• Ian McClellan

Week 27: I will be a friend to the bees (and the friends of the bees)

There is a tree in the bottom corner of our garden. In a few weeks, it will come alive with tiny pale flowers, and when that happens it will also come alive with bees. They seem to love it, and if you stand under it and close your eyes it sounds like I imagine it would when Winnie the Pooh got his head stuck in a beehive.

It’s a low hum, a hypnotic and slightly unsettling rhythm as the bees go about their business from flower to flower. It is unsettling because of the childhood fear of cartoon, arrow-shaped swarms that are determined to sting our bottoms. At the same time is one of the most wonderfully comforting sounds - which is the first indication of our complicated relationship with bees.

We love them, we fear them. We need them.

I’m not sure if the tree was grown there deliberately, and I am not sure what it is called. As with much of our garden borders and corners, what grows there falls onto a broad spectrum from a privileged legacy from previous owners at one extreme to something a bird once poo-ed out at the other. We just enjoy it, accept it, and in the summer mornings and evenings I occasionally stand underneath and just listen to the hum.

It was whilst down near the tree this week doing some garden maintenance that I had the idea for this week’s planetwise change. The particular task in hand wasn’t related to the tree – it was instead the destruction and re-imagining of an old composting area that we inherited with the house. An amazing three metre, annualised system of containers, that instead of being used correctly by us has become an ever-greater pile of clippings and weeds with no organisation whatsoever.

It was also destruction that revealed about ten square metres of land. Once the blast zone of twigs and branches had been cleared, it revealed the full wonder of the old Yorkshire stone wall behind that pre-dates several generations of families who have created and re-created legacies in the land we are now lucky enough to have under our care. It revealed the full stature of an old apple tree that grows down there. Stones and land that would be able to tell stories of the bees, of the seasons and the generations, and might even be able to tell me what that tree is called.

As the patch revealed itself, the challenge in mind evolved from destruction to future use. I hadn’t really given the next stage much thought, but was aware that even though we were not using the land in a way that was thoughtful, it was likely a habitat for worms and insects. We therefore had to think in a planetwise way about what we did next.

As always when you in the open air, inspiration comes to you in different ways. And in this case, the mystery tree gave inspiration to think about bees. To create a patch of land that the bees would love, as much as they love the tree. A food festival of bee-friendly plants and flowers.

This week, I intended to start to be more of a friend to the bee.

It felt like a simple change, a week where this diary entry would write itself. Everyone knows that bee populations are in decline in number and diversity, and everyone knows that should they disappear, it would signal disaster for the human race. Everyone knows that this little, furry, beautiful creature is the hardest working connection in a delicate pollination ecosystem that is on the brink of collapse.

Except, it did not take much reading up on the topic, to scramble my mind, to realise that I don't know much about the topic at all, and that researching bees gives you both hopeful and apocalyptic theories. The kind of research that makes you want to stop reading and go sit in a darkened room. What started by thinking about how to help the bee, led to a greater and more profound feeling of interconnection than I’ve had over the last months.

With many changes we have made as a family, you can make a thread of impact that feels like you are making a contribution. But when talking about bees, and about pollination, you are talking about such a fundamental aspect of ecosystems, with so few alternatives should it disappear, that it’s hard to find a simple positive common ground or change to focus on that doesn’t require a shift in how we do almost everything from farming to urbanisation to consumption.

The science is broad and complicated, and so here are the highlights from my non-expert view.

Firstly, if you are going to be a friend to the bees, then you also have to be a friend to their less famous friends. Not only are there many species of bees, but there are also many other species that take the role of pollinators – that are also struggling for survival.

Bees are the most effective and hardest working, but there are also other creatures such as butterflies, hoverflies, birds, who are also responsible for pollination. Bees do this most directly, but the others are also important even if they happen to transfer pollen just through the happy accident of it sticking to them whilst they are doing other things - which is how many other creatures do it. Nature is a wily beast like that.

Without pollination these plants and flowers would be in danger of no longer existing, plus some insects that take the role of pollinators are also food for birds.

The importance of maintaining this balance cannot be understated, and the potential shockwaves of upsetting it are dramatic. Connections and interconnections would be felt in ways that go far beyond the simple act of fertilisation.

Second, there is agreement that factors such as habitat loss, industrial agriculture, climate change, and pesticides have impacted the colonies of all of these pollinators. It is difficult even for scientists to untangle all of these impacts, and there are arguments and scientific studies that conclude or that stress one is more important than another. A lot of it could be considered common sense – that insects like temperatures to be within a certain range, that they don’t like to eat chemicals, and that if humans introduce larger non-native species then they will bully less powerful but no less important ones out of existence.

The impact is becoming framatic. Some studies say that at the current rate of decline, there will be zero insects in the world by 2119, which seems like a while away but is feasibly in the lifetime of my great-grandchildren.

Others say the pressure it creates on the food we eat, especially items such as soft fruits, means that eventually an apple with cost as much as an average three-course meal in an restaurant. If we have to use humans or drones to pollinate because we don’t have insects any more, it will create cost and scarcity that we have never seen before.

Maybe what I have been able to read and understand are simplifications, and dramatic extrapolations to be disruptive and creating action. Hearing that something may soon become absent, is a good way to create a shockwave of nostalgia, but do not consider the hard work and dedication of those who are working to ensure it does not happen.

