Dancing with Bees – Brigit Strawbridge Howard

This post is part of a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

This book although nominated for the 2020 Wainwright prize was actually one that I read before the longlist was announced. I found it really thought provoking, and read it initially because of the RGS Nature Writing Bookclub. This book spiked an interest in Bees and has made me more attentive when in our garden, and I have now joined the Bumblebee Conservation Trust https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/.

Below are the Notes that I made while Reading It

Planet Earth is home to some 352,000 described species of flowering plants. These are, in turn, pollinated by at least 350,000 described, and many additional undescribed species of pollinating animals. Plants and their animal pollinators have been evolving together for millions of years, and whilst some flowers have become specialists and adapted to coexist with specific animals, most are generalists and are visited by many different species. Birds and bats pollinate flowers, as do rodents, marsupials, and lizards. But the majority of pollinating animals are insects: wasps, hover-flies, and other flies, butterflies, moths, ants, flower beetles, and of course bees.

In 2017 migratory beekeepers shipped around 1.7 million honeybee colonies to and around California, where they pollinated 1.3 million aches of almond trees. These bees were in addition to the 500,000 colonies that were already resident in the almond valleys. The almond crop alone relies on trucking some 88 billion bees from their wintering homes, which, in some cases, are up to one thousand males away. Back and forth go the hives on flatbed trucks, east and west, with stops to pollinate summer crops in the Midwest, before they get a rest over the winter before they start the whole circuit again. Some of these hives will travel ten thousand miles of roads each year as the bees pollinate crops including apples, clover, canola, alfalfa, sunflowers, and blueberries.

The majority of bees have no social traits whatsoever and are called solitary. Though solitary bees might live alongside each other, they usually have their own individual nests or nest entrances, and do not interact with others of their kind (unless they are mating).

Bees have been quietly disappearing, or declining in range and numbers. There are currently nineteen native bee species on the United Kingdom Biodiversity action Plan list, which is made up of priority species that have been identified as being the most threatened and therefore requiring conservation action. Of these nineteen species, six are bumblebees and the rest are solitary bees. European honey bees are not, and never have been on the UK list.

Bringing hundreds of thousands more honeybees into an area where they might already be outcompeting native wild bees for foraging resources makes no sense whatsoever – unless, of course, you simultaneously plant fields full of flowering plants for the honeybees to forage upon, which in most cases is not what happens.Keeping bees might well help increase crop pollination, but the fact is that you are no more likely to save bees by becoming a beekeeper than you are going to save ‘birds’ by keeping chickens.

It is worth mentioning that not all the insects you see on flowers are actually pollinating those plants. I have discovered over the last few years that the terminology you use is extremely important when talking about bees and pollination. The term pollinator refers to creatures that actually pollinate the plants they visit, whilst all the others are called visitors .A bee or butterfly on a flower is not necessarily pollinating it. It might simply be supping nectar from the flower, without making contact with the plant’s reproductive parts or getting pollen on itself to be transferred to another plant.

Wherever there is minimal or zero intervention and management; where nature has the freedom to do what nature chooses, rather than what we think nature should do; when we stop the clock, take a back seat, and become observers rather than masers; there, unexpected and magical things begin to happen.

Non self-respecting vegetable plot should be without at least a small patch of comfrey,. As a soil enricher comfrey provides significantly higher quantities of potassium, potash, and nitrogen than other organic fertilisers, even out performing most manures, composts and liquid feeds for the concentration of nutrients. It provides pollen and nectar for numerous species of bumblebees and other insects. According to a survey conducted by the AgriLand project, comfrey is one of the top ten plant species for nectar when measured in micrograms of sugar produced per flower per day.

The number of insects in the country has dramatically decreased; this is evidenced by the reduction of insects found on car windnscreens. There also used to be huge flocks of birds following ploughs – ehse were eating worms and other organisms exposed by the plough. There are fewer birds following the tractors in part because there is less life in the soil.

The term ‘cuckoo bee’ applies to a number of different bees that, like their namesake bird, lay their eggs in the nests of other bees. All are brood parasites, or cleptoparasites. And just as bumblebee and solitary bee life cycles differ, so do the life cycles of their respective cuckoos. Cuckoo bees account for around 80 of the 2780 or so solitary bee species in Britain and Ireland. Typically, each one is associated with more than one host bee species. Not all bees need to worry about cuckoos. In Britain there are no known cuckoos for Yellow Loostrife bees, for instance. Conversely, very few of our ground-nesting Andnrena species get away without being cuckoo’d. The cuckoo of ground nesting mining bees are mostly of the sort known as cuckoos.

It is vital that bumblebees have suitable flowers to forage on throughout their lifecycles, but habitat are now sadly few and far between . We have lost around 98 percent of our wild flower-rich grasslands int he UnitedKingdom since the end of the Second World War, and alongside these losses we have seen declines in not only Great Yellow bumblebees and other wild flower-loving species of bees and butterflies but also ground-nesting birds such as lapwing, skylark, curlew and con-rake all of which like to nest in wild flower meadow and grasslands.

To address climate change and improve air quality, we urgently need a balance of tree species, which will mean planting more fast-growing and slow-growing trees whilst at the same time protecting the planet’s existing mature trees and forests. The older a tree or woodland, the more biodiversity it supports. This is especially true during a tree’s twilight years, when the amount of invertebrates and beneficial fungi living on and around the wood increases exponentially.

An increasing number of pollinator species are beginning to emerge earlier or later than they used to; birds are pairing off and starting to nest when they shouldn’t; and plants that used to flower in February are now flowering in November, or vice versa.

The lack of available pollen and nectar causes more problems for some species than others’ honeybees, for instance, are able to feed on the honey and pollen stores they have built up in their hives for as long as these provisions last, and bumblebee colonies can survive for up to a few weeks on the nectar they have stored in their nests. Solitary bees, however, do not store honey, pollen, or nectar, so when food is scarce, they starve and die.

A honeybee colony, sixty thousand strong, is capable of pollinating an entire apple orchard. But a solitary Red Mason bee, working all alone, can pollinate as many flowers in that apple orchard as over one hundred honey bees. We all have our part to play, individually and together.

Recommends: Steven Falk’s Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland

Discusses: Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) online course.