Monday 22 September 2014

Neonicotinoid Pesticides: Why Have They Still Not Been Banned?

Alongside many other concerned individuals, I have been writing and speaking for years about the damaging and indiscriminate effects neonicotinoid pesticides are having upon bees and other wildlife.

Unfortunately, these systemic neurotoxins are still the world's most widely used pesticide; they are still killing bees; and I am still struggling to understand how the 'Powers That Be' can be so short sighted that they appear to prioritise the short term health of the economy over the long term health of the entire planet's ecosystems.  

But weren't neonicotinoids 'banned' by the EU recently?

If I had a penny for every person who's told me they "thought neonicotinoids were banned last year" I'd be a rich woman. In fact they have not been 'banned'. Far from it. In December 2013 the EU Commission 'partially and temporarily restricted' three of them (Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam), on crops attractive to honeybees. This restriction - which the UK government voted against by the way - is due to be lifted in December 2015.

In the mean time things are getting worse. Much worse.

At first, it seemed this was all about honeybees, but for a few years now it has been clear that bumblebees and other invertebrates are also being affected. This, in turn, is having a knock-on affect on the small birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that rely upon these creatures for their food. We know, too, that neonicotinoids are directly poisoning birds; for instance just a few neoicotinoid coated wheat seeds left lying on the surface of the ground after sowing can prove lethal if ingested by a partridge. Who knows what else is being affected? We were assured by the companies who manufacture these pesticides, when they first appeared on the market back in the 1990's, that they were (are) safe for bees, much in the same way as we were told back in the 1960's that DDT was safe for humans…..

I fully appreciate that raising awareness of the dangers of using neonicotinoids is provoking a backlash from those who believe there is no alternative, but as Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes points out in his book of the same title, their ongoing use truly is 'A Disaster in the Making' . We cannot afford to become complacent about this issue; especially when, contrary to what the manufacturers tell us, there is growing evidence that much of their use is unnecessary and ineffective.  If people were to stop campaigning and/or speaking out for fear of being shot down when they dare to put their heads above the parapet, then the unprecedented ecological damage resulting from (in this case) the use of neonicotinoids, would quickly become yesterday's news and we would reach a tipping point where there would be no going back.

Life on planet Earth is underpinned by invertebrates and other small creatures that are now being destroyed in their billions by neonicotinoids and other pesticides, so, to my mind, this issue is as important and pressing as any other current environmental issue. We humans play with too many fires and, painful though it might seem to those who believe our crops will all fail if seeds and plants are not treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, this is surely one fire that needs to be put out before it engulfs us all.

I am neither a scientist nor am I a farmer. I am just a person, like many others, who cares enormously about the plants and animals we share this planet with. Having followed this issue since the media first started reporting on honeybee CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) and having read numerous scientific reports whose findings are, quite frankly, terrifying, my instincts and common sense scream out to me that the continued and indiscriminate poisoning of our invertebrates, not to mention the air, water and soil we rely upon to sustain life itself, is extremely dangerous and horribly, horribly wrong. So again, I suggest we simply cannot afford to be complacent about neoicotinoid pesticides - nor can we keep relying on a few individuals and organisations to sort this out for us. I don't know what the answer is, but I'm sure that burying our heads in the sand is not it. We need to consider ways of growing our crops without the prophylactic use of neonicotinoid pesticides, and search for more sustainable ways to feed the world. Perhaps an increase in small scale organic farming for one? Whatever the solution, the problem needs to be owned and addressed by us all; scientists, growers, governments and consumers alike. Urgently.

My final thoughts are that it's all very well people making a big noise, as they have recently, about the possibility of OSR crops failing if neonicotinoids are banned, but surely the alternative, i.e. there being no pollinators left to pollinate them anyway, doesn't bear thinking about?

N.B. Neonicotinoids and other pesticides are not the sole cause of declining biodiversity. Habitat loss is every bit as important an issue.  Both need to be tackled simultaneously to reverse the decline.

