Up at the allotment a few evenings ago: much feeding excitement in an artichoke flower.
Up at the allotment a few evenings ago: much feeding excitement in an artichoke flower.
This morning I took my grumpiness to the allotment in hopes of leaving it there. This plan did not altogether work, though I did have a very lively chat with Phoebe, the allotment’s star maker-and-mender of abandoned plots. At the time she was hauling a grass mower over a rough bank that she’s been busy clearing, and going at it with all the vigour that supposed a new career in all-in wrestling might be appropriate.
She turned off the mower and we talked of how the world used to be, and no longer was. And I said how nice the green chairs were, placed by her under two reclaimed old apple trees; chairs I had donated to the cause last week because I’d inherited them with my polytunnel and never sat on them there, not in four-plus years. They are only plastic, but pleasingly weathered, and now, re-sited, offer new possibilities for sitting in a quiet and shady spot. Phoebe said she’d been eating her sandwiches there.
I told her I was feeling very cross, and had spent a couple of hours simply faffing about. This included scrumping gooseberries on an overgrown plot. I never used to care for them but the fruit on these abandoned bushes is now claret coloured, almost black when fully ripe; sweet enough to eat straight from the stem. I’m thinking of a luscious gooseberry fool or a wine infused jelly.
I also spent some time with the bees and butterflies. All annoyances are forgotten while one watches them. It’s akin to meditation. The bumble bees were literally bathing head-to-toe in the pollen of the musk mallow. This is a wild plant that insists on growing in front of my shed door. I’ve cut it down to the roots once, and transplanted a residual shred of it to a less annoying location where it is now also thriving; but the mother plant has come back with a vengeance. And since it’s such a hit with the bees, it had better stay for now.
A focused perspective – making a bee-line
White-tailed bumble bee in nasturtium: a rude perspective?
Three days ago the World Wildlife Fund and Buglife published their joint report on the state of British bees in the East of England. Their findings were based on the monitoring work of research institutions across a region whose great range of habitats make it potentially bee-rich territory. Some 228 species were included in the study.
And the conclusions:
• 25 species (11%) threatened
• 17 species (7%) regionally extinct
• 31 species (14%) of conservation concern
And the reasons? Climate change, habitat loss, pollution, disease and agricultural pesticides of the neonicotinoid variety (now banned by the EU). The report gives a county by county list of lost species, the ones most affected being solitary and rare species that occupy very specific wildlife niches: e.g. coastal dunes, heaths, woods, wetlands and brownfield sites such as old quarries and gravel pits. But it is not all bad news. At least that is to say there has been an increase in common food pollinating bee species – possibly a result of the more extensive growing of oil seed rape and efforts by farmers to create field margins to support bee populations.
For anyone interested in bees the report is packed with species specific information and excellent photos, and outlines many practical strategies for re-establishing lost diversity and habitat. In other words WE CAN DO SOMETHING.
Talking of which, my bee photos were taken yesterday morning, the first of the year, and out in the guerrilla garden on the field margin, where I have planted (among other things) verbascum grown from seed a couple of years ago. It is such a stately plant and comes in many colours (common name mullein). Certainly this particular little bumblebee (red-tailed, male?) seemed very excited by the newly opening flowers.
Related: UN World Bee Day
Watching the garden struggle over many rainless weeks, I’ve been thinking more and more about drought-tolerant plants. And here’s a real winner – Echinops or globe thistle. It comes from the Mediterranean, but there are now many garden cultivars to choose from, some less sprawling than others.
I grew mine from seed a couple of springs ago. The plant here, is one of the seedlings I planted out at the allotment. It has had no attention from me this year, and its end of the bed has had not been watered. The prickly globes are just coming into flower and yesterday the bumble bees were all over them. And of course there can be nothing better for the vegetable plot than a few star attractions for the pollinators.
And then at the other end of the bed from the Echinops, and the tangible result of some good pollinating, is an already fat Crown Prince squash. I’m amazed at the size of it, given my erratic hand-watering of the mother-plant a couple of metres away. I’m thinking of hiring it out to Cinderella. At this rate it will provide her, or even me, with a very handsome coach. Just need to look out for a good team of horses. Oh yes, and a few slick coachmen.
The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness has arrived in Much Wenlock on the coattails of spring, missing out summer altogether. Perhaps we’ll have it at Christmas instead, the barbeque months that, back in March, the tabloids were screaming we were in for, along with prolonged drought and associated mayhem that would, shock-horror, stop people from watering their lawns, or hosing down their Range Rovers. Mind you, these are the sorts of rags that would have us believing it is raining migrants. (That would be people so desperate that they risk all to run away from home).
Anyway, whatever’s going on with the climate, the upshot is that much of the garden and the allotment has a very ‘left-over’ look, which is why I almost want to dash out in the garden and hug the sneeze weeds – bees notwithstanding – for being so vivaciously red and yellow as too much autumn dullness descends.
How can a plant so glorious be real? All the flowers in the photos, in all their wonderful variation, are growing on a single plant. And, as you can see, the bumble bees are gorging themselves. There are also some very tiny emerald beetles in amongst the pollen. Sneeze weed, by the way, is a country name for Helenium, which is a far more gracious name for such a generous plant, although one rarely used in the Farrell household.
And it’s thanks to the bees and other precious pollinators that we are at least having fruitfulness, if not harvest-hot weather. Up at the allotment apples are already weighing down the trees. They look like jewels:
Even the ornamental crab apples look good enough to eat raw. They’ll make brilliant jelly after a touch of frost, which hopefully won’t happen yet.
