Monday, 18 May 2015

STILL not worried about Neonics & bee decline?!

Are you one of the people who is not yet concerned about, or interested in, the Neonicotinoid issue….. and/or the fact that these pesticides (the most widely used in the world), are systematically (and systemically) decimating the planet's amazing diversity and population of pollinators???   If so, please know that the situation is NOW BECOMING QUITE DIRE.

There are myriad factors contributing to bee decline (other major causes including habitat loss, invasive species, disease, climate change and pollution) and we are fast approaching a point of no return. Ecosystems are extremely complex and fragile. If the insects & other pollinators who underpin them are no longer there, ecosystems will collapse and this will have a knock on effect like a pack of cards. If we don't treat this situation with the urgency it demands, there could soon be insufficient pollinators left to pollinate the planet's food crops…. never mind the 80% of Planet Earth's flowering pants that bees alone are responsible for pollinating. What is 'here' this year, might very well be 'gone' next year.

Do you eat apples? Tomatoes? Strawberries? Squashes? Meat? Would you be prepared to travel to where these crops (or the crops that are grown to feed them) are grown - and spend hours and hours hand pollinating them yourselves in order to have them produce their fruits for you to eat? If not, you really should make it your business to find out more about what's going on and do something about it, because once our pollinators have gone, they're gone. Extinction is forever….and forever is a very long time.

It is time now to wake up and take responsibility for what is happening in the world around us. Write letters to your MPs & MEPs asking them what they are doing about the situation…. boycott the companies that produce these pesticides and lobby the shops that sell them…. choose food that is grown without them… but above all, make it your business to become more informed! One of the main reasons these multinationals get away with controlling the food chain is because not enough people give a stuff. Knowledge is power; without it we are no more in control of our lives than a herd of sheep.

If you are reading this post, then you have access to a computer. If you are not already on top of the neonicotinoid issue, perhaps you could use your computer to google 'neonicotinoids and bee decline'. Or look up the scientific data that shows a single kernel of corn coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a song bird outright.  

Then decide what you are able to do to help our beleaguered pollinators….whether it be planting the right flowers, creating more suitable habitat, or reducing the use of hidden pesticides in your food shopping. Whatever you do, no mater how small, you might just help tip the balance in favour of bees and other pollinators not becoming extinct!

Scientific and anecdotal evidence that neonicotinoids pesticides are killing bees - as well as other pollinators and wildlife - is now overwhelming. Yet I read today that the NFU are calling for the restrictions to be lifted so farmers can use these banned toxins on their oilseed rape crops. These crops do not even NEED to be treated with neonics.

As far as I can see, this has go nothing to do with feeding the world. It appears to be about £££££'s and $$$$$'s… greed… control… fear… and the hold the agrochemical multinationals have upon the world's food chain.

Ironically and alarmingly, whilst many counties are calling for more restrictions on the use of these highly toxic pesticides, the UK government actually opposed the current temporary EU ban….. and the National Farmers Union (NFU), who you'd have thought would care a great deal about the health of pollinating insects, have just submitted a request to the Government for a derogation that would allow farmers to use banned neonicotinoid treated seeds this Autumn.  Yet these crops do not even NEED to be treated with neonics.  See link below…..

NFU wants farmers to be able to use the banned seed treatments in oilseed rape crops sown this autumn 

A few more important articles to save you having to trawl the internet….

Nearly one in 10 of Europe's wild bee species far extinction

Has Farming Lost Its Way?

The Drugs (Neonicotinoids) Don't Work

Bee die-offs are worst where pesticides use is heaviest

Friday, 17 April 2015

On my father's death and why I think we should all 'talk' more

My father, Mike Weiner, died a year ago yesterday. I planted forget-me-nots on his grave, accompanied my mother and one of my brothers to a very lovely memorial service for him at the church they attended (he used to love singing in the choir) and ate the last of his green tomato chutney. My father was a chutney king; he made green tomato and plum chutney every year for England, but always rationed it in case it ran out before next autumn's crops were ready to pick, so there were loads of bottles left on the pantry shelves after his death. The ones I kept for myself have lasted till now.