The following links provide more in-depth information from scientists whose research and understanding of this issue is far more informed and in-depth than mine.  Do please read what these scientists have to say. I have chosen these links carefully for their readability.

Professor Dave Goulson research & updates 

If you buy just one book this year, please make it  Dave Goulson's 'A Buzz in the Meadow' 

If you sign up to just one charity, please make it BUGLIFE 

With thanks to artist Anna Suveges for giving me permission to use her 'Pesticides Killed my Family' poster

Friday 19 September 2014

Why Solitary Bees are Such Amazing Pollinators:

Leafcutter bee on Ragwort
The relationship between bees and flowering plants goes back to the early Cetaceous period, and different species of bee have, over 100 million years or so, developed a number of different physiological adaptations and behavioural traits to enable them to collect pollen.

Pollen carried by honeybees and bumblebees is visibly quite obvious. Both have become extremely adept at packing their pollen loads carefully, and neatly, into the smooth, widened pollen baskets (corbicula) situated on the sides of their hind legs. Once the pollen is packed in, very little is likely to fall off - and what does fall off is not viable anyway. With these bees, it is the pollen that sticks to their body hair that helps pollinate flowering plants.

Solitary bees are less fastidious. They collect pollen on 'scopa'; stiff, branched hairs, located on their legs, under their abdomens, or along the sides of their bodies. 

As the female solitary bee collects pollen, she packs it onto her scopa less carefully, and without the addition of saliva to moisten it. This means it is far more likely to fall off when the bee visits the next flower....which in turn means the next flower is more likely to be pollinated. 

Added to this, some solitary bees carry less pollen in each load, so they need to make many more trips back and forth from the flowers to their nests than do honeybees and bumblebees. These extra foraging trips mean that many more flowers get pollinated in the process.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the difference between bees' various pollen collecting apparatus, is with photographs….  

Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed bee) on Buddleia
Bumblebees and honeybees can carry up to 50% of their weight in pollen! 

You can see from this photograph of a Buff-Tailed worker bumblebee, how neatly she has packed the pollen, which she has moistened with saliva, into her pollen baskets. Honeybees do the same.

Most of this pollen will make its way back to the nest, where it will provide developing larvae with the protein they need to grow.

Halictus rubicundus female
Most ground nesting solitary bees collect pollen on scopa situated on their back legs, or along the sides of their abdomens 

This image shows the pollen collecting hairs of the ground nesting bee 'Halictus rubicundus' BEFORE pollen collection. Note how hairy her legs are. 

This is another photograph of the same bee, H. rubicundus. This time her leg scopa are laden with pollen which she is about to take into her nest beneath the ground. 

A large amount of this bee's pollen load will never make it back to her nest as it will have been lost as she visited other flowers en route.

Most cavity nesting solitary bees, like the Leafcutter bee pictured here, collect pollen on their abdominal scopa. This method of collecting pollen is extremely messy and is one of the reasons why some Mason bees (close relatives of the leafcutter) are around 100 times more efficient as pollinators than honeybees.

So, there you have it. Solitary bees are in fact the unsung heroes of the pollinating world!

N.B. There are a few solitary bees that, unusually, carry pollen back to their nests in their crops.

Bumblebees and honeybees are, of course, also wonderful pollinators, but in different ways and for different reasons. More about this another day….

Monday 8 September 2014

Gardening for Bees

Feb 2014
Our tiny wildlife garden, on the outskirts of Shaftesbury, Dorset, featured recently on BBC2 Gardeners' World - and I've had lots of emails asking me about the flowers we planted, in particular for bees. So, I though I'd jot down a list of what we planted to attract pollinators - and also write a little bit about our aims and the underlying structure of the garden in case anyone's interested. If not, just scroll down to the planting list…..

When we moved in earlier this year, there were only three plants growing in the garden; Crocosmia, Hedge Woundwort and Enchanter's Nightshade. There were also a couple of Leylandii, a Hawthorn, a Walnut, an Elder, brambles and loads of Ivy.

