Monday, 11 August 2014

Mass Insect Extinction; the Elephant in the Room?

Life on planet earth has evolved over billions of years and has, to date, endured five major mass extinctions

Billions of species of flora and fauna have been and gone, but one class of species has proved extremely resilient (so far) to whatever changes have occurred on the planet and - apart from losing a few of their orders and suffering a reduction in diversity during the end-Permian period - has been the only class species to have survived all these extinctions.

I am speaking of course about the class 'Insecta' - Insects to you and me.

Insects are amazing - in every sense of the word. There are currently over 900,000 known species in the world, each performing different roles within our eco-systems. Not only do they form essential ecological links as predators and parasites, but they are also responsible for the vital roles of decompositionsoil processing and, of course, pollinationInsects have also contributed to the evolution of many other species; the most notable being the relationship they have formed with the flowering plants with which they have co-evolved over the last 100 million years.

Many insects are 'keystone species'. This means a number of other species depend upon them for their existence. If you were to remove a keystone species from any given eco-system it would upset the balance and that eco-system would collapse. Nature is all about balance. 

Given the fact that many of the planet's keystone species are insects, it's most fortunate that they have proved so resilient to change. So far.

Insects Facing Mass Extinction

Unfortunately, over a period of just 100 short years, things have changed so dramatically that this amazing class of species is now under threat. For the first time ever, INSECTS ARE FACING MASS EXTINCTION. 

Let me ask you a question......

When did you last have to stop your car during a long journey to clean away dead insects from the windscreen? 

When I was a child (back in the 60s) we used to travel up the A1 to Yorkshire to see my grandmother and I remember my father having to make regular stops to wash the windscreen - which was splattered with so many dead insects that the wipers alone couldn't keep it clean.

I also remember seeing huge flocks of birds following the farmer's ploughs in the fields alongside the road; all of them feeding on an abundance of worms and other invertebrates or micro organisms living beneath the surface of the soil that had just been exposed by the farmer's plough.

These days there are so few insects that our windscreens remain clear from Land's End to John O'Groats. And there are no longer flocks of birds following the tractors, because there's no life left in the soil.

How can this have happened in such a short period of time? Simple. It is down, unequivocally, to Man's chemical poisoning of the land, the oceans and the biosphere. That, and our obsessive desire to tame, manage, degrade, fragment, destroy and 'mow to within an inch of it's life' the once rich and diverse habitats that used to support insects and other biodiversity.

I say this because it needs to be said. Again.

We were warned of this scenario in the 1960's by Rachel Carson in her book 'Silent Spring'. We are being warned again by Henk Tennekes author of 'A Disaster in the Making' and by organisations such as Pesticides Action Network who campaign tirelessly to raise awareness of the dangers of pesticides and other toxic substances.

But why is this issue not being addressed as a matter of urgency in the media? Why do I not see any evidence that mass insect extinction is being taken seriously by the powers that be? And why are so few NGOs prepared to speak out about it? Most of our wildlife organisations tackle the issue of habitat loss as a matter of course. However, from what I can see, the only wildlife organisation campaigning specifically against pesticides and the impact their use is having upon invertebrates, is BUGLIFE - the Invertebrate Conservation Trust.

Excuses, excuses, excuses.....

Having raised this issue myself on numerous occasions with people from all walks of life, I'm tired of hearing the same old arguments from those who advocate that we 'need' these toxic substances to survive.

The arguments range from "We can't feed the world without the use of pesticides" to "What about all the jobs dependent on the pesticides industry…. people can't afford to lose their jobs" - and many more arguments besides.

These arguments are unbelievably short sighted. Without insects (not to mention unpolluted soil, water and atmosphere) man will not survive anyway. Very little will survive. We are destroying our tomorrow for the sake of our today. And the craziest thing of all is that it doesn't need to be like this because small scale, organic and sustainable farming CAN & WILL feed the world. 

Of course it's not just the agri-chemical and pharmaceutical industries doing the damage...insects need habitat to survive too. They need environments where they can forage, nest, breed and hibernate - and this is something we can all help to provide.

