The birds and the bees

Insects have been hit hard by climatic aberrations in recent years and on my meanderings around the Cambridgeshire countryside this year numbers of bees and butterflies sightings have been down compared to previous years. It’s now the middle of June and I saw the first dragons of the year today; two damselflies. I also read this week in ‘The Guardian‘ newspaper that a third of managed honeybee colonies in the USA were wiped out in 2012. This article makes very sobering reading. And it’s a similar story in Europe, but in Europe neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been implicated in colony collapse disorder, have been banned for two years to evaluate their effect on honeybees. My concern is that the onslaught on the bees is complicated and removing one variable may not show a significant effect in the limited two year duration of the ban. But I hope it does!

Early last month the sun finally broke through and gave us some insect friendly weather and it was remarkable how quickly the microfauna emerged.

Beefly – Bombylius major

Beeflies are found over large parts of the globe and can be seen hovering in sunny glades from the springtime. The narwhal of the Dipteran world, the spike looks fearsome but is only used to probe flowers for nectar, there is  no sting. Beeflies procreate by flicking their eggs into the entrance to the burrows of wasps and bees where the larvae feed on the grubs of the occupants.

A pair of hoverflies doing their best to rectify the decline in the insect population

I think these hoverflies are ‘Eristalis pertinax’ but I’m not certain. It was good to see them though, especially as they were taking their biological responsibilities so seriously.
Addendum: on the subject of climatic aberration mentioned at the top of this post I just found and read with increasing concern this link:

which my blogging buddy Sam posted on her excellent WP blog ‘Science on the Land‘. This provides a chilling insight (in every sense) into why the weather in the northern hemisphere is behaving the way it is. And it doesn’t look as though it’s going to get any better folks.

32 responses to “The birds and the bees

  1. I’m seeing fewer bees here too and am scared to death. 😦

    • That’s interesting. I’ve seen a lot on TV here in the UK about plummeting bee populations in the US but I swapped comments with another US blogger a few months ago who said that little or nothing was said in the US itself about it. Which is even more scary because that suggests the data may be being suppressed. I think the US has much less stringent and more ‘flexible’ regulations regarding the use of agrochemicals, which is not good for you guys and your wildlife.

  2. Thank you for the link to the Guardian. That was very interesting but sad. Even in this area which is fairly remote, the diminished numbers of honeybees is obvious and of great concern.

    • Hello Terry, it’s crazy isn’t it? Is there anything going on in the US to deal with this issue? I keep hearing that the government there is being bought off by the likes of Monsanto and won’t regulate the use of pesticides. And I also keep hearing how desparate the situation is for the bees in the US. Surely they have to do something or the consequences for your agricultural industry could be really dire… and that doesn’t win votes.

      • There has been practically nothing in the press here in this area about it in the last year. I don’t know why.

      • That is interesting, because we hear a lot about the situation here and in the US. It’s a big issue which is being discussed at national and EU level and is often in the press.

  3. Lovely photos and I do hope the bees recover. Although it’s not been for the right reasons, I’m glad to see they’ve been headlining in the news lately. I think many people don’t realise just how vital a role bees play in the world. I’m glad that they’re getting the recognition they deserve, and I just hope that it’s not too late.

    • You and me both Lorna, but I’m becoming more pessimistic as time goes by, and the polar ice cap continues to recede. There needs to be some wholesale wising up but I don’t have faith in governments to have the wit nor the will to take the required steps in a meaningful timeframe.

      • It must be difficult to change anything with a timescale longer than an electoral term. And anything that matters to people other than swing voters.

      • That’s the major flaw with a relatively short, fixed term, democratic process.

        Benevolent dictatorship is what we need, or in the case of scumbags, non-benevolent dictatorship 🙂

      • Are you volunteering, Your Lordship? {doffs forelock}

        One of my favourite folk songs is Eileen McGann’s ‘Democracy’. ‘We’re too stupid for democracy but all of the alternatives are worse.’

      • Great idea! The world would be a much better place 🙂

        That’s a very true line from Ellen McGann, unless we did the democracy thing in the original Greek way where it was done like we now do jury service and everyone has a go when it’s their turn. That could work. (And of course we have the death penalty for any form of corruption!)

  4. I too have been concerned at the lack of insects I’ve seen around so far this year, but have put it down to the late start to the spring. As many people have already said, we seem to be having May in June, so fingers crossed the warmer weather will coax them out – if they are still there.

  5. This is sobering stuff. The beeflies and hoverflies are doing their bit, reproducing away, but I share your concern about whether the neonic ban (temporary and univariate) will make a real difference.

    To reply to your question in an email recently: yes, I’m seeing a few insect flying in Yorkshire now. Still very few butterflies but my raspberries are flowering, covered in bees. And my cherry tree has set fruit.

    • Good news about your fruit trees Sam.

      Coming from a position of relative ignorance I think the neonic ban should have been for five years at least. But I hope like hell it does show a difference because as much as anything else it will show up all the lobbying by agrochem companies was based on falsehoods. It’s people like them who give proper scientists a bad name.

      • Do you know many scientists who work in industry? I don’t know many, but a friend who is an analytical chemist worked for Dow for many years. She said that it was all right and she could still do good science. But projects would get stopped too suddenly. Also, as she put it, ‘You lose the moral high ground.’

