoverfly species manage to dupe us into thinking they are bees.... and how can you tell the difference between a bee and a hoverfly?

A few years back, I spotted something that looked like a bumblebee and flew like a bumblebee, foraging on the flowers just outside my kitchen window. There was something unusual about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on, so I took a quick snap shot and uploaded it to my laptop for a closer look.

Lo and behold, it wasn't a bumblebee at all! Although it had been difficult to tell from a distance, I could see straight away from the image on my laptop that this insect had large prominent 'fly' eyes that almost joined together in the middle of her head and that her antennae were short and stumpy; entirely unlike a bumblebee who would have ovoid eyes on the side of her head and whose antennae would be long and beautifully elegant. On further examination I noticed she was missing the 'waspish' waist that characterises all bee species and I could also see that she only had one set of wings, rather than two.

Meredon equestris - photo Ed Phillips

I was most surprised. For all the world this creature had looked and acted like a Red tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) but clearly she wasn't. She turned out to be Merodon equestris (Narcissus fly) one of our 250 or so UK hoverflies. A fly pretending to be a bee…..


Batesian Mimicry

'Batesian mimicry' is where a harmless species has evolved to mimic the warning signals given out by a harmful species. One of the most obvious examples of this form of mimicry is where hoverflies imitate wasp coloration in an attempt to avoid predation by birds and other predators. My understanding previously however, had been that whilst bees 'flew' - hoverflies 'hovered. Not so this hoverfly! Merodon equestris has taken Batesian mimicry to its extremes. Not only does it look like a bumblebee with its long hair and chunky striped markings, but it has actually evolved in such a way that it flies and buzzes like a bumblebee too….. although of course there are differences once you know what to look for. Incredible.

To discover more about our wonderful and diverse UK hoverfly species, please check out All About Hoverflies. It contains loads of interesting information and lots of great photos and illustrations to help you identify the hoverflies visiting your garden…..

If you are interested in learning more about insects in general….or in helping prevent their decline  …..do please consider joining BUGLIFE . For as little as £2 per month you can help this charity make a real difference.

Many thanks to Ed Phillips for allowing me to use his beautiful photograph of Meredon equestris. You can find more of his wonderful photographs here - Ed Phillips Wildlife

Thank you for reading this post x



Episyrphus balteatus (marmalade hoverfly