Do something about it....

It is time for us to face the facts, however uncomfortable they may be. We can only effect change if we know and understand that change needs to happen. Burying our heads in the sand isn't going to solve never has.

Humans are amazing, resourceful beings. All we need to do is wake up to the reality of the damage we are causing, shift our mind sets a little and  DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!!

Ways you can help:

Make your garden a haven for pollinators

Join Buglife

Get involved with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Become a Bees, Wasps & Ants recorder

OR.... simply spend some time lying in the undergrowth getting to know your local insects. They are utterly mesmerising. Once you're hooked you'll wonder how you ever managed not to notice them before and you will be motivated to do everything you can to help them survive.

B x

Friday, 14 March 2014

Bee Decline: as important & urgent an issue as Climate Change

Solitary male bee Andrena nitida
I'm feeling hugely frustrated this morning.

A handful of charities and a number of passionate individuals have been campaigning to raise awareness of the existence, importance and decline of wild bees (bumblebees and solitary bees) for YEARS. Some of these have crashed and burned in the process because they have lacked the funding and support they so desperately needed to continue with their awareness raising.

Why then, has it taken so long for the national press and some of the larger conservation/green/wildlife organisations to recognise and speak up for these unsung heroes? Where were they ten years ago, or earlier?  Of course it's absolutely wonderful that so many organisations are now running campaigns to help bees and other pollinators, but I do so wish it hadn't taken till 2013/14 for them to start making their noise.

Bee decline, and its consequences upon the pollination of human food crops and around 80% of the world's flowering plants IS NOT NEWS. The world has had access to research about the dire effects of intensive agriculture, with it's complete reliance upon pesticides, and the destruction it causes to habitat, for decades. We were warned about these consequences by Rachel Carson in her book 'Silent Spring' ... FIFTY YEARS AGO.

I simply cannot understand why those individuals and organisations who have it in their power to effect change have not shown an earlier interest in the global decline of pollinators, not to mention the little matter of the possibility of mass insect extinction. I also struggle to understand why so many individuals and organisations are still sitting on the fence about the neonicotinoid issue. It reminds me of the days when the world was in complete denial about the negative effects of smoking….or when DDT, which is nowhere near as toxic to bees as neonicotinoids are, was still considered safe to use.

I know there are many many other issues that need to be addressed with equal urgency, but to my mind 'Bee Decline' should be up there with 'Climate Change' as one of the most urgent and important issues of our times. The thing about pollinator decline is that it is relatively easy for us all to do something to help. If we get it right for bees, we begin to get it right for all life on earth…and the thing about pollinator decline is that it is relatively easy for us all to do something to help.

All we need to do is plant more pollen & nectar rich flowers, stop using pesticides, and create a world full of Bee Friendly Zones - it's that simple!

Anyway, that's enough of a rant for today. I'm going to close my computer now, put my energies where my mouth is, and spend the weekend taking advantage of this beautiful weather to see if my partner and I can turn the little concrete yard behind our cottage in Dorset into a haven for pollinators and other wildlife.  More about that project later :-)

In the mean time, here are some excellent resources and ideas for anyone who'd like to help pollinators and other wildlife.