Then there are the brambles:
And the little yellow squashes that look like flying saucers:
And the runner beans have started to crop (this photo was taken a week or so ago). The sweet peas on the end of the row are there to attract pollinators:
Of course, when it comes to weather, we Brits are never happier than when we’re grumbling about it: too hot, too windy, too wet, too dry. But then even if someone did steal summer, we still have so much to be thankful for. Feeling mellow, however, may not be an appropriate response these days. There may well be some hard lessons to learn when it comes to adapting to an increasingly erratic world climate, and not only for ourselves, but for the people who find their own lands are no longer habitable. We should not be surprised if they risk all to make for the lands of plenty.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
An old meaning of the word vivid is lively and vigorous. And what can be more lively and vigorous than foraging bees? They and their produce are life-enhancing too, and in elemental ways. Their importance in the human life-cycle, for one, is marked in an old Shropshire custom of ‘telling the bees’ when someone dies. So it is my belief that we can’t think too much, or too often about bees. Not only do nearly three quarters of our food crops depend on them for pollination, but the natural environment needs them too – those plants and trees whose flowers are also pollinated by them.
Up at the allotment we are very lucky. We seem to have plenty of bees, and many varieties too, but then most of the allotment gardeners rarely use pesticides apart from the odd slug pellet. Yesterday when I was there, my raspberry patch was thrumming with bee-hum. It was mesmeric. They also love my neighbours’ phaecelia which is grown as a green manure. Pete and Kate decided to leave theirs standing just for the bees. The flowers are beautiful anyway.
My field beans are another favourite. Again these beans, a relation of the broad bean, are usually grown to dig in before flowering and fruiting. But courtesy of the bees, I leave mine to produce masses of pea pod sized pods. The beans are small, and more delicious versions of broad beans. So thank you, bees. Also the bean blossom has a blissful scent. It’s a win-win-win situation.
The debate over whether neonicotinoid pesticides are responsible for the massive bee deaths across the globe wrangles on. You can follow some of the arguments in the two BBC Science reports at the links below. One recent startling discovery by a study at Newcastle University, is that bees are attracted to the pesticides. They seem to like the nicotine in much the same way humans do. Researchers have yet to discover if bees also get hooked on the stuff.
So why do we need pesticides? The actual fact is that any large-scale, mono-crop production will attract, in huge numbers, the pests that use that crop for their food and reproductive cycle. Monoculture environments also lack the kind of predator insect diversity, that would, in a naturally diverse ecosystem, keep such crop pests under control.
So the demand for pesticides is created, and the drive for profit, and for the production of cheap food keeps us locked into pesticide dependence. It’s not hard to see why we seem stuck with this system. The economics of unpicking it look impossible to broach.
Here’s another thought though. Mono-crop systems are also vulnerable to new pests whose advent is ever more likely, either through accidental imports, or by climate-shift trans-located pests that may have no natural predators in their new-found homeland.
I have personal experience of what happens when dependence on one particular crop meets an alien pest. In the 1980s the Central American Larger Grain Borer beetle was introduced into Africa in a consignment of food aid maize, and once there, spread up the continent like wildfire, chomping the contents of village grain stores to dust. (And being faced with such a pest, who would knowingly want to put insecticide directly onto their food before eating it?). This infestation is what took us to Africa in 1992 where Graham was working on a project to introduce a natural predator to check the LGB spread. (See Carnations, crooks and colobus at Lake Naivasha, and Letters from Lusaka part I ).
The consequences of this particular dudu’s arrival were compounded by the fact that, since colonial times, maize had become a staple in many African countries (European settlers doled it out as rations in part payment to their African labour), so largely replacing the local cultivation of a wide range of native, more nutritious small-grain crops. Maize is also a hungry, water-demanding plant that can easily fail if there is insufficient rain. And, if repeatedly grown on the same ground, it will soon deplete fragile volcanic soils and contribute to erosion. This happened on Kenya’s native reserves during the World War 2 when Western Province farmers were encouraged to grow maize for export to Europe to support the war effort. They grew bumper harvests, but the land suffered, and probably has never recovered.
So we see in just one example the kind of vicious downward spiral of impoverishment that can result when humans think they know better, and don’t consider the consequences of tinkering with an existing system.
In fact when we left Kenya in 2000, German agricultural aid workers were advising rural farmers to go back to cottage garden farming methods, mixing different crops up together to fool the pests, and so avoid the need to buy expensive pesticides. i.e. advocating precisely what Bantu farmers had been doing for a couple of thousand years before colonial agricultural officers told them that inter-cropping was bad practice, and that they needed to adopt European cash-crop methods in order to grow export-worthy produce.
All of which is to say, we all of us need biodiversity for our well being, if not for our survival. With climate change, we cannot afford to limit options in food production by remaining in thrall to the reductionist models perpetuated by factory farming, supermarket buying power, genetic engineering that reduces native crop diversity, and by the pesticide hegemony in general. At the very least we need the bees. Anything that threatens them, threatens to seriously limit our good food choices. The health of humanity and the planet’s ecosystems depends on them.
As consumers we have buying power. It is perhaps the one real power we do have, otherwise corporations would not spend so much money trying to persuade us to buy their goods. If we are able, we can support small local producers who do not use pesticides. We can say no to genetically modified crops that have caused their producers to give up, or lose their native crop varieties. We can grow bee-friendly plants, and if we can afford to, buy only organically cultivated produce. We can grow as much of our own food as possible. It’s amazing what can be grown in containers if garden space is in short supply, and sprouted seeds can be grown in the kitchen all year round. So let’s keep our bees vigorous and lively, in whatever way we can.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell