Where are all the Bees?
Monday morning in Highland Perthshire is as quiet as quiet can possibly be. The locals are still rising, no cars are on the streets, even the birds are still yawning. The rays of the morning sun begin to bank over the hills of the surrounding valley and creep along the green, undulating lumps of the putting green lawn which I must mow. It’s not a bad start to the working week as far as working weeks normally go.
I always stop the mower for Bumblebees or dodge them as they lie on the lawn. The slight change in direction ruins my tidy straight lines so I must go back and retrace my path. The fat, little insects are usually crawling along like drunks. Using every blade of grass to clamber and stagger to safety. Slowly staggering until the sun’s rays reach their shivering torsos. The late evening cold snap stuns the bumblers mid-air sending them tumbling from the skies like stricken Lancaster Bombers. This climatic difference is called the Chill Coma Temperature or the critical thermal minimum temperature (7 °C) that bumblebees need to avoid entering a reversible state where neuromuscular transmission and movement stop. Meaning their flight muscles are unable to be warmed up enough for them to flutter and fly. As a result, until the morning temperature increases, they are stranded, frozen and drowsy. Lying prone like old planes in a Mojave boneyard.
I read that you should feed them a sugar to replenish their energy. It isn’t practical to carry around vials of sugary water at work so I won’t continually interrupt my early morning mow with acts of kindness, but I will spare the majority the death of a thousand cuts, the equivalent of you being torn in the blades of a combine harvester. Inevitably, some of them will be sacrificed and their broken torsos thrown into the mowers grass box then dumped in grassy heaps. Because of the pace of the mower we can’t work in our clump, steel-toed boots but change into trainers. My Dad often chooses to do his mowing in bare feet which warms my heart to see. His big, paws thumping behind the mower, the only time his toes see the sun. It’s a commonly held belief that you can pick up a bumblebee without fear of being stung but this is only half true as only the females sting.
Ladybirds used to be a common sighting in the garden when I was a child. I can remember David Bellamy telling us that if a Ladybird was fifty times its size it would eat you. That goes for most insects. Of all the flying insects Ladybirds are probably the most impressive especially in the way their dotted red shells half into wings when they take off. Like a Transformer changing from a tank to helicopter in milliseconds. These days I hardly ever come across a Ladybird in the garden but if I do, I never flick them off my arm like an aphid, but gently push them on to a leaf or ease them back into the air.
Like Japanese Knotweed and the Himalayan Balsam weed the Buddleia is deemed to be an invasive species, (a difficult term which always sounds racist to me i.e. a foreign blight, coming over here strangling our plants). It particularly thrives in arid conditions and as a result commonly found beside railway tracks and around disused buildings. Despite being deemed invasive the Buddleia could merit the award of Britain’s most loved plant such has its popularity been with garden owners in recent decades. In late autumn the Buddleia can be hacked back to its woody spine and still return in spring with a full purple bloom of nectar rich flowers. Most of our customers will leave the bush unattended in their gardens until the weight of the petals pulls down the stalks which splits the roots down to the soil. Still even then the Buddleia will sprout new shoots and return in spring rejuvenated.
Insects flock to the bush’s bounty of nectar especially butterflies hence its common name: The Butterfly Bush. Their bountiful flowers hang over like grapes enticing flying insects to feast, load and return like greedy narcotrafficantes. Unlike other pollinators, Butterflies consume plants nectar primarily as a fuel for flight however during this process the butterflies also pollinate the Buddleia and many other plants. Although their method of pollination is less efficient than Bumblebees or Honeybees, they still play an important part in the natural process of airborne insect pollination. Shake the bush or edge near it and a cloud of butterflies explode into the sky providing you with one of the most colourful and pleasant sights within a garden. Initially spooked and probably mistaking you for a predator they linger in the air until the danger has passed then are drawn back to their quarry to feast. In the recent years these throngs of butterflies have become increasingly rare in our customer’s garden. If we are lucky, we will get one or two rogue Red Admirals or the odd moth. It’s generally believed that their numbers are rising across Scotland, but I haven’t noticed this at all.
I’ve sacrificed a few days’ work because of clouds of midge swamping my eyes and ears. They particularly go for the bony areas of the skull and around the wrists and ankles. I’ve used all sorts of repellent, head nets and old traditional techniques but ultimately I ’ve always had to surrender and abandon work defeated. Legend has it that upon capturing Government Redcoat soldiers, Highland clansmen would stake their prisoners naked amongst the heathered glens, those being a rich breeding ground for midges. The midges would attack and feast sending the redcoat insane with the torture. I can appreciate how brutal the torture must have been.
