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”.
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
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.
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”
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.
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.
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!
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!