Earlier this year I was asked to write a short article by my former PhD student, and still a current collaborator, Dr Sam Tarrant. Sam works for the RSPB as the CEMEX UK-funded Biodiversity Advisor, and wanted something on pollinator conservation that could be circulated in the CEMEX company’s e-newsletter. In the spirit of reworking and reusing odd bits of writing, I thought I’d post it here too.
Insects are vital for our country’s economy. Don’t believe me? Then read on….
Beneath a large black mulberry tree near the University of Northampton’s Newton Building there is a plaque that commemorates its planting “On Shakespeare Commemoration Day, 3rd May 1916”. Despite its age this tree annually produces large crops of succulent berries, aided by the fact that wind eddies are sufficient to disperse its pollen, ensuring pollination and fruit set. Each year it’s a scramble between students, lecturers and birds, to see who can eat the most.
In contrast, the old apple trees in the grounds possess a different strategy – pollination by insects that move from flower to flower each spring. This form of pollination is both more sophisticated and less reliable than wind pollination, and is currently under considerable threat: whilst there will never be a shortage of wind currents in Britain, insect pollinators are in decline.
The apples trees are not alone in requiring insects to pollinate them, so to do other farm and garden crops, including oil seed rape, field beans, courgettes, runner beans, and strawberries and other soft fruit. It’s worth at least £440 million annually to the British economy, and most of it is done by wild bees and hoverflies, rather than managed hives of honey bees.
But all is not well with these insects in Britain – they are in decline. Although the extent of the “pollination crisis” is debated by scientists, long term records show us that these insects are under pressure: 23 species of bee and flower-visiting wasp have gone extinct since the mid 1800s, as have 18 species of butterflies. Less obviously, other species have considerably reduced in abundance so that they are now found in only a small part of their previous distribution.
There are lots of gardeners who want to “do something” for the pollinators, and keeping honey bees is often mentioned. By all means, if you wish to help the honey bees (which are suffering their own problems) then keep a hive or two. That will not, however, help our wild, native pollinators; the analogy I use is that it’s the equivalent of trying to help our declining songbirds by opening a chicken farm!
If you want to make a real difference for pollinators in your own garden, here are a few ideas:
- start by planting nectar and pollen rich flowers; there’s a useful list on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website (see below).
- allow plants such as clover and dandelion to flower in your lawn, bees love them.
- as well as food, pollinators also need nest and egg laying sites, so you could help by allowing some of the far corners of your plot to run a little wild.
- wait until late Spring to cut back hollow stemmed perennials as they are used as hibernating places by some of our bees.
- allow mason bees to nest in old walls and don’t worry about them, the wall won’t fall down.
- And finally, stop using pesticides!
Changing some of our gardening habits can help a group of insects on which we rely and which supports our economy in a very real way.
Further reading and information:
Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society: http://www.bwars.com/
Bumblebee Conservation Trust: http://www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk/
Butterfly Conservation: http://www.butterfly-conservation.org/
Hoverfly Recording Scheme: http://www.hoverfly.org.uk/
Royal Horticultural Society’s list of plants for pollinators: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Plants-for-pollinators