My favourite website -  THE POLLINATOR GARDEN

My favourite wildlife gardening book -   THE WILDLIFE GARDEN - by Kate Bradbury

My favourite charity - BUGLIFE

Have a lovely sunny weekend x

Thursday, 28 November 2013

It's good to be alive

dandelion clock

I love bees and I love trees. I also love butterflies, woodlice, dragonflies and shield bugs; lemon verbena tea made with freshly picked leaves from the garden; sunset and sunrise; and sunshine; moonshine; watching solitary leaf cutter bees building their nests; starlight; living in Cornwall; grasses; beetles; the weather and the fact that it is so wonderfully unpredictable and changeable in the UK; my friends and my family; wild flowers (especially the ones that grow between paving slabs because they show how resilient nature is); birds, bats, mice and toads; making nature mandalas; reference books illustrated with beautiful photographs and drawings; native hedgerows; figs from the fig tree outside my back door; Glennie Kindred's beautiful new book 'Letting in the Wild Edges' (if you haven't already got it, put it on your Christmas list now!); mosses and lichens; live music; speaking to people about the unbelievably amazing world of wild bees; seaweed and sand; walking barefoot on the beach; rainbows; unicorns; raging rivers full of huge rocks and boulders and streams so small that they are almost hidden by the undergrowth; juicing apples; walking along the Cornish coastal paths; being a mother and a grandmother; old man's beard; moths, caterpillars and spider's webs; hazel nuts and fungi; the beautiful hand crafted things that people have gifted me; ginger flavoured dark chocolate; discovering bumblebee nests in the compost heap; the aliveness of water; clouds that look like dragons for a moment or two before they shift shape into hippopotami: knowing that you are never too long in the tooth to fall in love; loving and being loved; grass snakes; sitting by the wood burner with a bowl of porridge on a cold winter morning; letting the chickens out of their run so they can wander around the garden; winter squashes; summer squashes; sowing seeds, saving seeds and swapping seeds; dandelion clocks; carving wooden spoons; greater stitchwort; nice surprises; meeting friends in Pinky Murphy's Cafe in Fowey for a cup of tea; collecting sea glass and driftwood from the beach; bees (did I already mention that?); swimming in the sea; curly kale.......

It's good to make lists of all the things you love and appreciate every now and then. It reminds you how wonderful it is to be alive!

Wishing everyone who reads this a beautiful day/week/life x

Greater stitchwort

Common blue butterfly
Old man's beard

Nature mandala

Friday, 26 July 2013

We Need Action - not Words!

It frustrates me enormously that we are only recently reading the *breaking news* that artificially bred bumblebees are being imported to the UK - and that they are carrying diseases that are endangering our native bumblebees when the artificially bred bees escape into the wild.

This is NOT breaking news, it has been going on for YEARS but the media have not been interested!!! All of a sudden, now that 'bee decline' is worrying people from a human crop pollination view point, everyone seems to be reporting on this situation. Although they very rarely tell the whole story.

Of course it is in many ways a wonderful thing that this is finally being reported in the media because more people will sit up and take notice....but it's no good closing the stable door after the horse has already bolted. News like this needs to be disseminated much earlier if it is to make a difference to the bumblebees that are being bred and used for the purpose of pollinating our mono crops of tomatoes etc....and to the native bees that are, in turn, being exposed to the diseases that are already rife in artificially reared colonies.

I notice that most of the reports don't mention the fact that these beautiful, hard working little creatures are often reared on pollen and nectar substitutes and are artificially overwintered by exposing them to carbon dioxide. Worst of all, when they have finished doing the job of pollinating the tomatoes, they are not allowed to be released into the wild, or returned to Eastern Europe where they were bred, so they are DROWNED or FROZEN to death.

Breeding bumblebees artificially to pollinate our mono crops is, to me, abhorrent on every level. It reminds me of the battery chicken industry.

I'm also stunned that it is considered 'news' that cocktails of pesticides are contributing to bee decline.  Of course they are contributing to bee decline!!! This, also, has been known for decades. I remember reading research published many years ago telling us that dead bees have been found to contain up to 27 different pesticides in their poor little bodies. this is not rocket science and it didn't need millions of ££££s or $$$$s to be spent to tell us what we already know. This money would have been far better spent supporting farmers to switch to organic methods of farming when growing their crops.

Rachel Carson highlighted the problems that pesticides were causing for wildlife back in the sixties in her book 'Silent Spring', which is sadly as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

What is wrong with the media, our government and the population in general, that we wait till things are so dire that our pollinators are in danger of becoming extinct before we even begin to discuss what we should do about the situation?!  I have had conversations with people recently who tell me they have read recently about bee decline, and that it all sounds very awful, but that they can't stop using pesticides because their roses would suffer and they couldn't possibly leave their lawns to grow longer to allow the clovers, vetches and self-heals to flower because it would look untidy. I can only conclude that these people are suffering from some kind of collective madness.

