Saturday, 19 July 2014

Bees on the balcony

Bees are getting a lot of press at the moment, much of it focused on the decline of the honeybee and the various reasons behind it.  But there's a lot more to bees than the honeybee - around 270 species are recorded in Britain, 1 honeybee, 27 bumblebees (3 of them extinct, although one is currently being reintroduced), and the rest are all solitary bees (currently 225 surviving species).

Recently (yesterday as I type this, in fact), Defra, guided by several wildlife organisations, have launched a 'Call to Action' highlighting ways for the general public to help bees as part of the National Pollinator Strategy. While several of these suggestions (particularly 'leave patches of land to grow wild', 'think carefully about whether to use pesticides', and 'cut grass less often') should perhaps be aimed more at national and local government as per my last blog, they're aimed at the rest of us and the entire call to action can be boiled down to one sentence: bees need food and a home.

I work for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT), one of the main organisations guiding Defra on the NPS, so I'd known the content of the Call to Action for quite a while. It was evident that several of the suggestions were aimed at people with land to spare (particularly 'leave patches of land to grow wild' and 'grow more trees'!), but there are plenty of us for whom owning any land is just a distant dream. My garden is actually my landlady's garden: I can get away with rummaging in the plants for interesting invertebrates but tree-planting would see me out on my ear in short order!  My girlfriend lives in a first-floor flat with no garden, in an urban area of Bath - what could we do there to make things bee-friendly?
The Bath 'garden': before...
Well, as the picture shows, you get to the flat up some exterior stairs with a small landing at the top - space for a few pot-plants and a windowbox! Helpfully, BBCT have an advice tool called BeeKind which gives your garden a bee-friendliness score, and suggests extra flower species based on what you've already got, to fill in the gaps of flowering times and flower shapes (bees need nectar throughout their March-October flight season & different species visit some different flowers). We knew that lavender would be one of the plants - it's Kate's favourite flower as well as being brilliant for bees - and were guided by the BeeKind tool for (most!) of the rest.  We ended up with a French lavender in a pot, along with red clover, coriander, and an ox-eye daisy, recently replaced by a flowering thistle, while the windowbox was stocked with a strawberry, meadow clary, sweet pea and an Osteospermum, topped off with a scattering of 'seeds for bees' which have germinated but remain as yet unidentified.
...and after! Windowbox as first planted
Pot plants, directly beneath the windowbox (note photobombing strawberry!)
That little lot gave us a BeeKind score of 457 - not far off the 500 given as 'excellent' on the website, even without laying claim to the great swathes of yellow corydalis growing from the base of the house wall, or the poppies, hedge mustard, dandelion and buddleia (since cut down - grrr!) growing from the concrete just outside. That was the food sorted - what about the home?  Well, there's no room for a hive of honeybees, or mouse burrows for bumblebees, but solitary bees are a lot easier! We hung a 'bee hotel' (basically a bundle of canes stuffed into a tube) beneath the windowbox, and left it for the bees to find.

And find it they did! Less than 24 hours later a bumblebee had arrived: within a week three species of bumblebee had been seen on the flowers (common carder Bombus pascuorum, buff-tailed B. terrestris, white-tailed B. lucorum), as well as a tiny Lasioglossum solitary bee and several hoverflies (the marmalade hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus and a couple of Syrphus species).  More recently a tree bumblebee (B. hypnorum) had circled without settling and a couple of spiders (the garden spider Araneus diadematus and the jumping spider Salticus scenicus) had made the windowbox home, while an tortrix micro-moth caterpillar of some sort had munched its way through several of the lavender flowerheads (just this weekend Kate found the hatched pupa sticking out of the stitched-together flowerheads so it will remain, alas, unidentified). Sadly none of June's impressive hatch of scarlet tiger moths could be persuaded to land on the flowers!

