A Future Without Bees – a talk at the Southbank Centre

I was lucky enough to be given free tickets to this debate on ‘A Future Without Bees‘ at the Southbank Centre by artist Amy Shelton, who has been contributing to events there as part of the London Literature Festival. Amy’s website is amyshelton.co.uk and you can see her works at the Saison Poetry Library throughout the festival until 14th July 2013. Melissographia is a collaboration with John Burnside resulting in a limited edition artists’ book, while Florilegium illuminates a collection of cultivated and wild plants which are essential to honeybee health. Thanks Amy!

Part of Amy Shelton’s Melissographia art work.

Chaired by Bill Turnbull, presenter on BBC Breakfast, BBC correspondent and author of The Bad Beekeepers Club, the panel included Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Steve Benbow, founder of the London Honey Company and author of The Urban Beekeeper; and Karin Alton, co-founder of FlowerScapes Ltd, providing habitat creation and wildlife gardening solutions informed by the latest ecological research.

Of the three speakers, two were familiar to me. Karin, I’ve heard speak a couple of times before – she had a nice blue dress on. Steve, I feel like I know a little through reading his book, The Urban Beekeeper. He was a restless presence on stage in a waistcoat, turnup jeans and scruffy hair, twitching his foot up and down. Dave Goulson I hadn’t come across  before, so was pleased to discover that he’s the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a brilliant British charity.

Bill Turnbull began the discussion by asking ‘Is there really such a threat to bees as the media makes out?’

The panel felt that plenty of bees are under threat, but other species of bees more so than the honeybee. For Dave, the biggest problem is habitat loss. In South-West China intensive pesticide use has caused bees to die out, and similarly rumour has it that parts of Brazil are now beeless. This is probably linked to farming practices there – Brazil has a huge cattle ranching industry (actually the largest commercial cattle herd in the world) which has caused destruction of the native rainforest and other habitats. All so that we can eat more burgers.

It is the specialist bees which rely on certain types of flowers which are most at risk (the honeybee is a generalist). Steve joked that honeybees are “almost like the bee pin-up of the advertising world”, but all bee species are important. However, last year was the worst weather Steve has experienced as a commercial beekeeper. To try and cope with the cold British summers he has been using a thrifty dark bee imported from Wales which finds South-East England to be “like the Mediterranean”.

Personally, I'm very worried for the future of bumble and solitary bees - more so than honey bees

Personally, I’m very worried for the future of bumble and solitary bees – more so than honey bees

Karin reminded us that after all we live in a small, densely populated country, and food has to come from somewhere. We shouldn’t just point the finger at farmers, who are trying to make a living and often struggling doing it. Having said that, hedgerows could be increased and farmland farmed less intensively. There are taxpayer schemes available to fund bee friendly planting for farmers.

Consumers are responsible too. We must cure ourselves of the desire to have perfect looking fruit and vegetables. Karin knows an organic farmer in Spain producing carrots who ends up sending 60% of his crop to be animal feed, because the supermarkets won’t take it. But are the supermarkets really right that we won’t buy wonky or unusually shaped items, or is this idea over-paranoia on the part of the buyers? For years freezer compartments have been left without doors because supermarkets felt consumers didn’t like opening them – but Thornton’s Budgens in Crouch End tried using freezer doors (much more energy efficient) and found they made no difference to sales.

Anyone has driven around England will have seen the brash yellow of oil seed rape, its bright flowers a shock compared to the more muted colours of our native plants. It is now one of the most popular crops here, used not just for food but as biodiesel to fuel cars. Under the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, legally all road petrol sold has to contain around 5% fuel from sustainable sources (in reality, only 66% was proved sustainable last year, so UK drivers are now indirectly contributing to nasty things like the destruction of orangutan habitat for palm oil plantations and southern US states having been turned into endless fields of corn).

The bees love oil seed rape, but once it is over the fields are of no use. Oil seed rape honey crystallises quickly and becomes hard for the bees to eat, so is not a good overwintering honey either.  As the rape has taken over, a lot of borage production has been lost here and moved to China, which Steve feels is “a tragedy for bees”.

