Monday, 23 September 2013

What's killing our bees?

We're not very good at watching TV programmes when they are on, virtually everything we see is pre-recorded. One interesting programme that had us all captivated recently was 'Horizon: What's killing our bees?' but because we didn't watch it live it's no longer available on BBC iplayer - sorry! It can currently be found on youtube.

The programme itself was a bit lightweight, full of what research is currently happening but no results yet available. It really was produced a year too soon but was clearly a response to the current concern about the bees.

So what is killing our bees? The programme had a good look at pesticides, which I believe to be part of the equation, but only brushed against what I suspect to be the biggest culprit - our current farming practises.

I was lucky enough to be raised in the countryside, my father was and still is an agricultural worker on farms most of which have been a mix of dairy and arable. On one of the farms the owner rented three small fields from somebody who refused to allow them to be cultivated other than grazing cattle, they were beautiful meadows. I can still remember my dad moving the electric fence across the field and as it brushed the top of the grass it would send hundreds of butterflies into the air. This was only one tiny part of the farmland but probably held most of it's wildlife. It grew excellent mushrooms too! This would have been about 25 years ago so if things were bad then it must be dire now.
Slow worm
After too many years in town we have managed to make it back into the countryside but this time we are surrounded by arable land. It really does feel like a desert at times though our garden is packed full of wildlife despite it's overabundance of grass. All the fields have grass margins but there is little diversity there now. I suspect that the local seed bank in the soil is long gone due to farming methods of the past 60 years (I don't recall seeing grass margins as a child, the local farmer would try to use as much land for planting as he could - though this practice may have varied by area). Apparently there has been a sudden drop in bees in the last 10 years which seems to lead people to believe that it must be for recent reasons but I strongly feel that this is simply because they have reached a point where they just cannot continue to hang on with their loss of habitat, the straw that broke the camels back.

If you jump to the last five minutes of the programme Horizon discusses the idea of introducing sown flower strips through the centre of arable crops to boost the number of natural pollinators in the area. This increased the number of solitary bees to 500% of those in the grass margin! If it did that to the bees then it makes me wonder just how positive it is for the rest of the wildlife. This to me really does sound like a good step forward, a little like the flower corridors that Sarah Raven was trying to promote several years ago with her programme, River of Flowers. I don't like the intensive way plants are grown on a commercial scale with their mono cultures blighting the countryside (a whole other subject, see Farm for the Future for some interesting thoughts) but I do appreciate that this is not going to change soon. A flower strip is a relatively inexpensive way to keep our countryside alive.
The older I get the more I realise that diversity is the answer to pretty much everything. There is rarely one answer that ticks all boxes and we should stop trying to find that elusive goal and instead work within the local environment for sustainable, resilient solutions. Whether this can happen in our modern society that loves quick fixes I do not know.

Personally I really hope to increase diversity in my own garden (see my lawn post ) but it's going to take time and effort. This past summer I have already seen more wildlife here than ever before. It's lovely to identify the different butterflies and see evidence of the large mammals such as deer and badgers. But the smaller creatures are great too, every evening the garden has hummed to the sound of the grasshoppers and my land is populated by moles. We've even seen a rabbit trying to make a burrow in our bonfire! And personally I have seen many, many bees. On the negative side I've only spotted one ladybird and far too many pigeons who I am sure have munched most of my greens whilst waiting for the crops to establish in the fields around us.

By coincidence there is also an article in the Daily Mail today about creating a network of bee motorways.

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