Saturday 10 November 2012

Wildlife Corridors Needed Please!

We have lost 98% of our UK wild flower meadows and unimproved grasslands in the last 70 years. 

The decline began with the mechanisation of agriculture back in the 1940s, was compounded by the introduction of herbicides in the 1960s and spiralled out of control when farmers were given  common market grants in the 1970s to grub out hedges... drain marshy areas... fill in ponds... and plough and re-seed pasture with new fast growing grasses and monocrops.

Declining species

Our landscape has changed beyond recognition - and the impact this has had upon our once rich diversity of flora and fauna cannot be understated.

These changes in our native wild flora have caused declines in many species and populations of farmland birds, small mammals, amphibians and invertebrates - but have been especially devastating for some of our specialist long tongued bumblebees such as the Great Yellow Bumblebee, Bombus distinguendus, and the Short Haired Bumblebee, B. subterraneus.

Most of our long tongued species of bumblebee have a preference for the wildflowers that thrived in the hay meadows of yesteryear - and for the leguminous crops (in particular red clover) that were grown in crop rotations in days gone by. Unfortunately, the flowering plants that used to provide these bees with their main source of nectar seem to have suffered disproportionate declines over the last 70 years compared to other flowering plants.

There are, of course, months of the year during which oilseed rape and other flowering monocrops provide for the needs of bees and other pollinators, but these are of no use to bumblebee queens when they emerge from hibernation to establish new colonies in the spring - or when their colonies are producing new daughter queens in late summer/early autumn. Lack of suitable flowers to forage at these times can lead quickly to the death of the entire colony. A bumblebee colony will only thrive and succeed in producing new queens if there is a continuous succession of suitable flowering plants from spring through to autumn.

The lack of abundance of wild flowers with long corollas has resulted in many of our grassland bumblebees becoming rare, endangered or extinct. Fewer long tongued bumblebees leads to a reduced pollination service for our surviving wild flowers. This, in turn, leads to fewer flowers to feed the remaining populations of long tongued bumblebees. This feedback process is known as 'extinction vortex'. Given the fact that bees are 'keystone species', the knock on effect this process could have upon other species of flora and fauna doesn't bear thinking about.

Wildlife Corridors

There are still some fragmented pockets of meadow and unimproved grassland left in the UK, but these are like islands amidst a sea of monoculture farmland and urban sprawl. It is of paramount importance that more corridors of nectar and protein rich wildflowers are created to link these habitats, so that the endangered bumblebee populations nesting within them (not to mention the many other creatures that have become marooned in these wonderful, but isolated wildlife havens) are not so vulnerable to the effects of inbreeding or other external causes of decline such as pesticides.

The Co-operative are addressing this need for wildlife corridors in their pilot project Bee Roads which is creating five hectares of food-rich main routes for pollinators in Yorkshire - and the Welsh Government have, this year, announced a Pollinator Action Plan. However, these projects will take time to establish the clock is already ticking for some of our rarer bumblebees.

There are also a number of incentives in existence at the moment, including various levels of Environmental Stewardship which encourage farmers and land owners to manage their land in a more environmentally and wildlife friendly way. However, just as these schemes are celebrating their 25th anniversary, it is feared that EU cuts could slash the budget for UK wildlife conservation which would be a disaster for many of the species that depend on these schemes for their very survival.

Can We Help?

Is there anything that can we do to help? The answer is emphatically yes!

There are over one million acres of private garden in the UK and these could potentially provide bees (and other wildlife) with the corridors they so desperately need to move around between larger areas of suitable habitat.  

To create these much needed corridors, all we need to do is plant suitable flowers.

I'm not going to make a list of 'what to plant' as there are plenty of websites and books (links below) that already give far better advice and information on planting than I could offer. The one suggestion I will make though is that if you have a lawn, perhaps you might consider allowing it to grow a little longer before you mow it!  Just a few extra inches will allow clovers, vetches, trefoils, selfheal and other low growing nectar and pollen rich flowers to grow and bloom.

One last thing. Please contact your local authorities and ask them to stop filling the hanging baskets and roundabouts in our towns and cities with bedding plants! Bedding plants are no good to man nor pollinator. Far better to plant something like lavender which needs less watering, smells divine and provides much needed food for bees.



Where to buy your seeds and plants......

And some great books.......

P.S. To end on a positive note; most of the shorter tongued bumblebees, and two of the longer tongued species (the Garden Bumblebee, B. hortorum and the Common Carder Bumblebee, B. pascuorum) seem to have adapted very well to the flowers we grow in our gardens, so are currently in less trouble. These bees are 'generalists' and are equally happy foraging on wildflowers, garden flowers or exotic non-native flowers.

