An article by Mark Prina, first published in ‘Parish News’, the local community magazine for the Foxearth area. Reproduced with permission.
I saw a proud claim on some packaging from a major organic dairy producer the other day, “We’re busy installing more bee hives across our dairy farms to help support the British bee population”. But what does “the British bee population” actually mean and why is supporting it a good thing? The bee in question here is the western honey bee Apis mellifera and the suggestion from the company marketing department is that more honey bees will solve our perceived pollination problems. It implies that agricultural food production requiring pollination will be safeguarded by increased distribution of a livestock animal – the honey bee. Wild honey bee colonies exist – we had one, now demised, that thrived for about three years at Foxearth Meadows – and from what I have read it is uncertain how the ‘wild’ or ‘feral’ population compares with the domesticated hive population. I suspect that it may not be a simple case of more honey bees equalling more pollination.
My take would be that we rely on nature and nature is unimaginably complex because it has to be or we couldn’t rely on it. Bees are a part of that complexity: in Britain we have over 270 species with the bumblebees and the honey bee accounting for about one-tenth of that figure. To ignore these other bee species is reckless especially when it is recognised that many are in decline and need conservation measures to halt the declines. We cannot replace them with a single species.
This fact was brought to my mind on an illuminating walk around Foxearth Meadows and onto the railway line and old quarry with Adrian Knowles, the bee recorder for Suffolk who kindly crossed the border into our corner of ‘deepest Essex’ to impart some of his copious bee knowledge and insights. We encountered species from many genera including, bumblebee (Bombus), leafcutter (Megachile), yellow face (Hyaleus) and furrow (Lasioglossum) bees. We also found the mysterious cleptoparasite (cuckoo) bee Sphecodes which enters the nest of Lasioglossum and usurps its provision for its own larvae. Over a quarter of our species are cuckoo bees! This astonishing richness of bee diversity is surely superior to promoting one species as the only pollinator of importance. Honey bees have their place within this plethora and we saw many on the day but they are but part of something much greater.
I share all this with you for other reasons too. As we moved among the stands of Water Mint and Wild Angelica on the meadow and Lesser Calamint and Agrimony on the railway cutting, the experience of seeing vibrant insect movement, hearing sounds of vibrating wings and smelling air filled with scent of mint and calamint is something many should know. I fear not enough of us do know it. Nature is not there to supply services to agriculture although it does that. It’s just there. Please do visit Foxearth Meadows and wander through the wetland and river path to the railway line while summer lasts.
Standing and staring at the flowerheads of Wild Angelica, that most stately of late flowering umbellifers, one notices that most of the insects are not bees at all. Some are wasps but most are flies of the order Diptera. Hoverflies included but numerous other groups and all pollinating as I watch. Their contribution to pollination is hugely underestimated and adds another dimension to our story.
I leave you with some words written by Edward Shanks in 1919 depicting a world of difference between the impoverished nature found in a modern green monoculture and that which assaults the senses in the flower rich grasslands common in Shank’s time but scarce in ours. I reflect that the honey bee hive industry is like the monoculture compared to the richness of our native bees that we must not lose.
The fields are full of summer still
And breathe again upon the air
From brown dry side of hedge and hill
More sweetness than the sense can bear