Tag Archives: bees

Guy’s Newsletter: gagging, bees & bad farming

In 2013, after years of campaigning from both sides of the divide, the EU finally voted to ban neonicotinoid insecticides on crops attractive to bees. Numerous studies suggest it is linked to collapsing bee numbers, and for once it seemed that environmental concerns had been put ahead of commercial interests, albeit reluctantly in the UK, where our government fought the ban to the end.

Last week, caving into pressure from the NFU and pesticide manufacturers, Defra temporarily overturned the ban in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The justification was the NFU’s claim that growing oilseed rape was “becoming impossible” due to attacks by flea beetle. It turns out that related losses amounted to just 3.5% of the crop last year; not quite my definition of “impossible”, but deemed to be more important than bees by our government. It would seem that the decision was not even supported by their own pesticide advisers who have been gagged, with minutes of meetings kept secret.

We have lost crops to flea beetle at Riverford but the severity of attack declines later in the summer, and by the time that oilseed rape is being sown in August and September I am surprised they are deemed such a problem. In our experience, rain falling as seedlings emerge is normally enough to suppress flea beetle activity and get a crop away, and it is soon strong enough to outgrow any damage. In the case of rape, the wide potential sowing window leaves plenty of time to re-sow in September if you are unlucky. Looking at rape crops from train windows I would suggest that waterlogging and poor soil structure (normally the result of bad farming) are much more serious causes of crop loss.

I can’t help noticing that the four counties judged to be worst affected by flea beetle happen to be the ones with the fewest hedges and trees, the largest fields, the least grass and species diversity and the greatest prevalence of combinable annual monocultures. Like all insects, flea beetles have natural predators in a diverse countryside but very few in the ecological desert of most intensive arable farms. Could this be a problem farmers have brought on themselves by their own bad farming? Now bees and the rest of us are paying the price.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: a bee boom & beans with inner beauty

Never have I heard such buzzing as I encountered cycling to work this morning. Stopping to investigate the din, I found myself under an avenue of lime trees in full blossom. Each tree was alive with what must have been hundreds of thousands of industrious bees harvesting the nectar for which the tree is famous. The wonderful spectacle was made all the more remarkable because, until a few weeks ago, there was a marked and almost eerie absence of these pollinators.

High summer is upon us and we are as busy as those bees and almost as organised. Farming has seemed like a mug’s game for the past two years, but it suddenly feels so easy in this weather. Planting, weeding, picking and irrigating is all going like clockwork, and our confidence in our ability as growers is restored. The farm reservoir levels are dropping but with good reserves of moisture in the ground, it will be a while before we worry about drought.

The one crop that has suffered a little is our autumn-sown broad beans, where a fungal disease called chocolate spot has developed faster on the pods than we would like. However, it is what’s inside that counts and as the beans within remain clean and flavourful, we have put them in the boxes rather than sending them off to feed the cows or ploughing the crop back in. It should not be for long though; we are now moving into the spring-planted beans which normally produce cleaner, better filled pods anyway. At the same time we are starting to harvest sugar snap peas. They are painfully slow to pick, even with this year’s fine crop, but the crisp sweetness makes them well worth the effort. For the uninitiated, prepare them by simply removing the stem end and perhaps the tip too (ideally taking the string from the pod with them) and eat the whole thing, pod and all. They are particularly great raw, in stir fries or quickly blanched and dressed, but my best tip is just to make sure that you try them, as the season is tantalisingly short.


guy’s newsletter – planting & irrigating again

guy’s weekly newsletter: planting & irrigating again

There was a time last month when I started to wonder if we would ever experience summer again. Under the prevailing gloom and continuing deluge, accompanied by an almost eerie absence of birdsong and insects, one could easily lose faith in the perpetual return of life to our fields. Without the enlightenment of the Met Office, one might consider appeasing angry gods by the sacrifice of a virgin, a goat or at least Owen Paterson. After two weeks of glorious sunshine, the grass is finally growing, the hedges are bursting with life and we are enjoying the last flush of old season crops, while we hectically plant, and believe it or not, irrigate as fast as we can pump the water.