Thank you for reading to the end.

Brigit x

Monday 10 September 2012

Why Bees Need Trees

I’ve just returned home from a lovely long woodland walk. I walk as often as I can and almost always take my camera with me. I can pretty much guarantee - from March through till mid September, and sometimes beyond - that when I walk in the woods the understory, edges and clearings will be ‘abuzz’ with numerous bee species as they enjoy the foraging and nesting opportunities afforded by this wonderful diverse habitat.

I'm absolutely fascinated by bees; from the different frequencies at which they buzz, their purpose in life and the challenges I face trying to identify them – to their life cycles, behavioural traits and the myriad relationships they have built up over the millennia with flowering plants. I cannot imagine what the world would be like without bees. In fact a world without bees is, quite simply, unimaginable.

Bees as Pollinators

The unique relationship between pollinators and flowering plants has been evolving for over 100 million years and there are currently estimated to be around 200,000 different species of animal worldwide acting as pollinators. These include beetles, bats, flies, wasps, birds, butterflies, moths and some mammals; but it is without doubt the humble bee that does the lion’s share of the work. 

From a 'human-centric' point of view, bees are responsible for pollinating around a third of the food we eat (this includes meat from animals that graze on bee-pollinated clover and alfalfa) - as well as many of the crops we grow for drinks, medicines and textiles. However, bees are important for more reasons than the fact that they pollinate food for human consumption..........

Bees also pollinate over 80% of the world’s wild flowers and, interestingly, whilst great attention is always given to the bee’s role as our main crop pollinator, we would do well to note that they play an equally important role as ‘keystone species’ in the planet’s eco-systems. I’ll come back to this in a moment.


There has been a great deal of coverage in the media over the last decade about the decline of the Honeybee, whose value to the ‘economy’ has been estimated at many £££billions. 

But, apart from the fact that honeybees should be valued for more than just their economic worth, it is important to note that: 

a) it is not just honeybees that are in decline 

b) honeybees our not our only pollinators. In fact, of the 100 or so crops that feed and clothe the world, it is estimated that 15% are serviced by domestic honeybees - whilst over 80% are serviced by native wild bees and other wild pollinators.
N.B. No one species of bee is more important than another. They all have different roles to play and are active at different times of the year/day. Without honeybees there would be very little pollinating going on early in the year and we would have no lemons, without bumblebees out tomato and blueberry crops would struggle and without solitary bees our apple trees would suffer. 

Here's a very interesting list of 'who pollinates what' - List of plants pollinated by bees

Setting aside, for a moment, their importance as pollinators of food, medicine and textile crops for humans, I‘d like to come back now to the fact that bees are ‘keystone’ species - playing absolutely crucial roles in sustaining many of the world’s eco-systems.

If you remove a keystone species from any given eco-system, you risk at the very least a great reduction in the biodiversity of that community - and at worst it’s complete collapse.

Eco-systems are incredibly complex; each made up of numerous, diverse, dynamic, interconnected communities. 

We cannot keep removing the building blocks that hold these systems together and expect them to survive

By compromising the earth’s eco-systems we compromise all life on Earth, including, ultimately, our own. Our lack of joined-up thinking and our blinkered human-centric behaviour are, ironically, leading us to neglect and destroy the very systems that nurture and sustain us. I cannot over emphasis the importance of the role bees and other pollinators play in supporting and maintaining the fragile balance that allows ‘life as we know it’ to exist on planet Earth.

There are over 25,000 species of bee in the world and around 250 of these species live in the British Isles. British species include the European Honeybee, 24 species of Bumblebee and over 230 different species of Solitary Bee. All are suffering from the effects of intensive agriculture, pesticides poisoning and urban sprawl, which, together, have led to the fragmentation, degradation, and loss of their once rich and diverse habitat. Add to these factors the effects of climate change (which has caused significant problems for bees this year) and a rise in disease and pests - and it’s no wonder our poor beleaguered bee population is on the brink.

(As well as the alarming decline in honeybee populations, 3 of our bumblebee species have disappeared over the last 50 years, many more bumblebees and solitary bees are severely threatened and there are currently 7 bumblebees and 10 solitary bees on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority list.)

To halt this decline we need to take action NOW. Talking, debating, spending millions of £££s on further research to tell us what is already glaringly obvious, writing reports and holding summits on the other side of the world are all very well, but without immediate ACTION these are a complete waste of time.