Then I lay awake for hours last night thinking about my father and the finality (?) of death.

We all believe different things. I personally believe that something of us lives on, whether it be in the hearts of those who loved us, in another realm, or in the earth we become part of once again. However, whatever happens after we die, we are definitely no longer here in our human form - and that, for me, is pretty final. It means that those who are left behind are no longer able to have conversations with those they have lost. This means no more stories, questions, answers, shared thoughts, memories and laughter, apologies or explanations. So anything that has not been 'said' remains unsaid/unspoken forever.

There are so many things I wish I'd asked my father - or told him and explained to him. There are things about him I'd like to have made sense of, and things about myself that I'd like him to have understood. But it's too late now for any more dialogue. So I am left, like many others, not just with the happy memories (of which there are many!) but also with some regrets.

This is the nature of life and death I guess, but it has left me thinking that... despite the fact we have been gifted the amazing power of speech….and have at our disposal hundreds of thousands of words to chose from…. human beings don't always use these gifts to communicate whilst we can. I mean really communicate, not just small talk, but the kind of talk that resolves misunderstandings…..the kind of dialogue that makes sense of the unfathomable…..the kind of conversations that might well be challenging for both parties, but without which we can live our whole lives as partial strangers, even to those we love, and are loved by, the most.

This probably all sounds a bit deep for a Friday morning blog post, but I wanted to share these thoughts in case anyone reading them has things they want to say to someone they love, but are holding back, for whatever reason.

There are, of course, things that are better left unsaid….and it is equally (vitally) important that we learn to accept people for who they are without needing to understand the cores of their being! However, if there are things that could be talked about….. things that you might regret not having said after someone has gone…. maybe it's worth saying them now, whilst you still can, because when death comes (to you or to the ones you love) it's forever, and forever is a very long time.

RIP Michael Richard Child Weiner  16th Jan 1932 - 16th April 2014  
You were much loved 
x x x x x x x

Thursday, 9 April 2015

'Of building sites and broad beans….'

I usually have fairly high levels of patience and tolerance, but this month I have become increasingly bothered by the noise and mess coming from the house next door. 
My partner and I rent a tiny terraced cottage, one of eight arranged around a little grassed area with a pump in the middle, in the most peaceful place I have ever lived - and I love it. 
However, for the last month, the house adjoining ours has become a building site. It's going to be a 'holiday let'. This saddens me because two of the other cottages that sold here last year have already become holiday or weekend lets….and yet another is now on the market, advertised as 'perfect for holiday let.' That will be four out of the eight, so the wonderful community we moved into last year is rapidly beginning to dwindle. Curtains in one of the houses remain closed for months on end... and come summer, there will be comings and goings as people book the cottages for their summer holidays. They will be lovely people, but we won't have time to get to know them.
Our walls are quite thick, but yesterday, after nearly a month of banging, drilling, sawing and (very loud) radio music; the noise finally got to me. As did the mess, and the fact that the beautiful plants outside my front door are no longer green, but are covered in brick dust, which I know will wash off when it rains….but there's no rain forecast in the near future. 
I know I should rise above all this because it is only a temporary situation and the new owners/builders are very nice friendly people, but yesterday it all became too much. So I went down to the allotment to see the broad beans we'd planted out at the weekend.
I told the beans what was going on, and this is what they said….

"Go back home and be accepting of the noise and the dust coming from next door. Know that you are lucky to have the gifts of hearing and sight. Some people have neither. Accept this noise and mess, and wish good things to the people who are making it. Neither noise nor dust will last forever.

Tune your ears, instead, to the sounds of the woodpeckers pecking, the bees buzzing and the chiffchaffs chiffchaffing. Then, instead of noticing only mess and chaos, shift your focus to notice the blackbirds digging up worms for their young, the queen Tree bee gathering pollen from winter flowering currant to provision her nest, and the happy smiling builders next door enjoying the April sunshine as they listen to Radio 2 whilst they work. 

