Bumblebees

I've just got back from the inspiring Bumblebee Conservation Trust Chesterfield Pollination Conference which was just brilliant.  The BCT is a strongly science-based, but very inclusive and immensely positive audience.  they did a great job of the conference which was as much focused on the visit to the event by over 140 Chesterfield schoolchildren as it was for us experts and interested folk.

I'll write more on bumblebees, but for now here's what I said in my introductory speech to the conference. 

Thank you.

I’m delighted to be opening this conference and that you have as your theme ‘Pollinating the Peak’.  I'm not an entomologist and although I've worked in conservation for 35 years and I write for The Times on nature, I don't consider myself very knowledgeable about bumblebees.  That's a shame for two reasons.

The first rather obvious reason is that I'm standing here in Chesterfield addressing a room full of Bumblebee Conservation Trust people who are experts on bees.

The second reason it's shameful that I don't know much about bumble bees is because they are important.  I’m sad to say they are under threat and all of us should become better informed about what we are inadvertently losing. 

I do, however, know a thing or two about honeybees.  My father kept bees, my grandfather did and so did his father.  I grew up knowing how to spot a queen, a worker or a drone and what the Von Frisch waggle dance meant.  I was surrounded by the paraphernalia of the beekeeper - skeps, smokers, frames and sting cream.  If you keep honeybees you will know that a little respect is needed. 

We need to respect the places that bees make home, or the attack dogs of the insect world are after you.  I have vivid memories of multiple stings as a child and that horrible feeling when you know an angry bee is on the inside of your trousers or your veil.

We need to respect the knowledge gained by other more experienced beekeepers and the wonderful bee scientists.  I worked for a while 35 years ago at Rothamsted when the government took bee research seriously. 

You also learn to respect the lore of bees.  In my family to this day, all great family events - the hatches, matches and dispatches - require that we tell the bees of the big news of the moment.

Most of all, what I've learned from the honeybee is that we need to respect the quite remarkable social organisation that makes up a hive or a colony.

And so, with respect in my mind, in preparation for this conference, I turned to a reliable source of knowledge on insects. My wife is an entomologist who trained at Imperial College.  She passed me a copy of a serious-looking book published by Oxford University Press, An Insect Book for the Pocket by Edmund Sandars, published in 1945.

Sandars starts describing insects in the serious way you would expect from Oxford University Press – he classifies insects  according to their usefulness or annoyance to us:  The Stud-grooms, that pollinate flowers; the dustmen who cleanse the earth of dead animals and excreta; the Angler's Friends that help us lure fish to the hook; the Beauties who are beautiful on the eye; Sandars goes on listing The weed-eaters, wood-borers, cloth-eaters, stingers, food-thieves and food-foulers, cattle pests and blood-suckers.  He also describes the servants, the honey bees and silk worms.  Sandars explains too that individual insects may be in two or more categories and, indeed our bumble bees will be servants, beauties and stud-grooms.

Sandars book tells us something about the character of bumble bee species. He is a fan of the true Bombus or true bumble bee species who he describes as 'diligent' and 'with much work to do'.  He is, however no fan of the degenerate cuckoo bees, which he knew as Psithyrus but which today are also in the Bombus Genus too.  The cuckoo bee 'entrusts the care of her offspring to the workers of her hostess', 'when she goes out, her unhurried and leisurely demeanour distinguishes her from a busy Bombus.  There is also ugly evidence against her on a charge of murdering her hostess - her character is nasty'.

But there is a serious side to reading Edmund Sandars book. Published in 1945 he explains that, then, we had 26 species of bumblebee.  It won't be a surprise this audience to know that today we have three species less and that pretty much all of the British species have declined terribly with 8 on the critical list and only 6 remain widespread.

Like all those other species that were once common in our countryside - grass snakes, moths, skylarks and corn cockle - bumble bees have been the victim of unprecedented changes in our landscape in the last 60 years. 

Different analyses will tell you that the reason for decline is disease, climate change, loss of habitats and wild flowers and agricultural chemicals.  We can probably be certain that for the UK species as a whole it will be a combination of factors. 

I have much more first-hand experience of bird conservation than I do of bumble bee conservation.  There are some important messages. 

  • First of all, you have to mobilise and grow popular support for what you do.
  • The more you understand the biology of bees, the better will be your conservation efforts. 
  • Be vigilant on all fronts, keep flower-filled meadows, road-side verges
  • Bear down on the purveyors of agricultural poisons.
  • But central to the future success of our bumblebees will be farming.

At the turn of the last century there was little mechanisation, few fertilisers were used, crops were generally fertilised by clovers and the reliance on horsepower meant there were plenty of clover-rich meadows.  Frankly, most farmers would not have been very aware of modern techniques, few would have been schooled in them and there was no government machine encouraging them to intensify. 

Daniel Hall in reporting to The Times in 1910 Hall writes that ‘what the ordinary farmer needs above all things is better education’.  Farmers would have been lucky to have harvested 2 tonnes of wheat per hectare then. When I started learning about crop yields 35 years ago, progressive farmers were capable of achieving 10 tonnes per hectare. Agronomists today are predicting crop yields of 20 tonnes per hectare by 2020. 

The way that farming develops, the techniques it uses, the space it leaves for wildlife and the sprays it needs will determine what future our bumblebees have. 

This is why it is so important that someone is here, standing up for bees and making their case to the conservation and farming decision-makers.  As a Trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund I am absolutely delighted that we're supporting the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and much of your work. 

For so many reasons, I very much hope that this conference is a huge success and that it helps you grow your colony and prosper. We owe it to the bees that you do.

Thank you.  

Posted on: April 30th, 2015

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