Apologies for the rant, but seriously, what is it going to take for people, organisations and governments to take this issue seriously enough to actually DO something about it instead of just talk about it? I'm delighted that it IS finally being reported in the media and that so many organisations (including many environmental and wildlife NGO's) that have ignored the issue of pesticides & bee decline till recently are finally speaking up, but we need ACTION to be taken immediately otherwise it will be too late.


First and foremost we must all plant more pollen and nectar rich flowers. All the advice you need to create a pollinator garden can be found on this website


If you are someone who uses insecticides, herbicides or fungicides on your garden, please look for alternatives. There are plenty out there and they are not difficult to find. All you need to do is search on google for 'Natural alternatives to pesticides'

Thank you for all that you do!

Brigit x

*Breaking news* about imported bumblebees - report in Telegraph 

*Breaking news* about cocktails of pesticides contributing to bee decline 

Taking Bees for Granted Interesting article

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Speaking up for wildlife

In case anyone has't noticed, there are fewer bees around this year than ever before. There are also noticeably fewer butterflies, moths, ladybirds, hover flies and insects of any other kind for that matter. To say that this is worrying would be a bit of an understatement.

Bees, beetles, earthworms and myriad other invertebrates provide us with the foundation upon which all life on earth depends, yet, apart from bees (which are fortunate enough to have had their commercial value as human crop pollinators recognised and touted in the press as a good reason to try and save them) these miniscule and mostly microscopic creatures are pretty much ignored. Worse than that, most of us grow up feeling scared, repulsed and/or threatened by these amazing creatures.

Our garden centres sell huge ranges of products suitable to kill any species of bug that dares to compete with us for food, or habitat. These highly toxic pesticides compete for shelf space in garden centres and DIY stores and supermarkets with an ever increasing array of herbicides designed to help us get rid of any stray wild plant that might try to creep in and live amongst the bedding plants and exotic shrubs in our pristine flower boarders.

Have we perhaps been afflicted with some kind of madness? Surely it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that life on Earth cannot be sustained if we continue to systematically wipe out the plants and animals that the planet's food chains and eco-systems depend upon for their very existence? If you were a visitor from another planet you might be forgiven for thinking the human race had declared war on anything with six or more legs....never mind the wild plants they used to thrive on!

In the 'State of Nature' report published earlier this month it was reported that around two thirds of our native flora and fauna is in decline. This is a shocking statistic by anyone's standards and cannot be ignored. We need to act urgently to halt the decline of bees and other invertebrates if we are to avoid their mass extinction....and the longer we wait, the more likely it is that the situation will spiral out of control. 

I am very fortunate to have recently become caretaker of a few acres of land which I am in the process of turning into a haven for bees and other wildlife. However, the home I have just moved from only has a tiny little patio, so I am able to say from first hand experience that you don't need lots of land or space to be able to do an enormous amount to help. Even if you only have a window box, you can still make a choice between planting it up with bedding plants like begonias (which are no good to man nor bee) or filling it to the brim with pollen and nectar rich flowers such as mediterranean herbs which will provide a much needed feast for pollinators and take a lot less attention and watering than begonias!

As well as creating as much wildlife friendly habitat as possible in your own back garden, there are also other ways that we can all help make a difference. Here are a few......

1. Stop using pesticides. It can take a couple of years for a garden or allotment to find its balance again after having been treated with insecticides and herbicides, but it's well worth the effort.

2. Become a Wildlife Recorder! If we don't know it's there in the first place we can't possibly know if it's in decline. Check out sites like Garden Bioblitz and iSpot and let them know what you have in your garden....there are plenty of experts on hand to help you identify plants and animals you don't recognise if you take a photograph.

3. Support growers and producers who use natural and organic methods on their land. Ask questions about how things have been grown and don't be fobbed off with vague 'not sures' or 'don't knows'.

