In the eighteenth century, a British agriculturalist named Charles Townshend promoted a four-year rotation, using wheat, turnips, barley and clover in succession. The nitrogen fixed by the clover boosted soil fertility in the following years, increasing yields, and the scheme was widely adopted. So, imagine Britain a hundred years ago; a patchwork of small fields, cereals and root crops intermixed with clover leys and permanent hay meadows.
No artificial fertilisers, no pesticides. Lots and lots of happy bees. Then roll forwards a few years. The internal combustion engine had by now provided farmers with an alternative to horses, in the form of tractors.
The booming motor industry demanded oil, and the petrochemical industry that grew up on its back made it possible to synthesise cheap nitrogen-based fertilisers. These greatly boosted crop yields and removed the need for rotations, so clover leys were abandoned. Moreover, horses were no longer needed, so no clover was necessary for feeding them. Silage making is an alternative approach to providing winter fodder for livestock. Where hay requires a dry period for harvesting, meaning that wet summers can be a disaster for farmers dependent on it to feed their animals, the grass for silage can be cut even when it is wet.
With the addition of cheap fertilisers to hay meadows, the grass grows much more quickly and so can be cut for silage many times during the spring and summer, providing a larger and more reliable supply of winter fodder. An unfortunate side effect is that adding fertilisers to hay meadows quickly results in the disappearance of most of the wild flowers.
a sting in the tail
The clovers and other legumes, which used to gain an edge from their ability to fix nitrogen from the air, lose their advantage when nitrates are poured on to the ground, and cannot compete with fast-growing grasses. None of this sounds good for bees, for fewer clover leys and fewer hay meadows means fewer flowers. So where does Hitler come in? The techniques for growing more food were available — tractors, fertilisers, silage — but farmers tend to be traditionalists at heart and often farm as their parents farmed.
There was no great pressure to change. Then, in , Britain found itself isolated. No food could be brought over from mainland Europe. Obtaining supplies from across the Atlantic was perilous, with U-boats taking a heavy toll on shipping convoys. Before the war, Britain had been importing about 55 million tons of food each year. Suddenly, being able to supply enough food for our substantial population living on our small and crowded island became terribly important. As a result, the government launched a 'Dig for Victory' campaign, encouraging everybody to dig up their lawn and grow as much food as possible.
At the same time, farmers were encouraged to use every measure available to maximise food production. Patches of land which had previously been deemed too small to bother with were now ploughed and sown with crops, hedges were ripped out, marshes were drained. Between and the area of land used for food production rose by 80 per cent. From a bumblebee's perspective, the war era led to some other unfortunate developments.follow link
Sting in the Tale Achievement in Assassin's Creed Origins
The chemical dichlorodiphenyltrichloro-ethane usually known as DDT was first made in , but its incredibly high toxicity to insects wasn't discovered until , when the Allies were desperately searching for chemicals to help combat the mosquitoes that spread malaria and typhus among the troops fighting in Asia. By , DDT was readily and very cheaply available as an agricultural insecticide. It was twenty years before its long persistence and devastating effects on the environment began to be recognised.
Also during the war, research in Germany into chemical warfare agents nerve gases led to the development of a range of organophosphate chemicals which were also highly toxic to insects. These too became available to farmers shortly after the war, providing them with a growing armoury of pretty unpleasant compounds with which to combat insect pests. After the war ended, the policies which had been introduced to increase food production continued. Food rationing ended in , but farmers carried on receiving financial incentives to increase production until the s.
Over a period of fifty years, we therefore destroyed almost all the flower-rich habitats in the UK, and 98 per cent of our lowland hay meadows disappeared. The short-haired bumblebee died out because the habitats in which it lived were swept away. It wasn't all that fussy, it just needed enough flowers to feed on. No flowers equals no bees. It is not rocket science. Luckily for the short-haired bumblebee, Hitler didn't have the same impact on New Zealand.
In fact there is a certain irony that this species now survives in the clover-rich pastures that man has created in New Zealand by clearing dense native forests which would have been entirely unsuitable for bumblebees, whilst back in its native land we have been busy destroying its habitat. While the short-haired bumblebee has been away, many changes have taken place in Britain. Yet by the s and s it was becoming all too obvious that most of our wildlife was in rapid decline, and that in the long term what we were doing to the countryside might not be sustainable.
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Farms need flowers to support the bees that pollinate our crops, and they need predatory beetles, wasps and flies to eat the pests that eat the crops. So it was that schemes were introduced to pay farmers for encouraging wildlife on their land. Farmers can now get funding to re-sow the wild flower meadows and replant the hedges that only thirty years ago they were paid to remove. It might just be that we have turned a corner.
But if British wildlife is very slowly beginning to recover, it can certainly do with a helping hand. The presence of British short-haired bumblebees in New Zealand provided a unique and exciting opportunity to give our beleaguered wildlife a boost, and to act as a flagship for conservation efforts for bees and flowers. Why not bring them back from New Zealand? Could we once again have short-haired bumblebees buzzing across the British landscape?
One obvious obstacle is that we didn't know much about this creature. There was very little in the way of studies of short-haired bumblebees before they went extinct in the UK. There would be no point in bringing them back and then watching them die out again for exactly the reason they died out in the first place. We would need to be certain that there were now enough of the right flowers for them to feed on, but we had scant records as to the flowers they favour.
So it was that in January , I found myself in New Zealand with a friend and colleague, Mick Hanley, in search of the short-haired bumblebee. Mick is a stocky, ginger-haired beer-drinking Black Country lad, who did his PhD on slugs he prefers to call it 'seedling herbivory', but a lot of slugs were involved.
At the time he was working for me on an ill-fated project to find a means of controlling fly outbreaks on landfill sites, but he is an excellent botanist and shares my enthusiasm for pies, so he made a great travelling companion. Our mission was to find out more about the food plants and habitats of the elusive short-haired bumblebee, to pave the way for an attempt at reintroduction.
A Sting in the Tale
We needed to know which flowers it favoured for collecting pollen, which for nectar, and what habitats it was found in. Ideally, we wanted to find out where it liked to nest. Once we knew these things, it might be possible to recreate suitable habitat in Britain. Good reasons though these were, the prospect of escaping the northern winter for New Zealand summer sunshine was also attractive. We set out from Christchurch in a tiny and rather flimsy hire car, heading south-west towards the centre of South Island which was where, we were told, the short-haired bumblebee had its hideaway.
New Zealand is a land of marked contrasts. Christchurch sits on the Canterbury Plain, a rather monotonous and absolutely flat stretch of farmland covered in a neat grid of rectangular fields and a scattering of small, pretty but unremarkable towns. As we hurtled along the dead-straight road — Mick has a habit of driving ludicrously fast — ahead and to the right we could see in the distance the snow-capped peaks of Mount Cook National Park.
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The Birds and the Bees series from Vintage Classics - beautiful editions of the finest British nature writing The Birds and the Bees series was designed for Vintage Classics by Timorous Beasties, the Scottish studio famous for their designs inspired by the natural world As a small boy, Dave Goulson was obsessed with wildlife - from his childhood menagerie of exotic pets to his ill-fated experiments with taxidermy. Read more. Also by Dave Goulson. Related titles.