The result is also not universally agreed to be absolutely cataclysmic. There are foods that are pollinated by the wind, but these tend to be staples such as wheat and rice. This means that should bees and other pollinators disappear from the planet, we would be able to eat and get the calories we need, but from a variety perspective, natural pollination gives us the rich and varied diet that we enjoy and that we believe that we need. There is also lots of hard work going on to reverse the decline of insect populations, as we realise and gather data.

But as with many dramatic expressions made for good, they are also very difficult to disprove completely. If anything also, we have a big incentive to fix the balance, if only because should insects disappear, it is probably the least of our problems. At that stage, we are probably at movie-level climate disaster.

At this point, I had to take a deep breath, and try to get back on topic. What can we do as individuals to help this? Our consumption is important, and the pressure we can put on governments, organisations and institutions is also important.

But is there anything we can do as individuals that can help the bees and their friends? Being planetwise is about making good consumption choices and supporting individuals and organisations who are working hard to help. But I was also keen to see if there was anything individual that can create a positive impact on top of this.

The best perspective I could find about our role as an individual to directly help, was from Friends of the Earth and can be read here. It is from a few years ago, but it is a really great hub of information, with links to other useful and more specific tips.

What I loved about this article, was that it took a large issue, and summarised it in a simple fact. The simple fact is that that because of many of these larger issues of industrial agriculture, or careless construction – our gardens have become better and more varied environments for our bees and pollinators than the countryside. That many agricultural fields have become homogenous or alien to native species, or have become pavements or roads.

Our gardens remain, and have become the fast food havens for bees, bugs, bird, beetles.

Our trees, and our patches of land, that is something I can get behind. Something we can all control. And something that creates connection. If you add up all our gardens, then the land we all have under our private ownership just in this country could be as large as all of our other nature reserves combined, and much larger than many of our individual national parks. Twenty million houses in the UK with gardens, and therefore twenty million chances to make a connection with nature.

The good news also is that the answer is not to simply to grow flowers, although of course this is a wonderful thing to do. The first point on the list provided by the Friends of the Earth is reassurance that you don’t have to be an expert, which appeals to those who do not have experience or space, but a desire to help. This is something that we have embraced this week as a change.

Whereas the science of insect and pollinator decline created anxiety, sites such as this give solutions and hope. Creating havens ourselves is a small change that will not alone allow colonies or pollinators to recover, but is a little change we can all make. If we can individually create variety in our gardens that the bees and their friends will love, then because our gardens are metaphorically and actually connected, and we can work together to create a diverse and exciting food festival of pollen. Plus at the same time enjoy the colour and the produce that might be created as a result.

We have decided to set aside an area of our newly reclaimed land for lavender, and another for wild flowers. The lavender we have sourced from a local provider, Yorkshire Lavender, and usually you can find one local to you by a simple search. Wild flowers, we have sourced from Bee Bombs. What I love about Bee Bombs, is that they present the wild flower mix in a way that can be used for gifts. So as well as packs for us, we have bought a few extras, that can help spread the love for bees, and other insects that might enjoy the variety. The rest of the patch we’ll let grow into a mini-meadow, and allow it to be a bit wild.

Lavender especially is a good for us. It is hardy, and we have had success in another small patch at the front of the house already. It needs simply sunshine and free draining soil, which means that it can grow in pots as well as in borders, giving the opportunity to create vertical gardens, to decorate decking, or to create fragrant window boxes. Lavender has the kind of open a fragrant flowers that pollinators love, and with simple care can provide this haven for many years without having to worry too much about maintenance.

We got everything ready this week, but need a bit of rain before we plant everything out. We have been planning and preparing the patch, which gave us an opportunity to play and enjoy nature at the same time. We dug for worms and measured lumps of dirt, pretending they were pirate treasure. We broke up lumps of soil that we recovered from the compost heap by throwing them at the stone wall, and then watched whilst one of the resident robins of the garden flew in and cheekily stole something juicy from the scattered and exploded debris.

We salvaged stones and have created a low wall that will hopefully create an additional haven for insects, along with an old bee hotel that will hopefully make up for any solitary bees that we might have displaced as part of our destruction. It is all very amateur, but I don’t think that the pollinators will mind. In our little corner, what was once a tangle of weeds and garden debris, will soon have apple blossom in the spring, wildflowers and lavender across the seasons to feast on, shelter in case it is needed, and of course that mystery tree that started it all. The whole thing has also cost less than £70, and will be there hopefully for many years.

The big things, feel like they will always be the big things. The challenges that we have about what we think we need, and how we grow it, will always be there. Our bigger choices, about what we eat, where we live, and what causes we choose to support, are incredibly important to pollinators as they are to all ecosystems.

Our countryside is not a factory that we change to suit what we think we want, without consideration for what is living there already. Our towns and cities should not be planned around concrete convenience. We can make choices and have an opinion that can help change this through connection. As consumers, we should acknowledge that even if we think we are eating natural product, if it was produced in a way that displaces the insects and animals that were there in the first place, or because it is not a native or kind environment for these creatures, then it is a backwards step. It has the risk that biodiversity decreases, or that absolute numbers decrease.

As humans, we are drawn to the nurture of cute and fuzzy things, which is perhaps why pollinators such as the bumblebee has become the flagship for this cause. But help the bumblebee, and you help the friends of the bumblebee.

We can also help through action, with our own small patches of land, no matter what they are or who we are, no matter their shape or size. Every garden has a heart, and a heartbeat, and they are all different.

If we can also share this with a thousand other tiny heartbeats, or a million other tiny legs, then we can give pollen a chance.

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