Wasp stings are an acceptable hazard when you share gardens with these insects during the day. Gardens are their natural habitat and you are the interloping nuisance. They tolerate your presence but in the event of a slightest infraction they are quick to remind you of your place in the horticultural pecking order. Several years back I mistakenly buzzed strimmer into an underground wasp bike despite plenty of warnings from my co-workers. You tend to switch off when completing your daily tasks and slip into an almost meditative dream like state, able to complete the day to day while listening to podcasts and idly letting your imagination fly. But a seething cloud of truculent bastards soon snaps you out of this torpor. A strimmer makes a deep, growl from its two-stroke engine and a furious fizz from its spinning head. On first appearance a squadron of wasps could easily mistake you for a massive, more furious wasp or some type of predator. Not that they need much provocation. In my case the wasps scrambled in a furious storm, rallying in defence with a pre-emptive attack. I abandoned my strimmer and escaped to the other side of the garden, but they pursued me with dogged ferocity for many metres until I was stung three times on the stomach. The wasps then returned to base, no doubt ecstatic in victory while I searched for anti-histamines and balm in the work van, anything to sooth the pain and counter the swelling and inevitable itching.
Not long after this harsh attack, I edged open a customer’s garden shed door to satisfy my nosiness and was met by another cloud of nasties, this time bees defending their football sized hive. Like a homing missile, Red Leader flew into attack, targeted my top lip and drilled deep before falling away stricken. The initial confusion soon gave way to intense pain and unbelievable swelling. My top lip ballooned to around eight times its normal size giving me the look of one of those poor Z list celebrities who experiment with collagen. The injury, for such a small assailant, was baffling and when I shared my discomfort with my co-workers I mas met with extreme concern (Father) and hysterical laughter (Brother). It took a full afternoon for the inflated lip to deflate and a further two days for it to return to normal size.
Unlike bees, wasps can sting multiple times but alike bumblebees only the females can sting. Only honeybees sacrifice themselves in attack as their stinger remains in their victim and the resultant damage to their abdomen is too traumatic to survive. Most impressively, upon stinging all Bees and Wasps release pheromones which carry back to the nest warning their comrades of impending danger. This amazing combination of emergency flare and natural Bluetooth then inspires the attack scouts to scramble into action in the form of swarm. This pheromonal communication also maintains the normal social structure of the wasp/bee colony but in late summer this cohesion begins to break down as queen cells have been laid and the hormone is no longer produced. As a result, the workers become confused, go looking for sweet foods which puts them in conflict with humans. Fortunately, I’m not stung as frequently as in past years, this could be due to my growing wisdom, but I doubt this as this is not reflected in my general life. A common question from fellow gardeners and customers is increasingly: “Where are all the bees?”.
One of the most laborious and soul-destroying parts of a gardener’s working week is weeding. Not only do you have to get finger deep into mud and whatever else has been discarded in a flower bed, but you also must contend with more stingers at bended down eye level. However, as there are no overheads involved with weeding or “tidying up” it is also the most time consuming and as a result most profitable.
The only other option to hand weeding is weed killer using a backpack sprayer which is cheaper for the customer but far more dangerous for all. Round Up is the most popular herbicidal weed killer in the world and for decades it has been used by gardeners to destroy bothersome weeds. Roundup is usually used with a carefree abandon being sprayed with a handheld device however its industrial use requires a strict adherence to safety precautions and mixing guidelines. The safety equipment of face mask, suit and rubber gloves makes you feel as if you are handling radioactive material rather than a popular herbicide. A cap full of Round Up is added to around 20 litres of water, mixed together then broadcast upon any visible weeds. Farmers multiply this same concoction 100-fold then spray it across fields using tractors or even planes. Millions of litres are used annually. After use all the equipment must be confined in a steel container which in turn must be locked in a secure premise and any industrial users should possess a recognised certificate for legal use. After the initial dousing a weed- or any other plant-will absorb the Glyphosate through its leaves where it attacks the enzymal structure of the plant, fatally infecting the plants life systems.
Round Up was the ’flagship’ product Monsanto until it was acquired by Bayer in 2018, in turn creating an all-encompassing super agricultural corporation. Their amalgamation is widely appreciated as an effort to avoid the growing number of multimillion negligence lawsuits that have arisen since Roundup’s main ingredient: Isopropylamine salt of Glyphosate, was recognised as the of cause of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in everyday users. However just as scientists are beginning to realise – or admit – how harmful this evil syrup is to humans the evidence is also building that Glyphosate is contributing to the dramatic reduction in numbers of airborne pollinators. Simply, the chemical is infecting the insects gut microbes leaving them increasingly susceptible to fatal diseases.
In effect Glyphosate together with other factors such as insecticides and destruction of habitat is decimating the insect numbers across the globe. The insects which have taken millions of years to perfect evolutionary miracles such as pheromonal communication and pollination, are now threatened with extinction. Monsanto have managed to achieve this feat in a matter of decades.
Bayer/Monsanto cannot control natural pollinators, yet, but it increasingly looks like they are decimating their numbers to the brink of extinction or at least until consumers are completely dependent upon their products. Products which in turn are killing their customers through deadly Glyphosate contamination. These dreadful statistics tally with my own amateur observations at work. You tend to notice small things in the garden when you spend half your waking life there. And while I am no expert it doesn’t take a scientist to prognosticate how dreadful the future will be without any pollinating insects.