So what has all this got to do with trees and woodlands…..?

From the trees point of view, most are wind pollinated so they could survive without bees. There are exceptions however; including fruit bearing trees such as apple, pear, cherry and almond which all rely (some exclusively) on bees for pollination.

The importance of trees for bees is, however, is an entirely different matter. The fact that most trees are wind pollinated doesn’t preclude them from being incredibly rich food sources for bees and other pollinators – in fact certain species of trees provide an absolutely vital source of pollen and nectar for early spring foraging bees.

Honeybees store sufficient honey to feed the colony through the winter, but need to replenish their stocks by early spring. There is very little around in the way of flowering plants during the first few months of the year, so the early flowering willows, especially goat willow, provide them with a lifeline. Willow is also a vital food source for early rising bumblebee queens when they emerge from hibernation. Just walk along any riverbank on a sunny February/March day and you will easily locate the willows with your eyes closed by the sound of bees buzzing in the branches above your head.

Deforestation has been occurring in the British Isles since the arrival of Neolithic man and has reached the stage where, today, less than 12% of the UK is still wooded. Crucially, less than half this area is planted with native trees (the rest being planted with non-native conifers) - and only 2% of the land area in Britain is still covered in ancient woodlands. Given how little of our ancient woodland remains, it beggars belief that in the last 10 years 648 ancient woods have come under threat from unnecessary or insensitive development. 

Add these figures to the fact that we have also lost 98% of our wildflower meadows and grasslands since the 1940s... and it is no wonder our pollinators are in trouble. 

Habitat decline has impacted enormously upon our once diverse wildlife and we simply cannot afford further losses....of habitat or species. So many species of bees and other insects, not to mention small mammals, amphibians and birds, are now teetering on the brink - and what remains of our ancient and native woodlands provides an absolutely vital source of habitat and forage for many of these remaining species and populations.

Whilst the media and the 'powers that be' continue to bang on endlessly about the economy, time is gradually ticking away. For every single moment that their focus remains on the perceived importance of rebuilding the economy rather than addressing the very real importance of the imminent breakdown of our eco-systems, we are coming closer and closer to a sixth major extinction scenario. It really is quite bizzare that these seemingly intelligent people are so blind to this fact.

We need to address both issues of ‘habitat loss’ and ‘pesticides’ (which I haven't gone into in this article but have written about here) urgently and simultaneously. 

What can we do to help?

Whoever you are and whatever your circumstances and skill sets will determine the part you have to play in helping to halt the decline of biodiversity. You may like to plant more trees, hedgerows and/or flowers; write to your MP about these issues; join a local wildlife group; support the The Woodland Trust; stop using pesticides; ask your local garden centre to stop selling all pesticides containing neonicotinoids or send a link to this article to a friend!

Anything you do is better than doing nothing. Doing nothing is not a good option.

N.B. Do please check out this site, packed with stunningly beautiful photographs, to find out more about the amazing world of  Woodland & Hedgerow Bees 


Willow (NP) Pear (P) Apple (NP) Cherry (NP), Crab Apple (NP) Medlar (NP) Quince (NP) Sweet Chestnut (NP), Acacia (NP), Field Maple (NP) Mountain Ash (NP), Alder (P) Blackthorn (NP), Horse chestnut (NP), Hawthorn (NP), Crab apple, Lime (N), Whitebeam (NP), Sycamore (NP) Hazel (P) Holly (NP) Bramble (NP)

* N = nectar; P= pollen

Excellent website for wildlife gardening 

Thank you for reading this.

Much love,

Brigit x


Monday 4 June 2012

Mass Insect Extinction; the Elephant in the Room?

Life on planet earth has evolved over billions of years and has, to date, endured five major mass extinctions

Billions of species of flora and fauna have been and gone, but one class of species has proved extremely resilient (so far) to whatever changes have occurred on the planet and - apart from losing a few of their orders and suffering a reduction in diversity during the end-Permian period - has been the only class species to have survived all these extinctions.

I am speaking of course about the class 'Insecta' - Insects to you and me.

Insects are amazing - in every sense of the word. There are currently over 900,000 known species in the world, each performing different roles within our eco-systems. Not only do they form essential ecological links as predators and parasites, but they are also responsible for the vital roles of decomposition, soil processing and, of course, pollination. Insects have also contributed to the evolution of many other species; the most notable being the relationship they have formed with the flowering plants with which they have co-evolved over the last 100 million years.

