A while ago, I wrote a post about the resurgence of interest in British flower growing, and how flower farmers are working hard to encourage florists and shoppers to buy locally grown, seasonal flowers. I used to grow cut flowers to sell, and this year I’ll be planting a cut flower patch in my own garden and in a raised bed at The Dutch House. The main attraction for me in starting to grow more cut flowers again, is in providing nectar and pollen for garden insects. I don’t know about you, but over the last few years I’ve been seeing fewer insects, and less variety of species, in the garden. Some of this is down to the ‘summer’ weather we’ve had – windy, cool and wet days are not good for butterflies, hoverflies and other insects. But there’s more to it than just the weather. There have been lots of articles in the papers in the last few months reporting a massive decline in honeybee numbers. Colony collapse disorder is the term used to describe the widespread loses seen by beekeepers – not just in this country, but around the world. And, because of the importance of bees and other pollinators, both for agriculture and wild plants (estimates suggest that they provide £200 million worth of pollination services each year – and all for free), their disappearance from the countryside is worrying.
While it’s often honey bees that are used to illustrate the declining numbers of pollinators in news reports, a study published last month in the journal Science, showed that wild insects (bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies, beetles, etc) are in fact much more efficient pollinators, and as such deserve more protection and attention. The researchers compared the proportion of flowers producing seeds or fruit in a range of different crops right across the world. In some of the fields they looked at, there was a diverse range of insects (and lots of them), in others there were few insects. And because in some areas hives are routinely brought in to try to compensate for the lack of wild pollinators, the team also looked at whether the presence of managed honey bee colonies boosted pollination of the crops. Their findings suggest that crop yields were higher in areas where wild pollinators were abundant, and that improved fruit set was only seen in a small proportion of crops where introduced honeybees were present. So the moral of this story is that we need a diverse and abundant range of insects to get the best from agricultural crops and wild flowers.
As gardeners, we’re often encouraged to ‘help the bees’ by planting nectar-rich flowers, but this never going to be the complete solution. We can plant all the flowers we like, but if a combinations of habitat loss and long-term exposure to pesticides is still killing the insects, where will the they come from to feed on our flowers? Now, I’m definitely not trying to discourage anyone from designing and planting their garden for wildlife – just saying that there is a wider issue and gardeners alone can’t solve the problem.
Tomorrow the British government will vote on a proposed EU Commission partial ban on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. These pesticides are widely used in agriculture and horticulture and have been linked by a number of studies to the rapid decline in both honey bee and wild bee populations. The EU Commission wants to limit the use of these chemicals for two years, allowing time for more research to investigate the true impact of their use on insect populations. With just 24 hours to go, it looks like the UK will vote against the partial ban – citing concerns over the implications for agriculture if a ban is put in place. Now, don’t get me started on the short-sightedness of this approach… but if you have a couple of minutes and are concerned about the use of these chemicals, there’s an online petition urging the government to think again.
If you have a little longer to spend, and want to know more about neonicotinoids there’s a series of fact sheets produced by Pesticide Action Network UK. Or you could try searching for ‘neonicotinoids UK’, I did and got 80,500 results – see, everyone’s talking about them!