Second Oxford Bee Summit & First Oxford Bee Fest, 7th May 2016


Rare bee  spotted at Bee Fest

Oxford Friends of the Earth organised the 2nd Oxford Bee Summit at the Oxford Natural History Museum to discuss what can be done for pollinators locally. About 130 people (including 11 from our group) gathered to review progress on current schemes, brainstorm and network. This wasn’t just a talking shop – some serious action came out of the first summit in 2014; for example, Oxford City Council put a lot of sustained effort into radical changes to the way they manage parkland, verges and other spaces in this area.

In the afternoon, the First Oxford Bee Fest was held – groups set up stalls on the lawn in front of the museum and talked to members of the public. We were able to let people know about bee-centric, low-intervention, chemical-free beekeeping; answering questions and demonstrating hive types – we had examples of Top Bar, Warré, skep and log hives on display.

Fiona Tavner, the organiser, was interviewed about the Bee Fest by the local That’s Oxfordshire TV station – see the clip here.

Morning – presentations, workshop and discussion

Paul de Zylva, director of Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause campaign, opened with a review of the plight of British pollinators and new policy developments.

The audience listened intently

The audience listened intently and made notes

FoE’s Bee Cause funded the first holistic meta-study to pull together research on different pollinators and all known factors influencing them, showing the scale of the problem, and an incontrovertible pattern of decline. In the last century, the number of solitary bees is thought to have halved, we’ve lost 20 pollinator species including two bumblebee species, and 98% of our wildflower meadows have gone. Very few farmers use Integrated Pest Management (i.e. only using pesticides when needed), instead most use pesticides on a regular schedule, “prophylactically” – a typical British arable field may have 22 chemicals including fertilisers added in a year.

FoE is about to launch the 3rd Great British Bee Count – a free Citizen Science app will be available but note it will only function from 19th May to 30th June. This survey app is partly real science and partly educational (many folk don’t realise there is more than one type of bee).

Since the 2014 Bee Summit in Oxford, our government has created National Pollinator Strategies (the one for England is here, I reviewed it here). Like me, Paul de Zylva feels it is weak, vague and dodges the pesticide issues – but he was seeing the minister in 2 days’ time to discuss it.

Interesting point: David Cameron cut the farm subsidies budget a few years ago when negotiating the UK contribution to the EU. So there isn’t as much money for projects like wildflower borders round fields.

Julian Cooper of Oxford City Parks and Open Spaces talked of how farmers have been pushed into a subsidy system which promotes monocultures, but that Oxford City Council have 2,000 hectares of parks, sports fields and open spaces, including 400 hectares of nature reserves, and have been changing management practises to promote species diversity – reducing the frequency of mowing, semi-cutting hedges and verges, leaving some areas deliberately wild and planting pollinator-friendly species when beds, trees etc need replacing. Logs are no longer automatically cleared when trees are felled, instead some are left to decay on site where possible. (In discussion with Julian later he mentioned that anyone wanting a large log to make a log hive could contact him as they often had such large tree sections available.)

Budgets are always shrinking, but they’ve found they can save money by working in partnership with various groups, who give expert advice, and volunteer labour.

Julian and his crew set up a stall in the afternoon featuring some of the many designs of bug hotels they have been creating round Oxford.

Key insights: ecological groups in an area are much more effective if they join up and work together on projects. If talking to schools, primary school children are by far the most attentive age range.

Ruth Ashcroft – Friends of Aston’s Eyot (a nature reserve in Oxford)

Ruth shared her experience helping manage nature reserves. She is involved in 4 such areas in Oxford, which volunteers have planted with wildlife-friendly species. The hard part is finding volunteers to do the physical labour, clearing ground and so on.

They’ve used seed mixes to plant wildflower meadows, but find that the commercially available mixes are 80% grass seed, and the grass rapidly dominates if the soil is too rich. You can add yellow rattle (which parasitises grass) to keep it under control, but after a few years this can become too prolific itself so use it with caution, so they tend to make their own seed mixes. Sometimes these include ragwort, which insects love, but this has to be kept away from horses.

You can’t seed into established grass areas, you need to plant established plants. Sometimes the council can provide a tractor with an attachment to scrape the grass away entirely.

They tend to divide their plots into two, and mow each half twice a year but at different times of year. This extends the flowering period.

Entomologists from the University doing netting found the areas planted for pollinators were the most species-rich areas of the reserves.