Many insects are 'keystone species'. This means a number of other species depend upon them for their existence. If you were to remove a keystone species from any given eco-system it would upset the balance and that eco-system would collapse. Nature is all about balance. 

Given the fact that many of the planet's keystone species are insects, it's most fortunate that they have proved so resilient to change. So far.

Insects Facing Mass Extinction

Unfortunately, over a period of just 100 short years, things have changed so dramatically that this amazing class of species is now under threat. For the first time ever, insects are facing mass extinction

Let me ask you a question......

When did you last have to stop your car during a long journey to clean away dead insects from the windscreen? 

When I was a child (back in the 60s) we used to travel up the A1 to Yorkshire to see my grandmother and I remember my father having to make regular stops to wash the windscreen - which was splattered with so many dead insects that the wipers alone couldn't keep it clean.

I also remember seeing huge flocks of birds following the farmer's ploughs in the fields alongside the road; all of them feeding on an abundance of worms and other invertebrates or micro organisms living beneath the surface of the soil that had just been exposed by the farmer's plough.

These days there are so few insects that our windscreens remain clear from Land's End to John O'Groats. And there are no longer flocks of birds following the tractors, because in many fields there's little, or no life left in the soil.

How can this have happened in such a short period of time? Simple. It is down, unequivocally, to Man's chemical poisoning of the land, the oceans and the biosphere. That, and our obsessive desire to tame, manage, degrade, fragment, destroy and 'mow to within an inch of it's life' the once rich and diverse habitats that used to support insects and other biodiversity.

I say this because it needs to be said. Again.

We were warned of this scenario in the 1960's by Rachel Carson in her book 'Silent Spring'. We are being warned again by Henk Tennekes author of 'A Disaster in the Making' and by organisations such as Pesticides Action Network who campaign tirelessly to raise awareness of the dangers of pesticides and other toxic substances.

But why is this issue not being addressed as a matter of urgency in the media? Why do I not see any evidence that mass insect extinction is being taken seriously by the powers that be? And why are the NFU, who you'd have thought would be championing the insects that pollinate our crops, so hell bent on persuading the government to lift the moratorium on neonicotinoids?

Excuses, excuses, excuses.....

Having raised this issue myself on numerous occasions with people from all walks of life, I am tired of hearing the same old arguments from those who advocate that we 'need' these toxic substances to survive.

The arguments range from "We can't feed the world without the use of pesticides" to "What about all the jobs dependent on the pesticides industry…. people can't afford to lose their jobs"and many more arguments besides.

These arguments are unbelievably short sighted. Without insects (not to mention unpolluted soil, water and atmosphere) man will not survive anyway. Very little will survive. We are destroying our tomorrow for the sake of our today. And the craziest thing of all is that it doesn't need to be like this because small scale, organic and sustainable farming can and will feed the world. 

Of course it's not just the agri-chemical and pharmaceutical industries doing the damage...insects need habitat to survive too. They need environments where they can forage, nest, breed and hibernate - and this is something we can all help to provide.

Do something about it....

It is time for us to face the facts, however uncomfortable they may be. We can only effect change if we know and understand that change needs to happen. Burying our heads in the sand isn't going to solve never has.

It's way past time for us to address our obsession with 'tidiness' and 'cheap food' - both from bottom up (you and me) and top down (governments and local authorities) we need a complete sea change.

Humans are amazing, resourceful beings. All we need to do is wake up to the reality of the damage we are causing, shift our mind sets a little and  do something about it!

Ways you can help:

Leave wild areas in your garden for insects (not just bees and butterflies) to forage, breed and hibernate.... and resist the temptation to 'tidy up' your gardens and allotments over winter. Also, wherever you can, please try to source food that has not been grown with the use of harmful chemicals.

Make your garden a haven for pollinators The Pollinator Garden

Join Buglife

Get involved with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Take part in surveys, such as the UK Ladybird Survey

Become a Bees, Wasps & Ants recorder

OR.... simply spend some time lying in the undergrowth getting to know your local insects. They are utterly mesmerising. Once you're hooked you'll wonder how you ever managed not to notice them before and you will be motivated to do everything you can to help them survive.

B x

Friday 6 April 2012

What are Neonicotinoid Pesticides and How Are They Killing Bees?

So much has been written over the last few years about Neonicotinoid Pesticides and their devastating impact on the world's bee population, but it is only recently, since the publication of three new scientific reports, that the effect these pesticides are having upon bees is finally being talked about openly in the mainstream media.