Then make yourself a cup of tea and have a large slice of that amazingly delicious fruit cake with the florentine topping that you made your lovely man for his birthday yesterday"

The beans are, of course, quite right. They reminded me how incredibly fortunate I am to live where I live; with someone I love and who loves me back; that I have eyes to see and ears to listen; and that I have good health. Had I been disabled I wouldn't have been able to walk to my allotment. Had I been blind I would not see the mess, but neither would I be able to watch the blackbird collecting worms. Were I not able to hear, I would be oblivious to the noise coming from next door, but I would not hear the birds singing or the bees buzzing or the wind in the trees. All cliches, I know, but profoundly and soberingly true.

So, today, instead of being a grumpy bum, I am going to count my blessings and enjoy being alive despite the fact that I am living next door to a building site.

Thank you beans!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

A (bee) story with a happy ending

Earlier this year my very lovely friend, Sally, told me about some hibernating bees her sister had found in a wall she had knocked down. Her sister had wrapped the bees gently in some kitchen roll and put them in a box. Sally collected them a little while later and gave them to me to look after. I had a pretty good idea from the description that they would be Hairy Footed Flower bees (Anthophora plumipes)
As the box had been in a car for 24 hours on a warm, sunny winter's day, I thought I'd better check to make sure the bees hadn't woken up early. When I peeked in the box I could see they had indeed been Hairy Footed Flower bees, but they had not survived the wall being knocked down. The box contained lots of old mortar, and dust, and dead Flower bees.
However, just as I was about to give up on them, I noticed a tiny movement. Something was still alive! I looked closely and saw that it wasn't one of the Hairy Footed Flower bees, but was in fact a bee that goes by the name 'Melecta albifrons'; a very striking black bee with silver/white spots on the sides of its abdomen.
Melecta albifrons is a solitary 'cuckoo' bee. The adult females sneak into the host bee's nest (in this case the Hairy Footed Flower bee) and lay their eggs alongside the Flower bee's eggs. Melecta albifrons eggs hatch first, and the larvae eat the pollen that has been carefully stored for the Flower bee larvae by their mother….a fiendishly clever way of making sure your offspring get food and develop into new adult bees without you having to do any work whatsoever!
The problem was that my bee had woken up in January…a good 3 months before it was supposed to wake up….so I didn't hold out much hope that it would survive.
Anyway, to cut an even longer story shorter, I have been keeping this bee in a dark cool place since January, in the hope that it would go back to sleep and not wake up again till others of its kind were on the wing. That would be about now…..for, as Hairy Footed Flower bees are out in force, it means their cuckoo bee, Melecta albifrons will also be starting to emerge.
My plan was to open up the box next week to see if it had survived, but, amazingly, my little bee somehow found its way out of its box in our cool dark cloakroom... and into our kitchen….where I have just found it crawling around the top of the cooker looking for something to eat.
I've caught it now and put it in a little cardboard box with some pussy willow and sugar syrup, which it is lapping up after its long winter sleep. Tomorrow I will take it to the 'Bee Wall' at the bottom of Stony Path in Shaftesbury, where I know it will find others of its kind.

It has been a very lucky bee.

2 days later…….. 

Today we took the bee to the 'Bee Wall'; an old stone wall in Shaftesbury that has been home, for many years, to quite a few different cavity nesting solitary bee species. The Hairy Footed Flower bee males were out in force, buzzing around the wall in search of emerging females. We opened the little box we had been keeping him in (I say 'he' but it could easily be 'she') and he flew out immediately. He spent a few moments buzzing around the bee wall before flying up over the roof and out of sight.

I'll miss him!

Thank you Sally's sister for trying to save the bees you uncovered when you knocked down your wall x

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Bees - it's all about shape and size!