The garden is small (approx 5 metres x 6 metres) and mostly paved. It is enclosed by an old red brick South East facing wall and a victorian privy with riled roof, all in poor repair; a North West facing stone wall with crumbling mortar; and larch lap fencing on either side.

When we told the landlord we wanted to turn it into a wildlife garden, he said he was happy for us to do whatever we wanted. So, the first thing we did was cut down the Leylandii!

The other trees proved quite a dilemma. They shade a large part of the garden from early afternoon onwards, which is not so good for bees, but they provide important habitat for birds and other wildlife. So, apart from removing a couple of overhanging branches we decided to leave them as they are. It made the planting more of a challenge, but was the right decision for us.

My partner, Rob, made half a dozen bird boxes from hollowed out tree trunks and reclaimed wood and we attached these to trees and fencing. A pair of blue tits moved in almost straight away, and we also had wrens nesting behind the Ivy, but nothing nested in the sparrow boxes this year. Hopefully they'll find them in 2015! We hung bird feeders on every available branch and on the washing line.

The fact that both the red brick wall and the old stone wall are in disrepair is wonderful. Nothing is more attractive to cavity nesting solitary bees and wasps than the nooks and crannies created within old walls. So all we needed to do with these was leave them well alone! We also build a rockery and piled up old terracotta pots and over miscellaneous items to provide habitat for other insects, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Rob dug a little pond in a semi-shady part of the garden and we now have at least four frogs and one very handsome toad helping us keep the slugs at bay. A number of dragonfly and damselfly species have investigated the pond and we're keeping our fingers crossed that it might eventually be discovered by the local newts.

Other than keeping a few stems for insects to nest in, we removed most of the bramble as it's far too invasive for such a tiny space, but, apart from pruning the lower canopy on the Hawthorn, we have left the Ivy well alone. Ivy truly is amazing! Its flowers provide much needed pollen and nectar, late in the season, for all manner of insects, and its leaves provide excellent cover for birds and other small animals throughout the year.

The only other man-made habitats we have added are Bee Hotels, to attract solitary Mason and Leafcutter bees.

All that is left to add for the purpose of this post is a list of all the flowers we've planted. Most of these have been grown from seeds or cuttings….and some popped up of their own accord….but we also bought a few (thanks to my mother's generosity) from the thursday morning farmer's market in Shaftesbury and also from Brian's fabulous Hill Top Garden at Stour Provost, near Gillingham.

So, here's the list, in no particular order.

Purple Loosestrife **
Yellow loosestrife
Gooseneck loosestrife
Nepeta x 3 **
Pulmonaria *
Dwarf comfrey **
Honeysuckle x 2
Clematis 'Paul Farges'
Verbena bonerensis *
Verbena hasata rosea
Field scabious *
Devil's bit scabious
Small scabious
Garden Valerian
Wild valerian
Hyssop **
Bird's foot trefoil
Bugle white
Bugle blue
Self heal
Sedums  **
Foxglove **
Hemp agrimony **
Welsh poppy *
Orange poppy
Centurea **
Borage **
Viper's bugloss **
Cerinthe **
Sunflower *
Geranium x lots of different kinds **
Stachys (Lamb's Ears) *
Hedge woundwort **
Chives **
Wild Marjoram **
Thyme *
Dahlia Honka red *
Wild larkspur *
Enchanter's nightshade
Ivy **
Jacob's ladder (pulemonium) *
Bergamot *
Cosmos **
Marsh marigold
Salvia **
Runner beans
Knapweed *
Corn cockle
Harebell *
Veronica **
Lathyrus (ever lasting sweet pea)
Linaria **
Perennial foxglove
Solid aster
Evening primrose
Dead nettle *
Californian poppy
Water lily
Forget-me-not *
Perennial borage
Plant from james
Echinops *
Herb robert
Mallow x 2 *

N.B. I've added a * to those flowers that were frequently visited by more than a couple of species of bee and ** to those that have been covered in numerous species throughout their flowering time. It is important to note that the more of each plant you group together, the more likely it is that the bees will find them.