Although neonicotinoids have already faced bans and/or restrictions in varying degrees in countries such as Italy, Germany France and Slovenia, the UK government have, so far, ignored the mountain of evidence, including this in depth report from the charity Buglife - published back in 2009 - which shows quite clearly that neonicotinoids are contributing to bee decline.

I will attempt to explain as clearly as I am able in this article what neonicotinoids are and why it is imperative, in my opinion, that they should be banned. This is an extremely complex issue so I have provided links throughout to give more in-depth information when/if required.

Before I begin I just want to say that pesticides are only one part of the problem and also that it's not just honeybees that are suffering. There are other reasons for the decline in bee numbers (and species) including: the exploitation and over farming of honeybees and bumblebees by some commercial beekeepers; pollution; climate change; and - of enormous significance - habitat degredation, fragmentation and loss caused by intensive agriculture and urban sprawl. There's no point in us addressing the pesticides issue if we don't simultaneously start treating bees with more respect, reducing atmospheric pollution and conserving/creating suitable habitat for bees and other pollinators.

So, what exactly ARE 'neonicotinoid' pesticides?

Neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides that include 'imidacloprid', 'clothianidin' and 'thiamethoxam'. They are neurotoxins (nerve poisons) that have been designed to attack the insect's central nervous system; causing paralysis and eventually death. Their target insects include vine weevils, aphids, whitefly, colorado potato beetle and termites.  As well as causing paralysis and death, neonicotinoids also produce other symptoms, (both in target and non target insects) such as interfering with the insect's navigation systems and, crucially, impairing their ability to groom themselves. (I'll come back to the grooming issue later)

Another insecticide, Fipronil, acts in the same systemic manner as the neonicotinoid group of insecticides.

Neonicotinoids were introduced in the early nineties and are now the world's most widely used group of pesticides.

N.B. Neonocotinoids are water soluble. Some, including the most widely used (Imidacloprid) remain in the soil for many years. Their high persistency in soil and water results in a sustained exposure to these pesticides, not only to bees, but to other non-target organisms and pollinators, including aquatic invertebrates, moths, butterflies and hoverflies and (indirectly) bats, amphibians and insect eating birds.  

"Neonicotinoid insecticides act by causing virtually irreversible blockage of postsynaptic nicotinergic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the central nervous system of insects. The damage is cumulative, and with every exposure more receptors are blocked. In fact, there may not be a safe level of exposure."  Dutch toxologist, Henk Tennekes

"Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Fipronil exert sub-lethal effects, ranging from genotoxic and cytotoxic effects, and impaired immune function, to reduced growth and reproductive success, often at concentrations well below those associated with mortality. Use of imidacloprid and clothianidin as seed treatments on some crops poses risks to small birds, and ingestion of even a few treated seeds could cause mortality or reproductive impairment to sensitive bird species" Dr David Gibbons RSPB  

Which crops are treated with neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are used as treatments on over 140 different crops including soy, corn, wheat, cotton, legumes, potatoes, sugar-beet, sunflowers, rapeseed and flax. Until 2011, they were used on the 740,000 acres of Californian Almond Trees. One third of all arable land in the UK now grows crops treated with neonicotinoids.

Less well known is the fact that 'Fipronil' (which works in the she way as the neonicotinoid insecticides) is used in flea treatments for dogs and cats.

How do neonicotinoids differ from other pesticides?

Until the introduction of insecticides such as neonicotinoids we were able to see pesticides with our own eyes as they were being sprayed as foliar applications onto our crops. Neonicotinoids, and some other groups of modern pesticides, work in a very different way. As well as being applied as foliar applications, they are also applied as seed dressings and soil treatments. These are less obvious than foliar applications, so many people, including some farmers, are unaware that they are even using them. Also, instead of being used reactively (i.e. after a problem has been identified) neonicotinoids are used 'prophylactically' which means crops are treated as a matter of course to safeguard them against the possibility of an attack by the pesticide's target insect. This is like human beings taking antibiotics all year round to protect us from the possibility of succumbing to a sore throat or flu.

The biggest difference between neonicotinoids and all other pesticides is that neonicotinoids work  'systemically'.  This means that once the seed (or the soil in which the seed has been planted) has been coated/treated with the insecticide, that insecticide is then taken up through the entire plant via it's vascular system.  So, it ends up in the plant's roots, stem, leaves, flowers, fruit, sap (guttation), pollen and nectar.....and it - does - not - wash - off.