Most exciting of all, the 'bee hotel' was colonised almost instantaneously by red mason bees (Osmia bicornis (=O. rufa)), so next spring the garden will be able to supply its own home-grown wildlife.  Food and a home - it's really not that hard to help the bees...
The bee hotel in position
Tree bumblebee on Osteospermum. After several flypasts, this one finally settled!
The female red mason bee constructing her nest
The completed mud nest of the red mason bee, ready to sit out the winter

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Just leave it alone!

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” 
Aldo Leopold

A few months ago I wrote about the pseudoscorpions that lived beneath the bark of a dead tree in my village. Having only seen them immobile in winter, and finally having a bit of free time, I decided on an early-evening wander round the village, to catch up with my pincered friends and see what else was about now summer's here.  Rounding the corner I stopped in my tracks: 
Yesterday: habitat.  Today: firewood
 The tree - a branchless Eucalyptus tower - had been reduced to a stump less than a foot high, the rest laid on the floor and taken away the next day.  The tree had been sound enough, had no branches to drop off or catch the wind, and was tucked well out of the way down a quiet dead end in a small rural village, so what had possessed someone to chop it down - to destroy an entire ecosystem of pseudoscorpions and wood-boring beetles, springtails and spiders?  As far as I can tell, it's just because the tree was dead, and obviously so - it made the place look 'untidy', so down it had to come.
Lesser stag beetle, Dorcus parallelepipedus: a dead-wood species that's just lost its home
My village is far from being alone in this fetish for tidiness: for treating the outdoors as an extension of the living room, somewhere that should be neat and clean and hygienic. Just today a friend was evicted from his Landshare garden for the crime of letting parts of it 'grow wild' (aka leaving some weeds as flowers for pollinators and cover for pest-munching ground beetles).  Another friend turned her tiny front lawn into a miniature wildflower meadow: she arrived home one day to find a neighbour 'helpfully' mowing it.

A month ago some friends and I ran the national Garden BioBlitz, which saw hundreds of people up and down the country go out and connect with the wildlife that can be found in virtually any garden.  Amongst them were Andrew and his 11-yr-old son Jacob from Hull, whose 50+ species saw Jacob mentioned on Springwatch. Unfortunately it drew the wrong kind of attention as well, and the next week the council delivered a warning: there had been a complaint about 'the presence of weeds and overgrown vegetation on the land' and as 'the tackling of land causing defacement, adversely affecting neighbourhoods, or causing a nuisance' was 'a key priority', the wildlife had to go within 10 days or  legal action would be taken.
The offending garden (photo Andrew Jackson /
This kind of small-minded pettiness is also a major reason why many verges and parks are mown to within an inch of their lives all summer: despite the obvious wild life benefits and cost savings of mowing less frequently, councils receive too many ill-informed letters of complaint whenever wildflowers dare rear their heads in public.  There are other reasons, sure - unrealistic health and safety concerns are a standard, for instance - but it all seems to come from the same root cause - the feeling that the outside should be a mere extension of the inside; controllable, tamed, idiotproofed, with wildlife safely confined to nature reserves.

This ignorance is symptomatic of the disconnect between people and nature: a country where the management of one of the best sites in the country for rare wood-boring insects can encourage people to take dead branches home for firewood (aka the 'burn our endangered insects initiative'); where universities mow down bee orchids to have undisturbed green lawns; where magnificent stag beetles are stamped on in the street.  

This excessive 'tidying' is a significant part of the decline of British wildlife over the past century. Our wildlife is dying the death by a thousand cuts: they can't survive without those scruffy areas - the brownfield sites, meandering hedges, riverbanks, patches of scrub - are where they live, their highways through the landscape, bridges between eating and sleeping sites, where they take refuge.

Don't be a part of it.  Leave the mower in the shed for a change: congratulate the council when they do the same, or complain when they do decide everything would be better as a half-inch stump.  Publicise the wildlife on your university campus - make it a feature, not something to be buried at the back of the world's driest 'environmental strategy' document! Take a bit of time to open your eyes to the wildlife that can be present in even the tiniest of spaces and soon you'll learn to appreciate it and - like me last week - get angry when it's taken away from you.