Bees and meadows
First the problem
I like upbeat stories and solutions more than problems, so I hope you will bear with me through the small downs of this opinion to an up that might help you help save the world’s wildlife.
We recently met family in St Davids for a socially distanced walk. The walk which took us westwards along the beautiful coastline to Porth Clyne and then back to Caerfai via St Non’s well and up the road back into St Davids. It’s a beautiful walk that we know well and usually great for wildlife.
We got off to a great start seeing lots of bumblebees and other insects on the flowers of gardens and verges. But once we entered the farmland and campsites outside the city the diversity and number dropped profoundly. We struggled to find a bee or even an insect in places where there should be a melee of insect activity. Things improved slightly on the cliff path with heather, umbellifers, sea campion and other beauties. Although much of the life was on bramble which is just as plentiful in the areas almost devoid of insects. Coming back up the road from Caerfai we easily saw more insects flying over paving and tarmac than we did over the grass and verges in the surrounding fields which, compared to many places don’t look that bad.
I had a similar experience walking out from my own house. Fairly nondescript gardens had more insects, especially bees than the field edges. Some of the verges were in shade which may not help and I did see meadow brown butterflies, leafhoppers and more in the uncut meadows but, on the whole the diversity was greater in the gardens. This is the reverse of what I am used to, or grew up with, but is becoming ever more common. It is not that garden biodiversity has increased. I think it is the same or slightly reduced in most cases. It seems to be an emptying of the countryside of wildlife.
The importance of gardens
You only need to walk into a garden centre and see their stock to know that the average gardener uses a lot of pesticides. It seems we’re encouraged to be more at war with nature than befriending it. And yet gardens are often better for wildlife than surrounding farmland, as well as being very important for it in some cases.
If you care about native species and dip a toe into the information you will know that it is in a catastrophic state. All I really want to say here is that gardens are very important. School and office grounds are important too and so is your relationship with your local council who should be encouraged to do everything they can for wildlife in their area. Mowing is not the answer!
People love open spaces, and have most likely since the birth of humanity on Africa’s savannas… A lawn, however, ranks among the worst possible environments worldwide, just above bare concrete.
I don’t have an answer because every place is different. But broadly speaking we should work with nature and not against it. By planting and encouraging plants that suit our locale (weather, soil type and local eco-systems) to give wildlife a larger surface area to do its thing and to provide more ‘islands’ of hope and more refuges. The best start, if you a resaearching online, is probably Flora Locale, just type it in. I tend to refer to books myself but keep up to date with environmental matters as well as I can by subscribing to British Wildlife. I like helpful lists and am particularly interested in plant lists that help the invertebrates I want to see as well as diversity generally.
Our messy plot
We conducted moth surveys over 8 years in our garden. They revealed over 163 species in the relatively unmanaged mess that it is, as well as many beetles and other invertebrates. We’re probably lucky in being between an woodland reserve and the coast with low intensity meadows nearby. There are three (albeit small) ponds in the garden and other wildlife gardens scattered about. Working with moth experts on our planting scheme for the barberry carpet moth, I asked them what other plants should ideally be included (alongside other more general hedge plants). I was told hop, traveller’s joy and buckthorn would be a good addition. Nettles, dock, sallow and goat willow are good staples too and cater for those more appreciated moths, the butterflies.
There are about 270 species of bee in Britain and a similar number of species designated as wasps. But only about 20 species of bee are truly social and most of them are bumble bees. With their long feathery tongues bumblebees can reach nectar that other bees cannot reach. They have some species of plant, such as red clover, almost entirely to themselves but the plant is similarly dependent on the bees for pollination. If either one gets knocked out of the cycle by pesticides or unsympathetic mowing regimes there is a collapse which often involves other species.
Bees, like many insects, need a food supply throughout their flight season, not just for part of it. And a good range of plants and mix of habitats or terrain is essential to their survival. Most bumblebees nest on the ground, often in long grass in old mouse and vole nests. They need the nesting material as much as they need the hole. If you have a lawn that you can’t bear to turn into a meadow, how about just letting the middle bit grow or a corner? I am pretty sure it will soon become your favourite part of the lawn.
My favourite book on bumblebees is F.W.L. Sladen’s The Humble Bee. Many other books are more comprehensive and up to date but Sladen clearly knew and loved bees. For me, loving them is the best start. From other books and sources I have compiled a list of native bumble bee plants. These along with refuges for nesting could help make your garden a haven for these important pollinators.
We are delighted that a bumblebee was chosen in the poll for our latest T-shirt. It is a sign that more people are appreciating them and the environment we live in ourselves. You can see one of the t-shirts here.