4. Write to your local authority and ask about their policies for creating wildlife friendly habitat on amenity spaces and local verges. If they don't have one, or tell you it's not cost effective to allow the grass to grow longer or to create wildflower verges, point them towards the amazing 'Life on the Verge'  project in Lincolnshire.

5. listen to this incredibly powerful and very moving speech from Lolo Williams

6. Check out the fabulous information about the importance of composting from Sarah Blenkinsop' site The Compost Bin

7. Last, but not least, get out in your garden or go for a walk in a local park, woodland, or any other place that is not covered in concrete and get to know the plants and animals you share this wonderful planet with. 

Some more useful links.....

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A wee rant about the way we are farming the life out of Planet Earth

The Almond Orchards of California

Intensive agriculture has brought us to the brink. It it completely unsustainable in every sense of the word and it is certainly NOT feeding the world. We have travelled too far down the wrong road and it is now time to do a u-turn. We need a complete and urgent re-think about global agricultural practices if we are to avert food shortages.

Sadly, what many perceive as lush green countryside in the UK (and to a far greater degree in the US) is more likely to be fields of mono crops, treated with cocktails of fungicides and systemic insecticides, planted over thousands of acres of land treated with herbicides, and leaving little if any space for wildflowers and their pollinators to flourish.....even if they could in such a toxic environment!

Added to this, in the US, is the fact that many native wild pollinators have been outcompeted by the introduction of the honeybee 400 years ago. Some kind of healthy balance might perhaps have been achieved and maintained between native bees and Apis mellifera if it hadn't been for the rise of the mega commercial beekeepers who now truck millions of hives of exhausted, stressed honeybees over thousands of miles to pollinate the almond orchards and other cash crops. However, as the emphasis and focus has all been on the 'economy' and 'pollinator services' rather than 'ecology' there is now very little balance.

There are now some 870,000 of acres of California that are entirely covered in almond trees, without so much as a blade of grass growing beneath them let alone a wild flower because - heaven forbid - that might tempt the bees away from the almond blossoms they are supposed to be 'working'...and that would never do!

Ignoring for one moment the biodiversity desert that this demand for almond oil has created in California, it is also completely abhorrent to me that the honeybee, or any other living creature should be treated in such a way just to satisfy human greed.

Animals deserve to be treated in the same way as we would like to be treated ourselves. As do trees, plants, water and soil. These are all equally precious co-inhabitants of planet Earth and we should be honouring and respecting them instead of controlling, managing, poisoning and enslaving them the way we do. And yes, I include water and soil when I say this because they, too, used to be full of life before modern agriculture poisoned them with its chemicals.

Our 'modern' way of growing food simply does not work. The only people benefitting from it are the shareholders of the multinational agri-chem corporations. Not us....not the farmers....and certainly not the people all over the world who are starving whilst cash crops of cotton, wheat, biofuels, maize, palm oil etc are being grown on the land beside their villages where they used to grow food to eat.

What is needed is for the food distribution system to change - and for people all over the world to be able to grow food crops for themselves to eat....rather than using their land AND THEIR WATER to grow cash cops for rich nations.

I am well aware that the solutions are far more complex than I am able to write about in a short blog post, but I believe with every cell of my being that small scale, non intensive farming....using integrated pest management, crop rotation, permaculture principles and organic methods CAN feed the world. We are far too quick to buy into the scaremongering propaganda put about by the multinationals telling us that we must grow genetically modified crops to feed the world. This simply is not true. Adding genetically modified plants into the mix is no more a solution to world hunger than manufacturing robotic bees would be to the pollinator crisis. 

......and don't get me started on palm oil, Bt cotton, seed sovereignty and biopiracy!!!

Rant over.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

What, exactly, ARE neonicotinoid pesticides?

Neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides that include 'imidacloprid', 'clothianidin', 'thiamethoxam', 'thiacloprid' and 'fipronil'. They are neurotoxins (nerve poisons) that have been designed to attack the insect's central nervous system; causing paralysis and eventually death. Their target insects include vine weevils, aphids, whitefly, colorado potato beetle and termites.  As well as causing paralysis and death, neonicotinoids also produce other chronic and sub-lethal symptoms, (both in target and non target insects) such as interfering with the insect's navigation systems and, crucially, impairing their ability to groom themselves

Neonicotinoids were introduced in the early nineties and are now the world's most widely used group of pesticides. They are used prophylactically instead of reactively, which is a little like us taking antibiotics throughout the year just in case we are exposed to someone with a chest infection in December.