We are told by DEFRA and by the agri-chem industry that this is ok. It is, apparently, 'safe' for bees and other pollinators to forage on crops whose seeds have been treated with neonicotinoids because they only ingest the pesticide in sub-lethal doses i.e. 'doses not large enough to cause death'. This might be ok if each bee only visited one plant and took one dose of 'sub-lethal' pollen in it's life time - but this, of course, is not the case.

How do neonicotinoids affect bees?

The introduction of neonicotinoids has coincided with honeybees dying in their billions and it has been known for at least 5 years, since Professor Joe Cummins wrote  this report  that they are likely to be one of the causes of CCD (colony collapse disorder). Unfortunately, despite there being a mountain of evidence stacking up against neonicotinoids, it is still an uphill struggle trying to persuade the 'powers that be' in the UK and in the USA to act on behalf of our beleaguered pollinators. In the mean time, the bee population continues to plummet.

Over a period of time, as it forages for pollen and nectar from neonicotinoid treated crops, each bee ingests a significant amount of 'sub-lethal' doses of neonicotinoids. Bees also take pollen and nectar from the treated crops back to the hive (honeybees) or nest (bumblebees and solitary bees) to provision their larvae.

A great many scientific reports have now been published showing evidence that a build-up of this pesticide over a period of time impairs the bee's nervous system (interfering with it's navigation system so it can't find it's way back to the hive after foraging) and it's immune system.

It is also known, but not as well reported, that neonicotinoids impairs the ability of bees to groom themselves. Indeed, Bayer CropScience boast about the effectiveness of their product  Premise 200SC  (active ingredient Imidocloprid) which interferes with a termite's natural ability to groom itself....therefore making it more susceptible to disease caused by microorganisms and fungi. If Imidacloprid interferes with a termite's ability to groom itself, it will also interfere with a bee's ability to groom itself....inevitably making it more susceptible to varroa mite. A double whammy for the poor honeybee.

To understand more about the grooming issue please listen to this excellent interview with Amanda Williams on the Barefoot Beekeeper website  

More effects reported in recent scientific reports

I mentioned earlier that new scientific reports have been published recently.

The first was written by Dr Jeffrey Pettis of the US Department of Agriculture. Dr Pettis showed that bees exposed to microscopic doses of neonicotinoids were much more vulnerable to disease. This report, bizzarely, was only published earlier this year.....a full two years after the research had been completed.

The second report, published at the beginning of April 2012, came from the University of Stirling's Professor David Goulson. It showed that "Growth of colonies of the common buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, slowed after the insects were exposed to field-relistic levels of imidacloprid, a common neonicotinoid insecticide. The production of queens, essential for colonies to continue, declined by a massive 85% in comparison with unexposed colonies used as controls.

"Given the scale of use of neonicotinoids, we suggest that they may be having a considerable negative impact of wild bumblebee populations across the developed world" the Stirling team said.

Do, please, watch this important short video of Prof Dave Goulson talking about the Stirling team's findings

Please also watch this short video about Bee deaths in France.  

Can we do anything to help?

With such overwhelming evidence against neonicotinoid pesticides it beggars belief that they have not yet been banned by the UK government. I cannot understand how seemingly intelligent people can reach positions of such power - yet be so blind to the horrors of these chemicals. Those in power are, I suppose,  more concerned with short term profits and 'economic growth' than the long term health of our pollinators and struggling eco-systems. Very short sighted.

There was some hope, when Professor Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor to DEFRA, announced (after the publication of the Stirling University report) that he would review the evidence and reassess Defra's current stance on neonicotinoids, but unfortunately this review ended up in with Government scientists advising that  neonicotinoid pesticides should not be banned despite four scientific studies strongly linking them to sharp declines in bees around the world.

Equally unfortunate, is the fact that even when/if a ban is imposed upon the entire family of neonicotinoid insecticides, we will still be left with a crazy, mixed up Pesticides Regulatory System....where the responsibility to prove pesticides safe seems to rest with the pesticides companies that manufacture them. 

So, in the mean time, whilst we wait for the 'powers that be' to wake up and come to their senses, we can help speed up the banning of this particular group of pesticides by doing the following.....

1. Email your MPs asking them to put pressure on the Secretary for the Environment, to vote for a ban on neonicotinoids as proposed by the European Commission. Excellent advice on who to contact and what to write here -

2. Here are some lists of products containing neonicotinoids so you can avoid using them in your home and garden -

3. The Soil Association have published a letter that you can use to write to retailers asking them to remove products containing neonicotinoids from their shelves -

4. Follow journalist Michael McCarthy's articles in the Independent. He deserves a medal for the reporting he has done on this issue!  -

5. Check the provenance of all your seeds and plants to make sure they have not bee produced from neonicotinoid coated seeds or in soil treated with neonicotinoids. Buying from a trusted organic source is the safest way to ensure this.

