A friend commented that I talk a lot about bee problems, but what was I actually doing about them? I tried some lobbying about neonics with my MP (got a polite brushoff from DEFRA) and the BBKA (long story), now I thought I would start from the bottom up and write a series of articles for our village magazine. This turned out to be really hard actually, because there is so much I wanted to say but a one page (550 word) limit on each article. So… what to prioritise? How much information could I cram in to one article, and could I make it interesting to the entire community?
Below is my effort on article number one, which is being printed. I decided to prioritise planting food plants as many readers will have a garden and that is time-critical. If you want to try something similar, feel free to plagiarise at will. But if so bear in mind this is for Oxfordshire, UK and some is just plain wrong for, say, America.
This series of articles is about the overlooked world of tiny insects around us, what they do for us, and the challenges they face, particularly bees.
Have you noticed how numbers of small birds in the area have declined dramatically in the last 20 years? Insects make up a large part of the diet of tits, finches, starlings, wrens, treecreepers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, blackcaps, etc. The environment is now a lot more hostile for insects than it was just 20 years ago. Thus fewer songbirds, bats, etc.
Bees, butterflies and moths are pollinators: they depend on nectar (carbs) and pollen (protein), and they have a big problem with food gaps. Economic pressures have driven farmers towards large fields and just a few crop types. This leads to a glut of pollen and nectar for a few weeks a year, then a dearth for miles around. Bees build up stores of honey to get them through these dearths, but this isn’t an option for many pollinators. Next time you see a field, consider how much blossom you can see. A century ago, 1 in 4 fields was clover or alfalfa to feed horses; their flowers fed bees and many villagers had hives. Now, gardens are becoming the resevoir of biodiversity.
You can help here by planting flowers that pollinators can use – typically small, fragrant blossoms like herbs, wildflowers and fruit trees (google RHS perfect for pollinators for ideas). This will attract butterflies, moths, bumblebees, solitary bees; and predators like hoverflies, colourful spiders, birds, dragonflies and the garden suddenly comes alive with dozens of species interacting. The more types of flower in an area, the fewer food dearths there are. Bear in mind: pollinators are attracted to patches of one type of flower (rather than a diluted random mix), in sun. Many large showy flowers are “doubles”, have no scent and their petals are too closely packed for insects to get into.
Should you be worried about bees? They’re rarely aggressive unless their hive has been bothered – occasionally cats sleep on top of hives because bees generate warmth. Honeybees are vegetarian, not in the habit of using their sting, and die if they sting us; so reserve their one-use deterrent for emergencies. Sometimes they will land and drink your sweat – their tongues tickle! Some caution is required near a hive of course, don’t knock it or stand in the bee line (flight path) in front of the entrance; and the smell of old sweat or bananas near a nest puts the guard bees on higher alert. If a hive has been attacked by wasps or woodpeckers, robbed by another hive, or stressed by starvation it may be on guard.
Should we be concerned about bees dying out? European bees are probably OK. If bees did die out, the real issue is that whatever killed them probably killed all other pollinators too. We would lose about 25% of our calories – we’d survive on cereals, but fruit, veg, flowers and small birds would become very rare. People can hand pollinate but it is incredibly time consuming.
Swarms – you may see these from April to June, so it is worth mentioning that they are only interested in finding a new home, and have stuffed themselves on honey so can’t easily flex their bodies to sting you! If you want one picked up there are several beekeepers in the Astons (see the Directory in SAL). More about swarms in the May article.