Field of rapeseed

Neonicotinoids

Bill moved the panel onto discussing the famous neonicotinoids ban. There is still so much we don’t know about the effects of neo-nics. Dave commented that there is no scheme in place to monitor how the ban is going, so after two years how will we know if it’s been successful? He produced a tiny test-tube from his pocket, which he told us contained enough Clothianidin, a type of neonicotinoid, to kill 250,000 honeybees. A sobering thought. 80 tonnes of Clothianidin alone are applied annually in the UK, and it has a half-life of four years. So this stuff is still going to be around in the soil at the end of the two year ban.

Pyrethroids

The reason the British Beekeepers’ Association did not support putting the ban in place was partly due to a lack of research on the issues and partly due to the worry of rural beekeepers about what might replace the neo-nics (see their press release on the EU vote). Karin told us that currently farmers do two sprayings of pyrethroids a year, but they are now likely to switch to three sprayings, with an extra time in Spring.

Pyrethroids were a British invention and have been in use for around 50 years. They were originally derived from a plant in the Aster family which contains natural insecticides to stop insects eating it, but are now produced chemically in labs. They don’t last very long in the area sprayed – a week or two. Unfortunately pyrethroids do kill fish. Karin pointed out that if we are going to farm non-organically, then whatever is used there will be deaths.

Worryingly, pesticide company sales reps are the main source of advice for farmers on what to use and how to use it. There is no independent body advising farmers. If you are a pesticide company, you obviously have an interest in selling as many of your products as possible rather than helping farmers spray minimally.

EDIT: Norman Carreck has left a comment below to say: “Actually, there is an independent body advising farmers….Members of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants are not on commission, and manage about one fifth of the arable area of the UK: www.aicc.org.uk

London Literature festival talk

The panel (from left to right: Bill, Dave, Karin, Steve)

Wax foundation

A member of the audience asked whether part of the problem is the wax foundation which many beekeepers use, which is recycled wax and can contain small amounts of chemicals. Steve replied that there is organic wax available from some places, for instance Bees for Development have been importing organic and fairtrade foundation from Zambia. Dave added that 20-30 pesticides are commonly found in honeybee chemicals (in tiny amounts) and that if there was one chemical behind honeybee deaths, we’d know about it by now – the issues are more complicated than that. 

Pet hates

For Karin, bedding plants are her pet hate. They are sold by garden centres in peat within plastic pots, and probably grown in heated greenhouses or shipped over from Holland. So not only are they often useless for bees, they are energy intensive to grow. If you are a gardener, please avoid them!

She added that beekeepers should be better trained, for example through taking exams or getting themselves a more experienced mentor. It’s not possible to learn beekeeping through the internet – that won’t prepare you for the nerves of steel needed to deal with aggressive bees.

Dave feels that gardeners never need pesticides. Why don’t we have a blanket ban on these in London? And the slug pellets some gardeners use are killing hedgehogs – is that really want we want?

Are there too many beekeepers in London? 

This question from Bill caused some slightly raised voices and a hint of tension amongst the panel!

Steve told us that he’d got into trouble for his one-word answer to this question before! (To find out which one word, see Deborah de Long’s infamous blog post, Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow). He took a more cautious approach to his answer this time but did say that he finds London to be a safe haven for bees, thanks to all the gardens and lime trees. He gave the example of Berlin, where around 2,500 colonies are brought in each year for the lime harvest, producing linden honey. Karin was quick to add that this is only for a very limited time and the colonies then return home.

Urban beekeepers - are there too many of us?

Urban beekeepers – are there too many of us?

There was quite a funny moment when Steve quoted a figure from the Pollination Association (if I heard him right?) which did a study finding that 62% of London is green space. “Which association?” said Karin incredulously, with Steve rather lamely replying that it wasn’t his association. Anyone familiar with London’s squashed roads and concrete front gardens would be very sceptical of the 62% figure! Also, parks technically count as green space but the closely mowed grass they’re often full of is useless to bees.