        For myself, I’m proud to have a foot in each camp. I’m more at home in academia but when I talk to farmers, I learn.

      • Hello Sam, most of the people I know are industrial scientists. And it sounds as though I need to disabuse you of some commonly held notions amongst academics. There are many very, very good scientists in industry who do some real cutting edge science. It’s the mindset regarding personal objectives that maybe differs. I went into industry because I perceived it to be the best way to work on bringing new drugs to the needy, but I guess there are as many different reasons for choosing industry as there are for choosing academia. I don’t buy the idea that academics hold any kind of moral high ground over their industrial colleagues either, that’s an anachronistic and fallacious concept to enable people to make themselves feel better about being paid less.

        I think you’re in a good place though, straddling the two disciplines. I like to think that’s where I am too, as I’m employed by industry but I get involved in collaborations with academia. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, symbiosis even. We need each other.

      • I’m glad you perceive this as mutual need. That’s refreshing to hear from an industrial scientist’s viewpoint. In academia, I often find myself trying to convince my fellow scientists to start trusting the people with the money. And to do the experiments that you’ve been funded to do!

      • That’s a good point. There’s much less wriggle room in industry, but that’s also because we have a focussed strategy and a defined set of timelines, and projects can be canned earlier when they don’t meet the criteria to be progressed. It’s more ruthless but more efficient too, timewise and moneywise. But academia is the right environment for blue sky thinking, which is as important, just a different way of doing things.

      • Have you worked in public-sector research? I don’t know much about your professional life and assumed that it was public sector. But now it sounds as though that’s not so. Which company do you work for?

        For me, public-sector research has meant taxpayer-funded institutions (eg what was then the National Centre for Vegetable Research; it’s now the Warwick Crop Centre within Warwick University) and levy boards (eg the English Beef and Lamb Executive). I felt comfortable there and did good science. Not blue-sky, although I agree that it’s important to have people doing that. But without an immediate need to make profit.

        I’ve heard awful snobbery on each side of a dichotomy that doesn’t need to exist. Academics sneering at my agricultural science, eg sniggering as they ask me whether I grew up on a farm. Businesspeople sneering at my being an academic, eg sniggering as they say that people like me don’t understand the ‘real world’.

      • Hello Sam, I’ll take this one offline with an email so I don’t put off my nature readers 🙂

      • Until you wrote this I’d never asked why I didn’t become an industrial scientist. I don’t recall ever considering it, to tell the truth. I got labelled ‘Oxbridge material’ at age 11 and thereafter, grew up hearing that ‘the ivory tower’ was for me. Careers advice at Oxford didn’t include any mention of industrial science, that I noticed. Otoh I was busy with personal trauma by that time so I might not have been listening to the careers advice.

      • I think all universities are now much more interested in income generation these days, even Oxbridge, and they routinely collaborate with industry, certainly in my field at least. And that’s a good thing. As with all disciplines collaboration is usually better than going it alone – pooling the resources and getting different viewpoints.

  6. I have no problem with flies of any kind…even the tiny little vinegar flies that suddenly appear out of nowhere whenever we suruptitiously open a bottle of red wine, but Aussie March Flies (a.k.a. horse flies Tabanidae sp.) are exempt from my benign fly appreciation society. They breed them tough as old boots here and you just can’t kill them. You can squash them into the dirt with your heel and they will fly away! Nasty things!

    • I know what you mean. I occasionally get had by one when I’m out walking and the weird thing is that I don’t realise until I get home and there’s blood running down my leg. And then it hurts like hell – but how do they manage to deliver those bites unnoticed by me?

  7. Hi Finn
    My garden is usually full of bees, hoverflies etc but this weekend is the first time it’s actually had enough visitors to create an audible hum. Also our common which has been left to flower is also very quite. The constant cold temperature and wind is a real battle for winged insects, they’re getting very little respite.
    Just saw a tweet about natural bee keeping and allowing bees to swarm. They seem to be implying bee keepers could also be compounding the problem with their bee keeping techniques which benefit the collection of honey at the expense of the health of bees.
    I need to do more research on this though.
    Thanks for the blog.

    • Alas, it seems the climate is only goiong to get worse. So I think there will be some rapid adaptations and extinctions in the near future. We need to strap ourselves in for a climatic white knuckle ride.

      Interesting point about the honey bees. I wonder if bee keepers would be happy to have free swarms though? Poor old bees, they’re being hammered from every angle.

  8. The decline of insects is a very serious concern. I watch the honey bees, the dragon flies, and the butterfly’s to gauge the health of the environment. I think for the first time ever I don’t have a sense of hope…

    • Hello Charlie, you’re the second person to say that to me in the last month! It’s very serious when normal, reasonable, people across continents are reaching the same conclusion based on observations of year on year decline. While the powers that be won’t see that there is an issue that needs dealing with because they only pay heed to vested interests who who aren’t interested in conserving the planet. It’s a spectacularly unintelligent modus operandi.

      Maybe it’s accelerated natural selection? Just a pity that humans will take the whole world down with it for millenia to come. It will recover in the end but we probably won’t be around to see it. What a waste.

  9. Nice post – but should it start “insects have been HIT hard”?

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