Hurrah! In a triumph for bees and the independence of science, our Environment Secretary and the chaps from Syngenta were defeated last week by an EU commission vote, which will now restrict the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops. To descend to the Defra position, where nature is expendable unless it can be demonstrated incontrovertibly that it is worth saving on economic grounds, would be hugely depressing. It makes me ashamed to be human and even more ashamed to be British. Thankfully there was more enlightenment elsewhere in Europe – as well as a great number of passionate Brits campaigning here.

This will be the last week for cauliflower, leeks, old season potatoes and purple sprouting broccoli. These crops have been growing or in store for almost a year; our plant breeders have done their best to delay the rush to seed, but with lengthening days and rising temperatures, nothing can restrain the desire to procreate. The new season crops are doing well under fleece and under the tunnels we have been busy planting tomatoes, cucumber, basil and beans. The first of the cucumbers and rhubarb will be picked this week.

Should any of you feel inclined, we are up for Retailer of the Year and even Campaigner of the Year in the Observer Ethical Awards 2013. You can vote for Riverford as Ethical Retailer of the year or for myself as Campaigner of the Year (closes 10th May).

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: neonicotinoids and bees – again

The European Food Safety Authority has labelled three neonicotinoid insecticides as ‘an unacceptable danger to bees’. Our own all-party Environmental Audit Committee has called for a moratorium on their use on plants that attract bees, but the UK and Germany are still resisting calls from the rest of Europe for restrictions on their use. Is it coincidence that these countries are the homes of the two major manufacturers of these agrochemicals, Syngenta and Bayer? As the science becomes increasingly overwhelming, the arguments of our recalcitrant environment secretary, Owen Paterson have moved on to economic benefits: it seems that a ban will be resisted until there is incontrovertible evidence that the economic costs of pollinator loss outweigh the economic benefits to farmers and manufacturers of spraying.

What value is there in hearing birdsong, in watching a bee at work or in feeling the harmony of coexistence? To deny value to our surroundings (save for their tangible economic benefits) is to accept the depressingly barbaric surrender of our planet’s future to the forces of short term capitalism.

If you can muster the energy, the Soil Association are urging you to write to your MP and request they ask Owen Paterson to support the ban. The European Commission are reviewing the ban on 26th April – to read more visit www.bees.pan-uk.org, or www.soilassociation.org, if for no other reason than to give evidence that we are not all as narrow-minded and unimaginative as our Environment Secretary.

Guy Watson

Keep Britain buzzing

Pesticides have made farmers’ lives easier and have helped produce cheap food but their long history suggests they are seldom as ‘safe’ as initially claimed. Their incredible potency is normally achieved by disrupting cellular processes that are often shared well beyond their target species. Only a tiny proportion of pesticide reaches the target and only the most foolhardy chemical enthusiast would be surprised when they produce unintended consequences in the wider environment.

History suggests that our regulatory processes repeatedly underestimate these consequences. Indeed, the majority of pesticides I used as a teenager and later studied at university have since been banned due to their unforeseen effects on us or the environment. In the 1990s neonicotinoids were introduced, largely in response to toxicity problems with previous insecticides. All seemed well for a few years until they were repeatedly associated with drastically falling numbers of bees. Short term toxicity trials suggest they reduce the workers’ ability to navigate back to the hive, possibly increasing susceptibility to disease.

Quite apart from the huge economic benefit of bees as pollinators of food crops, there is something particularly poignant and depressing about their loss. If we are stupid enough to risk destroying something so vital to our own food, what hope is there for us as custodians of this planet? Bureaucrats hide behind the term ‘evidence-based decision making’ – does that mean we must wait for irrefutable proof? Other governments, perhaps those with a little more distance between agrochemical companies and regulation, have already banned or restricted use of neonicotinoids.

We generally avoid filling your boxes with appeals, but this week you will find a ‘Keep Britain Buzzing’ pack from the Soil Association. We need to make some popular noise to counter the agrochemical industry’s lobbying; please take a look and support their campaign if you can.

Guy Watson

We need bees

Bee hive
In order to fruit, plants need to reproduce, and in order to reproduce, most need to be pollinated, and for this to happen they need insects. Out in the fields one of the main pollinating insects are bees, but obviously in the closed environment of a greenhouse or polytunnel, where we grow things like cucumbers and peppers, we need to bring them in and give them somewhere to live… and here it is!