EDIT: I apologise to Steve for doubting the 62% figure, as he has tweeted me a link to the Environment Agency website: Urban green space in London, which quotes a Greater London Authority figure that in London more than half (63%) of the capitals 160,000 hectares is made up of green space, gardens or water. One third of this are private gardens, one third parks or used for sports and the remaining third are wildlife habitats. So Steve was right. It seems an incredible amount – I still can’t help wondering if they are counting private gardens which may have been concreted, pebbled or decked over by now. And not all green space is equal, grass alone is no good.

EDIT 2: Angela Woods, Secretary of the London Beekeepers Association, has left a comment below to tell me that “A good reference is an excellent report by Chloe Smith who wrote London: A Garden City (2010) which shows that actual vegetated land makes up 14% of Greater London’s space. This however, is declining all the time and an area 2 1/2 times the size of Hyde park was lost annually between 1999 and 2008. The amount of hard surfacing increased by 26% and overall vegetation in gardens dropped by 12%….The full report is here and makes fascinating reading: www.gigl.org.uk/Portals/0/Downloads/LondonGardenCity.pdf“.

Steve told us he’s into guerrilla gardening, which is one thing both him and Karin agree on. He gives away clay seedbombs from his shop, which he suggested we chuck on roundabouts whilst cycling past. He also has some shaped like hand grenades that should be soaked first. Karin added that there’s no point throwing seedbombs onto grass – they need bare soil.

What can we all do to help bees?

Dave – Plant a lavender bush

Karin – “Ooh, I’d go a little bit further than that…” Dave – “plant two lavender bushes!”

Karin – Plant as many different nectar and pollen providing plants as you can. Think diversity. If you have kids, get them dirty and out in the woods, looking at the creatures and world around them.

Steve – Lobby your local government. And it’s all about being unkempt. Mow less!

Lavender bushes - great for bees

Lavender bushes – great for bees

Conclusions

I was glad that the audience seemed very interested in bee health and how they can help bees. There were several questions asked about what beekeeping involves and the best way to attract bees to gardens. One gentleman who said he was a farmer interested in getting into commercial beekeeping optimistically asked the question “What do beekeepers do” – not an easy thing to answer!

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
This entry was posted in Urban beekeeping and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to A Future Without Bees – a talk at the Southbank Centre

  1. cindy knoke says:

    So interesting. We have bee heaven here at The Holler. Everything was planted with bees and butterflies in mind! Do you know what the big black fuzzy bee I call the B1 Bomber is? It’s an intimidating buzzer! There’s a photo of it under my blog post entitled, “Home Again, Home Again…”
    Love your blog. I always learn new things from it!

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Cindy. It’s great that you help the insects out in your garden, I love seeing your photos. I don’t know for sure what the B1 Bomber is, but having read this great guide to North American bees – http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/documents/BeeBasics.pdf – it looks like a type of miner bee, Female andrena (Andrena cornelli) to me (p.26). But I’m only going on the photo in your post – see what you think. Although info says it’s found in the eastern United States – think you’re in the west?

      Like

      • cindy knoke says:

        Emily,
        I printed the guide you gave me. It will be immensely helpful to me in identifying the variety of bees we have at The Holler. The guide got me searching and I think what we have are carpenter bees which I guess is not good as they are wood borers. The population this summer has greatly multiplied.
        Thank you for your help!
        Cindy

        Like

  2. My gosh, so much I could comment on. I have a post coming up with almost this exact statement, “We must cure ourselves of the desire to have perfect looking fruit and vegetables.” The habitat loss too for native bees, a concern here as well. I agree on no pesticides, but how do you convince farmers, the ones most responsible? It also is made so inviting to consumers too, discussed in my upcoming post. The insect world is under assault on many fronts with no recourse either. Excellent post Emily.

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      I can see that it’s difficult for farmers as there isn’t a large market for organic food. The best thing would be for legislation that all farming should be organic, which would remove the competition from lower priced food. But I can’t see that happening anytime soon! And there is funding available for planting hedgerows and wildlife friendly borders. Personally I like buying unusually shaped items from farmers markets, they’re more fun to look at.