Jan McHarry of Community Environment Associates talked about the Oxford FoE Creating a Buzz project on encouraging bee-friendly environments for community faith groups. The first Oxford Bee Summit in 2014 highlighted that in addition to the city parks, Churches and faith groups were significant local landowners, and the Creating a Buzz project was started to involve them. Jan was responsible for producing a toolkit in the form of a booklet (downloadable here) to help focus such groups’ interest in helping pollinators, and aid them in organising and progressing planting for pollinators, covering items such as risk assessment, maintenance and plant sourcing..

She’s worked with Christian, Quaker, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Humanist and community groups; one group had no garden, so they created raised beds in their car park!

The speakers: Judy Webb, Julian Cooper, Ruth Ashcroft, Sarah Wyld, JanMcHarry, Paul de Zylva

The speakers: Judy Webb, Julian Cooper, Ruth Ashcroft, Sarah Wyld, Jan McHarry, Paul de Zylva

Key insight: broader community engagement raised the profile of pollinator requirements and the booklet would be useful for any community group.

Judy Webb, freelance ecologist, described how local groups are enriching species diversity in local grasslands, and working with the council who delay mowing until groups she is involved with can collect local wildflower seeds to enhance forage. A wider diversity of flowers supports a wider diversity of pollinators.

Other local projects provide habitat, such as a Bee Wall in Milham Ford Nature Park next to a stream, which provides a sand “cliff” for solitary bees.

Key insight: pollinators need both flowers and homes.

Sarah Wyld of Daylesford Organic Farm talked about organic farming, which supports 50% more biodiversity than chemical-dependent agriculture. Daylesford has an enormous market garden providing a huge variety of forage for pollinators, and uses a legume called sainfoin in cow pasture, which the cows like but also fills the nectar and pollen dearth from June to September for their bees.

Key insight: a new web resource called Agricology has been kicked off to empower farmers to make informed choices on land management.

Paul de Zylva on “keeping the Buzz in Leighton Buzzard” – this project created 17 bee friendly habitats in this market town including a bee corridor along the river. Crucially, local communities were involved, and kids can now get up close to nature. To involve people you need to appeal to their vision and desire to do good, or they won’t help out. Once you have a few people, others will come. Small amounts of initial help like giving people lifts can kicks things off.

Key insights: once a project reaches a certain scale, getting the local council on board helps enormously (stop strimming, etc). Support another group, and they’ll reciprocate.

Afternoon –  interacting with the public


From 2-5 p.m. there were a number of exhibits set up on the lawn in front of the museum. Next to us were OBKA, who had information placards about honeybees and an observation hive on their table. Also present were Rosybee Plants, Therapi, FoE, the city Parks department featuring a huge variety of bug hotels, BBOWT (the local wildlife trust), and a couple of other stalls.

Brian and Faith discuss Mary's log hive with a passerby

Brian and Faith discuss Mary’s log hive with an interested member of the public

Our group had been generously lent a large table and gazebo by the Museum enabling us to put four types of hive on display – a full size Warré, a Top Bar nucleus hive, a log hive and a skep. We had a variety of other items too, including old brood comb and honeycomb, a container of collected propolis to smell; lots of pictures of the hive types in use (notably featuring no protective gear on humans at Gareth’s apiary), and some leaflets about our group.

People could handle empty comb and compare it with solid blocks of wax, we had a comb sample with a queen cell, and Helen had provided samples of Top Bar comb loaded with honey which could be lifted out of the Top Bar Nucleus hive so folk could heft them, see real features rather than pictures, and get a feel for what it’s like handling comb. Veiled hats popped on peoples’ heads made popular selfies. Helle, Brain, Faith and Linda were enthusiastic in manning the stall and spent almost all their time showing items and explaining them to the public.

Room for lots of exhibits

We displayed 4 different hives, propolis, honeycomb, leaflets, photos, and more

Mary’s log hive was a big hit, but the most popular item was a big chunk of comb honey I brought along which we invited passersby to sample with lollipop sticks.It was strangely popular!

The stall always seemed to be busy, and peaked with 14 people under the gazebo when there was a brief downpour and even more passersby developed a sudden interest in bees!

Over the afternoon we probably talked with ~200 members of the public (including many enthusiastic young kids). It was a great opportunity to inform people that beekeeping comes in more than one form, and can be a fascinating, environmentally-friendly, and gentle bee-centred experience.

Many thanks to Oxford FoE for organising the event, all who attended, and especially Brian, Faith, Helle and Linda for their work on our stall, and Mary and Helen for the loan of equipment.

Further information:


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