6. Sign Neal's Yard petition asking our government to ban the use of neoicotinoid pesticides

A few last thoughts on the subject....

I do hope I haven't over faced you with too much information. Or not given given sufficient. I've tried to make this as basic and easy to understand as possible but it's a tricky issue to get your head around. I must stress that I have written this article based on the conclusions I have reached myself, having read dozens of peer reviewed scientific papers, reports and articles that speak both for and against the use of neonicotinods.

I am well aware that if/when neonicotinoids are banned then new ways must be found to protect the world's mono crops from pests. Unfortunately, our reliance upon just a few crops to feed the world has put us in a very precarious position. Large scale, intensive monoculture farming relies on ever more toxic herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides to keep it going. Ironically, the end result is that the food we are eating probably contains more chemicals than nutrients.

Small scale, organic farming, with its more diverse range of crops, is the only sustainable way forward, but we need some stepping stones to take us from what we have created to where we need to go next...........

Thank you for reading this blog. If anyone has further information or useful links please do post them as comments. 

Brigit x

P.S. This blog was written back in 2012. Far more research has since been published which leaves me even more concerned about the effects these insecticides are having upon our wildlife. For up to date information please follow Professor Dave Goulson's Blog and Matt Shardlow's blog - both are far more qualified and informed than I am to write about Neonicotinoids.

There is also now an EU temporary, partial restriction on 3 of the neonicotinoid insecticides. This restriction is being contested in the EU courts by Bayer & Syngenta who produce the insecticides. 

Some interesting links......

Video showing 'guttation' from neonicotinoid treated maize killing bees -

'A Disaster in the Making': Hugely important research by Henk Tennekes -

Neonicotinoid Pesticide Toxicity Profile -

Harvard University March 2012 report on Neonicotinoids and CCD

Buglife Report 2009 -

Pesticides Action Network UK -

Friday 24 February 2012

The Problem With Biofuels

One of the biggest problems people have these days is dealing with all the confusing and conflicting advice about green issues in the media. No sooner have we adapted our lifestyles to incorporate the latest planet-saving solution, than we discover we might actually be doing more harm than good by doing so. Because of the hectic lives we lead, very few of us have the time to do the research we should do before we implement change; we rely instead on the media and the ‘powers that be’ to tell us what to do.

One of the areas where there has been great confusion and conflicting press has been the debate on ‘biofuels’. Less than a decade ago biofuels were being heralded, by some, as the alternative to fossil fuels, but now they are being blamed for all kinds of problems from rising food prices and deforestation to soil erosion and increased pollution.

Difference between Biofuels and Fossil Fuels

So what exactly are biofuels (or agrofuels as they are sometimes called), how do they differ from fossil fuels and why should we be wary of using them

The difference between the two fuels is quite basic; biofuels come from living things or the waste they produce, whereas ‘fossil fuels’ come from organic matter deposited in the earth or sea bed millions of years ago. It appears at first glance that biofuels might offer the perfect, clean, renewable and carbon neutral alternative to fossil fuels and could help significantly in the battle to halt climate change. However, the full picture is more complex because there are a number of different biofuels, each with different environmental impacts.

Although biofuels can be produced from animal waste and from wood, for the purpose of this article I’m going to concentrate on ‘plant based’ biofuels.

                                            Plant based fuels

Plants have a natural capacity to capture solar energy through the process of photosynthesis and there are a number of ways this energy can be converted into biofuel. The most common techniques used to convert the energy are as follows:

1. Growing crops such as corn, sugar and wheat. These crops can be fermented (using the same technique you would use to make wine or beer) to produce bio-ethanol. Bio-ethanol is an alcohol and is usually mixed with petrol before being used as fuel.

2. Growing crops such as palm, rapeseed or soyabean that produce oils. The oils produced by these crops are known as SVO’s (straight vegetable oils). They can be heated to reduce their viscosity and used as fuel for diesel engines. Alternatively, they can go through a chemical process (transesterification) to produce biodiesel.

The second of these two techniques can also be applied to WVO (waste vegetable oils)

So, what’s the problem?

Transport accounts for over 25% of our emissions in the UK and it is our apparent ‘need’ for personal transport that is one of the main drivers (no pun intended!) for the ever-increasing demand for fuel. We have, for many decades, relied on cheap and plentiful oil to fuel our cars, but with the need to reduce our CO2 emissions we are now looking for less polluting alternatives. In principal, biofuels, when compared with conventional transport fuels, could indeed reduce greenhouse gasses.