The bee I chose is Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumble bee. It is one of our largest and commonest bees. And the feistiest of the bumble bees although unlikely to sting unless you disturb its nest. It looks very similar to 4 or 5 other yellow striped bumblebees. But is easily distinguished from the red tailed bumblebee (black with a red rear end except males who have yellow shoulders and nape too) and the carder bumblebees which are brown haired (ginger, tawny or fawn).
The clear environmental crisis we face has incited understandable environmental concern and panic. Many theories on fixing it have emerged. Both slowly and quickly and with varying amounts of empathy for people and wildlife often as separate issues. Boris Johson’s regrettable newt counting statement shines through at the moment for me. But I will empathise with him in saying that the poor soul has no idea what he is talking about and is advised by people who know or care even less. They are driven by economy, progress and ego as well as by voters who are often ill-informed, mis-informed or don’t care about nature.
A lot of us just think that good will win over and although mistakes are made it will all be alright in the end. Perhaps in the nick of time. The 25 species of bee extinct in Britain from the original British list suggests otherwise. And they sit almost unnoticed amongst many other disappearing or disappeared species here and in similar habitats abroad.
I’ll say this… some PEOPLE like newt counting and like to live near newts, it’s one thing I have in common with his former political opponent Ken Livingstone who was also trying to represent the people. People like nature and often depend on it more than they think. Pardaoxically we love green spaces, but like somewhere to park our car. We seem to prefer giant out of town complexes made of tarmac and concrete (with none native planting) than towns which served the purpose for centuries before. Going a step further, people are nature. We have grown as a species from grassland animals to grassland creators, dominators and cave builders even if we were never truly cave dwellers.
A knee jerk reaction to global warming, loss of biodiversity and clean air is tree planting. Trees are great, we do need more of them and they do ‘clean-up’ the air. They are often great for wildlife too but beware. It must be the right tree in the right place. Meadows and pastures are very, very important for wildlife such as insects, birds and bats. Only in the very rarest of instances should they be planted with trees. Arable land is good primarily for human food and is often intensively farmed (as are meadows and pastures).
Anyone familiar with George Monbiot’s book rewilding will know his passion for planting trees and letting the wild do its thing. He does add notes of caution for our more vulnerable species and I would like to advise that we heed that.
Re-wilding is great for un-wilded places. But those with biodiversity or potential for it beyond tree planting or leaving it to its own future should be given the appropriate care, attention and protection. Which may simply mean re-wilding their neighbours rather than them. Some reserves are badly managed and others seem to be managed well but suffer declines. Others, perhaps the majority, are managed in the hope that it will work out well, without really knowing all the complexities of the situation, good and bad.
Giving up on the species within them does not seem like a good answer to me but enlarging them and increasing the experiment does.
The purple emperor
One of our rarer and more spectacular butterflies is the purple emperor. It feeds on sallow, a common shrubby tree but is itself rare. This is largely because there is no middle ground between woodland and severe cutting, a realm the emperor needs to rule again. It needs open ground with sallow and not sallow woodland or sallow in woodland. Tree planting wins grants, scrutinize them before allowing it to happen if you are in a position to do so. The right tree in the right place is great. But the wrong tree, or thousands of them in plastic sleeves in the wrong places, could be catastrophic to natural diversity.
Increased hedge planting to replace fences and lost field boundaries makes a lot of sense to me. As does a policy for (where appropriate) a tree in the centre of every field. Thus I would encourage farmers (and the people who control the poor sods) to plough and sow in circles and ‘naturally’ leave field corners to go wild.
We seem to have a propensity to go off to other places to find the nature we crave to experience and to not encourage it in the places where we live and work. Why? More nature at home and work I say big-up the bumblebee.
Plants bumblebees visit
(PLEASE NOTE THAT THERE ARE ONLY A HANDFUL OF TREES AND SHRUBS): Barberries (shrubs),
Bird’s Foot Trefoils, Bilberries (small shrubs), Blackthorns (shrubs or small trees), Bluebells, Brambles, Cats-ears, Clovers, Colt’s Foot, Comfreys and Borage, various Daisies, Asters and Sow Thistles, Dandelions, Dead Nettles, Fig-worts, Foxgloves, Ground Ivy, Harebells, Heathers (small shrubs), Hemp Nettles, Honeysuckles, Ivy, Knapweeds, Marjorams, Plum and Cherry trees (small trees), Rasberries, Sages, Sallows (small trees), Scabiouses, St. John’s Worts, Teasels, Thistles, Thymes, Umbellifers, Vetches, Vipers Burgloss, Wild Carrots, Willows (small trees), Willowherbs, Woundworts, Yellow Rattles