      Like

  3. Eddy Winko says:

    Great write up, very interesting.
    We planted our lavender last year and it survived the winter, we managed to avoid the green alkanet with the strimmer, (now I know what it is, thank you:) ) and I’m going to pick the Colorado beetles off the potatoes later today; no sprays here 🙂

    Like

  4. Lovely, interesting post Emily, as usual! Thankyou. I too have been…disturbed…to find that honeybees are, by and large, better off in town now than in the country. Here, our main crops are potatoes, corn, and blueberries. All have honeybee-adverse spray regimens, the worst being the blueberries, which are sprayed often, particularly for aphid control. Hedgerows are vanishing, and there is some confusion about what to plant for honeybees in purpose-planted hedgerows and fields. Unfortunately, in the town there remains a fear that honeybees will attack and sting a) for no reason and b) in numbers. Did your panel discuss Varroa? I have the uneasy feeling that as long as we are fighting Varroa in the hives, honeybees will be on the edge.

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      It’s tragic that bees and their needs are still so little understood, especially by farmers. Varroa was discussed a little, but I didn’t take notes on that as it wasn’t new to me. I consider it the biggest threat to honeybee health in the UK at the moment.

      Like

  5. I was jealous when I started to read your post but at the end I felt it was certainly a close second to having attended. Thank you for letting us know what went on. It is so scary to think that we have so destroyed the ecosystems in places so that there are no bees. The issues are so complicated but being back in Surrey for a few weeks the waste and changing consumer life styles shocks me. The bedding plants are a good example.

    Like

  6. Thanks for posting such a detailed write-up of the talk you attended. Some interesting topics with food for thought.

    Like

  7. Norman Carreck says:

    Actually, there is an independent body advising farmers. Farmers actually tend to be rather cynical of free advice given by reps employed by chemical companies. Members of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants are not on commission, and manage about one fifth of the arable area of the UK. http://www.aicc.org.uk/

    Like

  8. Hello Emily … Angela here from the London Beekeepers Association. Another excellent blog from you and I wish I could have come along to that event. I do believe that Mr Benbow’s figures on green space need more detail. Greater London is a huge area and much, much greener at the outer edges. A good reference is an excellent report by Chloe Smith who wrote London: A Garden City (2010) which shows that actual vegetated land makes up 14% of Greater London’s space. This however, is declining all the time and an area 2 1/2 times the size of Hyde park was lost annually between 1999 and 2008. The amount of hard surfacing increased by 26% and overall vegetation in gardens dropped by 12%. I asked Chloe earlier this year about ‘central London’ and this is what she said “It could be better to look at the density of development/local authorities or similar. But a very quick look at our habitat survey sites suggests if you use the geographical centre of London, which is actually Walworth so not what people tend to think of as the centre, around 21% of a 5Km radius area from here has been recorded on the habitat survey. From St. Pauls (which LNHS use as their centre point, and is probably more what people perceive as inner London) the 5Km zone is around 18% habitat sites. So by these quick measures I guess around the 20% figure is what we’re looking at broadly rather than 70%. ”

    The full report is here and makes fascinating reading. http://www.gigl.org.uk/Portals/0/Downloads/LondonGardenCity.pdf

    It is very much worth having this debate and we are working with GiGL and other organisations to map London’s spaces that shows what % of green space is actually of value to pollinators. In any event, I believe that there can never be enough forage and would encourage all to engage in planting for bees.

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Angela. The 20% figure does seem more realistic, and then not all of that will have the right flowers for bees. It’s sad that the green space is decreasing so quickly.

      Like

  9. beeuandme says:

    Hello Emily … Angela here from the London Beekeepers Association. Another excellent blog from you and I wish I could have come along to that event. I do believe that Mr Benbow’s figures on green space need more detail. Greater London is a huge area and much, much greener at the outer edges. A good reference is an excellent report by Chloe Smith who wrote London: A Garden City (2010) which shows that actual vegetated land makes up 14% of Greater London’s space. This however, is declining all the time and an area 2 1/2 times the size of Hyde park was lost annually between 1999 and 2008. The amount of hard surfacing increased by 26% and overall vegetation in gardens dropped by 12%. I asked Chloe earlier this year about ‘central London’ and this is what she said “It could be better to look at the density of development/local authorities or similar. But a very quick look at our habitat survey sites suggests if you use the geographical centre of London, which is actually Walworth so not what people tend to think of as the centre, around 21% of a 5Km radius area from here has been recorded on the habitat survey. From St. Pauls (which LNHS use as their centre point, and is probably more what people perceive as inner London) the 5Km zone is around 18% habitat sites. So by these quick measures I guess around the 20% figure is what we’re looking at broadly rather than 70%. ”