They are water soluble and remain in the soil for many years. Their high persistency in soil and water results in a sustained exposure to these pesticides, not only to bees, but to other non-target organisms and pollinators, including aquatic invertebrates, moths, butterflies and hoverflies and (indirectly) bats, amphibians and insect eating birds.  

"Neonicotinoid insecticides act by causing virtually irreversible blockage of postsynaptic nicotinergic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the central nervous system of insects. The damage is cumulative, and with every exposure more receptors are blocked. In fact, there may not be a safe level of exposure." Dutch toxicologist, Henk Tennekes.

Which crops are treated with neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are used as seed treatments or soil treatments on over 140 different crops including soy, corn, wheat, cotton, legumes, potatoes, sugar-beet, sunflowers, rapeseed and flax. Until last year, they were used on the 740,000 acres of Californian Almond Trees. One third of all arable land in the UK now grows crops treated with neonicotinoids.

Less well known is the fact that 'Fipronil' (also a neonicotinoid), is used in flea treatments for dogs and cats.

How do neonicotinoids differ from other pesticides?

Until the introduction of insecticides such as neonicotinoids we were able to see pesticides with our own eyes as they were being sprayed onto our crops. Neonicotinoids, and some other groups of modern pesticides, work in a very different way. They are applied as seed dressings or soil treatments, appearing invisible so that many people, including some farmers, are unaware that they are even using them. Instead of being used reactively (i.e. after a problem has been identified) they are used 'prophylactically' which means crops are treated as a matter of course to safeguard them against the possibility of an attack by the pesticide's target insect. This is like human beings taking antibiotics all year round to protect us from the possibility of succumbing to a sore throat or flu.

The biggest difference between neonicotinoids and all other pesticides is that neonicotinoids work  'systemically'.  This means that once the seed (or the soil in which the seed has been planted) has been coated/treated with the insecticide, that insecticide is then taken up through the entire plant via it's vascular system.  So, it ends up in the plant's roots, stem, leaves, flowers, fruit, sap (guttation), pollen and nectar.....and it - does - not - wash - off.

We are told by DEFRA that this is ok. It is, apparently, 'safe' for bees and other pollinators to forage on crops whose seeds have been treated with neonicotinoids because they only ingest the pesticide in sub-lethal doses i.e. 'doses not large enough to cause death'. This might be ok if each bee only visited one plant and took one dose of 'sub-lethal' pollen in it's life time - but this, of course, is not the case.

Interestingly, when neonicotinoids were licensed for use and passed as 'safe for bees', this was done without them ever being tested for sub-lethal or chronic effects on bees.

Why I have written this particular blog post: 

More and more people are now taking the time to write to supermarkets, DIY stores and garden centres to ask them to remove products that contain neonicotinoid pesticides from their shelves - and some are personally speaking to the managers in their local stores. However many are still not 100% sure exactly what neonicotinoids are or how they harm bees and other invertebrates.

It's good to be furnished with some facts when you speak to people who can influence policies, so I have written this short blog post to explain what they are

I'm sure there are better explanations out there, but in case you can't find one do please feel free to use this. It would great if you could also share this on twitter, facebook, forums and any other social networks you use.....the more people who understand what we're 
dealing with the better!

Please keep writing to your MPs asking them to pressurise our Secretary for the Environment, Mr Owen Paterson, to support the EC's proposed partial ban on neonicotinoids. You can use the wording on the Buglife website  HERE  to help you write your letter/email.

Please also ask your local supermarkets, DIY stores and garden centres to remove products containing these insecticides form their shelves. Especially Provado Ultimate Big Killer which, ironically and outrageously is currently being offered with 'free seeds for bees'!!!