Crops grown for biofuels are able to absorb a similar amount of CO2 whilst they grow to that which they release when they burn, making them, in effect, carbon neutral, whereas the burning of fossil fuels releases gases into the atmosphere that have laid captured under the earth or sea bed for millions of years. However, as I mentioned earlier, the production of biofuels has many differing environmental impacts.

We have already witnessed the devastating effect that increasing monocultures (vast areas of land being used to grow one, single crop) are having on biodiversity. We have already lost too many of the habitats that plants and animals rely on for their existence; we can’t afford to loose more. 

The most obvious example of the impact this loss is having on a single species, is that of the orangutan, who’s rainforest habitat is being destroyed to grow palm trees. 

We already use vast amounts of palm oil for a multitude of products; clearing even more rainforest to grow palm oil for biofuel is tipping the balance dangerously in the wrong direction. Unless we halt deforestation immediately we face the irreversible extinction of hundreds of thousands of species.

From a polluting point of view, although crops grown for biofuels absorb the same amount of CO2 whilst they’re growing as they give off when they’re burned, it is important to take into consideration the fact that the energy used in the farming and processing of the crops can cause as much pollution as the fossil fuels they’re being grown to replace!

Biofuel crops create environmental impacts in many other ways including soil erosion and water usage, but the most worrying issue is the effect the biofuel industry is having on food prices. Crops such as wheat, soybean and corn that used to be grown for food are now being grown for fuel, so there is less food to go around and as a result food prices are increasing at an alarming rate. Sugar prices have doubled, and the price of wheat is now tracking the price of oil; durum wheat, used in Italy to make pasta, is in danger of becoming so expensive that even a staple food like spaghetti could become a luxury in the near future. 

Using the world’s food crops to satisfy our need for fuel just doesn’t make sense!

Making biodiesel from waste vegetable oil

Of course, some of us are fortunate enough to have the technical know-how, the equipment and an ongoing supply of waste oil to make our own biofuel. This is done using a process called 'transesterification'. 

My understanding of chemistry is far too poor for me to be able to explain this process properly, but here's a very basic explanation of what happens...

A catalyst (either potassium or sodium hydroxide) is mixed with alcohol and this mix is agitated till it reacts. 

After the reaction has taken place the waste oil is added to the catalyst/alcolcol mix and the resulting mix is kept in a sealed container for up to 8 hours at a constant temperature of around 160 °F

Once the reaction is complete you are left with two major products: glycerin and biodiesel. 

As glycerin is denser that biodiesel you can easily separate the two by drawing off the glycerin from the bottom of the container, leaving the biodiesel behind.

It's obviously a bit more complicated than this, but having attended a one day 'make your own biodiesel' workshop I can honestly say this process is easily manageable. If I had a decent sized garden shed to store the equipment I'd definitely do this myself.

'Reduce not Replace'

So, unless you have the capacity to make your own biodiesel, or until new and more efficient technologies can be found to minimise the detrimental impact they are having on the environment, biofuels are clearly not going to provide the solution many people had hoped for. Furthermore, it could be argued that they detract attention from the bigger priority; which is that we must try and reduce our overall energy use.

Instead of looking for alternatives, maybe the time has come for us to look at how we might change our mind-sets and our habits. I’m not suggesting we all rush out and sell our cars tomorrow (although that might not be a bad idea) but perhaps we could think twice before making unnecessary journeys, make a resolution to use public transport more often, offer a friend a lift, invest in a bicycle (or an electric bike if you live at the top of a hill) or dust off our old walking boots and get fit into the bargain! I have a friend who gave up her car last year; she’s in her late fifties, has never felt fitter and healthier and doesn’t have a single regret.

A few tips for car uses

  1. Reduce your speed – you’ll be surprised how much less fuel you’ll use. (Borrow some story tapes for long journeys and don’t be in such a hurry to get from A to B).
  2. Don’t keep your tank topped up. You’ll get a higher mpg if you’re carrying less weight in the fuel tank.
  3. Take your roof rack off if you don’t use it every day.
  4. Make sure your tyre pressures are correct for the weight you are carrying.
  5. Get your engine tuned so you can maximise its efficiency.
  6. Lift share!

Say No to Palm Oil: excellent information and advice

Green': film about the last few hours in the life of a displaced orang-utan

Useful site and very active forum for anyone wanting to reduce dependence on oil -

Sumatran Orangutan Society -

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