There are an estimated 25,000 different species of bee on Planet Earth and they come in many different shapes and sizes. The largest bee in the world is 'Wallace’s Giant Bee' (Megachile pluto). She grows up to 3.9 cm long and has a wingspan of 6.3 cm. The smallest bee in the world is 'Perdita minima'. She is less than 2 mm long.
Bees also have different length tongues (proboscis). Tongue lengths vary from around 5mm to 15mm.
The size of the bee and the length of her tongue, are both of great significance when it comes to which flowers she is able to access when foraging for pollen and nectar. Honeybees proboscis are around 6.3mm in length - so they are classed as short tongued bees and can only access flowers with fairly short corollas.
If you have red and white clover on your lawn, you will notice different bee species on each. Short-tongued bees like honeybees and buff tailed bumblebees will go for the white clover, as it only has a short corolla. However, long tongued bumblebees, like B. hortorum (the Garden bumblebee) will forage on the red clover as it has a very deep corolla.
The deeper the corolla (flower tube) the greater the nectar reward….so short tongued bees need to visit more flowers to get the nectar they need. 
The bee in the photo above is Bombus hortorum (the Garden Bumblebee). She has the longest tongue of any bee. If you see a black & yellow striped bumblebee with a white tail on your broad beans, and if her tongue is hanging out as she flies between each flower, she is highly likely to be this bee!

Some bee species resort to ‘robbing’ the nectar by cutting a hole in the base of the flower and accessing it that way. This is known as 'larceny'. When a bee commits larceny, the plant loses out because the bee completely bypasses the flower's pollen. Bombus terrestris (the buff tailed bumblebee) is a notorious nectar robber. Once she has made a hole, other bees and wasps use it to access the plant's nectar. Not a very fair exchange!

More about bumblebee flower preferences here  
Photos of largest and smallest bees here

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

SO much more than a hole in the ground!

This tiny little hole (around 3mm in diameter) is the entrance to a solitary mining bee's nest. Each individual female solitary bee chooses an area of compacted sandy soil and digs her own tunnel. Some ground nesting bees choose south facing slopes, whilst others prefer to construct their nests amongst the roots of trees, or in river banks.  

After she has dug the main tunnel, the bee constructs a number of offshoot tunnels and at the end of each of these she fashions a small chamber. Each chamber is provisioned with pollen, which the bee has collected over many trips back and forth to the nest. Although most bees are not too fussy about where they source their nectar, they can be slightly more fussy when it comes to choosing pollen to provision their nest. Andrena clarkella, for instance (one of our earliest ground nesting bees) relies heavily upon the pollen from Willow (Salix spp.) So, it is of paramount importance that the right plants are in flower during the nest provisioning period.

Once she has provisioned the chamber with sufficient pollen and a little nectar, the bee lays a single egg in each chamber. When this process is complete, she fills in the entrance to the tunnel and may then go on to construct a few more nests before she dies. She is on the wing (above ground) for approximately 4 - 8 weeks. 

When the eggs hatch, the larvae will feed on the pollen before pupating. After they have pupated they remain beneath the ground till the following spring, when they emerge as adult bees, mate, and start the cycle all over again.

So, next time you see a little hole in the ground like this…..make time to stop and watch for a while. You will be enthralled and enchanted by what you see!

N.B. some of these nests belong to solitary wasps. Neither the solitary wasps, nor the solitary bees will sting you.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Hairy Footed Flower Bees & Silver Linings

I've been feeling extremely frustrated. Winter is over, spring has sprung, the sun is shining, the pulmonaria is flowering, and everyone I know is reporting sightings of Hairy Footed Flower Bees. Actually that's a slight exaggeration - only some of the people I know are reporting sightings of Hairy Footed Flower bees.

But that's not the point. The point is that whilst all this wonderfulness and excitement has been going on outside, I've been stuck in bed with an extremely unpleasant lurgi. Fortunately I'm beginning to recover now, but whatever it was has left me feeling so weak & weedy that I can't get dressed, let alone drag myself downstairs to go for a walk.

Every cloud has its silver lining though, and my silver lining is that I have just written a large chunk of the opening chapter to my book!

I started writing a book a couple of years ago, but lost everything I'd written (and a lot more besides) when the hard drive on my laptop died and I wasn't able to retrieve the contents. It has taken me till this morning to find the momentum to start again from scratch.

I'm going to resist the temptation to copy my opening paragraphs into this post. Suffice to say my book has bees in it and it starts with a fluke sighting on 17th February of a female Hairy Footed Flower bee who emerged far too early from hibernation….

So, thank you universe for laying me up with a horrible lurgi. I'm HUGELY excited by this silver lining!