I'm not really a gardener, so some are common names and others latin.

Our planting scheme was planned for continuous flowering throughout the seasons.

Next year we'll be adding the following plants because they are all amazing plants for bees and other pollinators!

Lavender x intermedia

Finally I'd like to recommend my favourite book and favourite website for anyone who is interested in making their garden bee friendly.

The book,  Plants for Bees is in my opinion unsurpassed as it is a collaboration between bee experts and gardeners. You can't get a better combination than that.

The website,  The Pollinator Garden , has been compiled over many years by Marc Carlton. It is based on his own experience and I have learned more from this wonderful resource than from any other.

Thank you so much for your interest.

Brigit x

A few photos of some of the visitors we've had this year…..

Monday 11 August 2014

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 decompositionsoil processing and, of course, pollinationInsects 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 there's 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 so few NGOs prepared to speak out about it? Most of our wildlife organisations tackle the issue of habitat loss as a matter of course. However, from what I can see, the only wildlife organisation campaigning specifically against pesticides and the impact their use is having upon invertebrates, is BUGLIFE - the Invertebrate Conservation Trust.

Excuses, excuses, excuses.....

Having raised this issue myself on numerous occasions with people from all walks of life, I'm 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 & 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.

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:

Make your garden a haven for pollinators

Join Buglife

Get involved with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

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 14 March 2014

Bee Decline: as important & urgent an issue as Climate Change

Solitary male bee Andrena nitida
I'm feeling hugely frustrated this morning.

A handful of charities and a number of passionate individuals have been campaigning to raise awareness of the existence, importance and decline of wild bees (bumblebees and solitary bees) for YEARS. Some of these have crashed and burned in the process because they have lacked the funding and support they so desperately needed to continue with their awareness raising.

Why then, has it taken so long for the national press and some of the larger conservation/green/wildlife organisations to recognise and speak up for these unsung heroes? Where were they ten years ago, or earlier?  Of course it's absolutely wonderful that so many organisations are now running campaigns to help bees and other pollinators, but I do so wish it hadn't taken till 2013/14 for them to start making their noise.

Bee decline, and its consequences upon the pollination of human food crops and around 80% of the world's flowering plants IS NOT NEWS. The world has had access to research about the dire effects of intensive agriculture, with it's complete reliance upon pesticides, and the destruction it causes to habitat, for decades. We were warned about these consequences by Rachel Carson in her book 'Silent Spring' ... FIFTY YEARS AGO.

I simply cannot understand why those individuals and organisations who have it in their power to effect change have not shown an earlier interest in the global decline of pollinators, not to mention the little matter of the possibility of mass insect extinction. I also struggle to understand why so many individuals and organisations are still sitting on the fence about the neonicotinoid issue. It reminds me of the days when the world was in complete denial about the negative effects of smoking….or when DDT, which is nowhere near as toxic to bees as neonicotinoids are, was still considered safe to use.

I know there are many many other issues that need to be addressed with equal urgency, but to my mind 'Bee Decline' should be up there with 'Climate Change' as one of the most urgent and important issues of our times. The thing about pollinator decline is that it is relatively easy for us all to do something to help. If we get it right for bees, we begin to get it right for all life on earth…and the thing about pollinator decline is that it is relatively easy for us all to do something to help.

All we need to do is plant more pollen & nectar rich flowers, stop using pesticides, and create a world full of Bee Friendly Zones - it's that simple!

Anyway, that's enough of a rant for today. I'm going to close my computer now, put my energies where my mouth is, and spend the weekend taking advantage of this beautiful weather to see if my partner and I can turn the little concrete yard behind our cottage in Dorset into a haven for pollinators and other wildlife.  More about that project later :-)

In the mean time, here are some excellent resources and ideas for anyone who'd like to help pollinators and other wildlife.

My favourite website -  THE POLLINATOR GARDEN

My favourite wildlife gardening book -   THE WILDLIFE GARDEN - by Kate Bradbury

My favourite charity - BUGLIFE

Have a lovely sunny weekend x