Why don’t insects splat onto our car windscreens anymore? Because insect populations are in decline. Most worryingly, we’re losing the pollinators we need for the food chain, including bees and butterflies.
A serious concern for the planet is the decline in the insect population, in particular bees and other pollinators. Think about this: do you remember, years ago, when driving through the countryside or on the motorway, insects and flies would splat onto the windscreen? This rarely happens now – a sign that something drastic has happened to the insect population – and a wake-up call that something needs to be done.
The loss of any species has a negative effect on the ecosystem, leading to a loss of variety, beauty and robustness in the environment. And amid this story of depletion, the decline in pollinators is particularly disturbing because this affects our ability to grow food crops, with disturbing implications.
Monitoring insect populations can be difficult, but where scientific surveys have been carried out, the headlines are alarming. In the UK, half of our 27 bumblebee species are in decline, with three species having already gone extinct. Two-thirds of our moths and 71% of our butterflies are in long-term decline. And, across Europe, 38% of bee and hoverfly species are in decline, with only 12% increasing.
What is the cause of this depletion? It seems pollinators are facing a perfect storm of problems: extreme weather due to climate change; loss of land due to factors such as intensive farming and urban growth; pesticides that kill beneficial insects as well as ‘troublesome’ ones; inappropriate tree planting on flowery habitats. Imagine living in a desert with barely any food, water or shelter – this is what the modern British countryside is like for many wild pollinators.
So far, I have given you the bad news. Fortunately, there is always hope. In a bid to reverse this trend, a great number of environmentalists, organisations, government departments and ordinary people are doing what they can to raise awareness and take action. Here at Ewhurst Park, my team is engaged in an estate-wide regeneration project, reverting an intensively managed landscape back towards nature. One of our key goals is to create an environment in which pollinators of all types can thrive.
In March this year, we welcomed bee expert Paula Carnell to carry out our first ‘bee audit’. It was a cold morning when she arrived, and a little early in the year for many bee species, so perhaps not surprisingly we had only a few bee sightings. We spotted a small number of dark honeybees, also known as black bees, which are native to the UK. Encouragingly, this suggested wild bees are living somewhere on the estate or nearby. Also promising, later in the day, we found holes in the soil created by mining bees, which nest in the tunnels they build underground. So there is evidence for bee activity on the estate. Now we are implementing plans to attract more bees and other pollinators.
One of the advantages of Ewhurst Park is that we have a variety of habitats on the estate. Technically, the land is chalk downland, comprised of a combination of grassland, farmland and scrub; we also have wetlands, woodlands and managed market gardens.
This mosaic of habitats means we have the opportunity to attract and conserve a wide variety of insect species, including key pollinators, not only bees, but moths, butterflies, beetles, wasps and flies like the hoverfly.
Bees can be divided into two categories according to whether they swarm or remain solitary, and we are looking to attract both. For swarming bees, we will install constructed bait hives, which we prepare with comb inside, and hives made with natural materials, such as hollowed-out logs. We are also considering establishing an apiary. Meanwhile, as our regeneration project takes hold and plant life flourishes, we can expect to see both swarming and solitary bees being drawn naturally to the estate, where they can settle in trees, in the underground, in abandoned rodent holes and in thick grass.
Some of our planting will be managed. In our woodlands we are planting willow, a favourite of buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees. And in our market gardens we recently planted 100 metres of hedgerow, which will attract honeybees, bumble bees and bees of the Andrena and Mechachile species.
Different plants, according to their size, smell and colour, attract different pollinators. Bees can best see the colour purple, so they like lavender and alliums, though they are happy with other colours too. Wasps favour brightly-coloured sweet-smelling flowers; if you want to repel them from your garden, they don’t like aromatic herbs – but think twice before discouraging wasps to your garden, they’re not just pollinators, they kill a variety of garden pests too. Beetles are also pollinators – they feed on pollen and nectar, and pollen grains stick to their shells and get spread as they travel – beetles like heavily scented large flowers like magnolia. Butterflies cover large areas of land so they distribute pollen widely – they like warm weather, so they will be drawn to flowers planted in sunny spots, having a preference for red and pink plants.
Moths tend to go to work at dusk and later in the day, spreading pollen via their rapid fluttering – not surprisingly, they are attracted to night-blooming plants that are light or white so they stand out in the dark.
The point here is that, to encourage a wide array of pollinators, it is ideal to plant a range of different flowers and plants, with a variety of colours, scents and shapes, not forgetting flowering trees, bushes and hedgerows.
Our bee audit has provided vital information that will help us with our plans. It was wonderful to welcome our bee expert Paula and to have the benefit of her expertise. Her visit left us feeling encouraged and inspired.
The decline of any part of our natural world is a worry, but the decline of our pollinators is a particular concern. It is said that one in every three mouthfuls of food depends on pollinators – so it is almost impossible to over-emphasise the importance of the service they perform for us. Clearly, we need to take action, both here in the UK and globally.
Read more of Mandy’s articles in Sublime Magazine