    The full report is here and makes fascinating reading. http://www.gigl.org.uk/Portals/0/Downloads/LondonGardenCity.pdf

    It is very much worth having this debate and we are working with GiGL and other organisations to map London’s spaces that shows what % of green space is actually of value to pollinators. In any event, I believe that there can never be enough forage and would encourage all to engage in planting for bees.

    Like

  10. Thanks Emily for an interesting summary of this event. As you say, an important issue in the countryside is providing more forage for bees, especially bumblebees, at field margins. I hadn’t heard that money was available for this. I wonder why so few farmers take advantage of such a scheme?
    Was anything said about the rumblings from the EU about banning fipronil?

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      The speakers didn’t mention how much the money was – it might not be a huge amount. It always amazes me that the almond tree growers in California don’t consider saving money by setting aside flowers for bees so pollinators can live there all year round, but they don’t.

      No mention of fipronil – is that next then?

      Like

  11. Further to the bee-oriented greening of spaces both urban and rural: I have found most people are happy to plant for the bees but have no idea how to do that effectively. It is tricky to provide season long forage AND sufficient numbers of each plant to make a dedicated foraging trip worthwhile for bees. You need not just the right plants, but scores of them.

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      That’s true of honeybees, as individual honey bees like to specialise in collecting from one flower species at a time. But bumble bees and solitary bees will flit between different species. I’ve seen bumbles foraging on individual lavender, mint and chive flowers in my back garden.

      Like

  12. disperser says:

    We should just accept the fact we are screwed, and enjoy what little time we have left. That’s what I plan to do.

    On a related note, at this time last year I already had bees on the chives. This year, not a one yet.

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      Maybe we are screwed, but I hope there are things we can do to help nature out, even if that just means delaying its inevitable destruction for a while.

      Like

      • disperser says:

        I’m trying to come up with a plan whereas flower photographers take over some of the pollinating duties . . . I mean, we’re there anyway. Why not rub some pollen on our underarms, and then go rub them on other flowers?

        At the very least, it’ll be entertaining as heck.

        Like

    • Angela Woods - LBKA says:

      Hello Disperser … the weather has been so cold that plants are not producing nectar. So the bees are there but they are staying indoors a bit more. Like the rest of us.

      Like

      • Emily Heath says:

        That’s a good point Angela, the flowers can be there but that’s no help if they’re not producing the good stuff.

        Like

        • disperser says:

          Hm . . . not sure where you are, Angela, but here in Colorado it’s not been cold.

          In fact, the hod and dry weather has been a problem for it put us under extreme fire danger (hence the fire last week which destroyed 480 homes).

          It could be there are not enough other flowers out there, but lots of wildflowers are in full bloom (they have a short growing season).

          Anyway, I’ll keep monitoring, as I like taking photos of bees.

          Like

  13. First, disperser, eeeuww.
    Second, WE may be on a short path to the Infinite, but I doubt the planet is. It may take a long time for it to recover from us, but I am quite confident it will do just fine in the long run, if only Homo sapiens gets out of its way!

    Like

    • disperser says:

      Well, sure, to do it properly, I should rub the pollen on the hair of my legs.

      Thing is, aside the danger of persons of the female persuasion swooning at the sight, I don’t particularly like going pantless. Not even for such a good cause as crop and flower pollination.

      I think the underarms approach is a good compromise, although I did neglect to inform female photographers they should stop shaving their underarms if they plan to help with the pollination effort (unless they already emulate Madonna of yesteryears).

      However, as a honorary member of http://www.vhemt.org/, I don’t know if I should even make the effort.

      Like

  14. Alex Jones says:

    Lavender appears to be good at keeping mosquitoes at bay, so I am told.

    Like

  15. Pingback: London Honey Show 2014: part 1, Dave Goulson | Adventuresinbeeland's Blog

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