Remembrance Day for Lost Species, held on the 30th November each year, is an occasion to honour and mourn the countless thousands of species driven to extinction by human activity. To mark this year’s theme – Lost & Disappearing Pollinators– author and beekeeper Helen Jukes writes of this year’s devastating news of insect decline, of the wonder of honeybee hives, and of the need to widen our vision by paying closer attention to small things.
Type honeybee into Google, and a drop-down menu appears with a list of suggested search terms. I add a ‘c’ and it throws up honeybee collection or collapse; add a ‘d’, and it’s declines or decorations for your home. I work my way through the alphabet; ‘l’ is unequivocal. Honeybee losses 2017,2016,2015, 2014.
Some days I can’t tell if honeybees are coming or going. In a sense, they’re everywhere – collecting on our shelves, decorating our homes. In the supermarket this week I passed bee-themed mugs, place mats, bath towels and lunchboxes – not to mention the honey (I LOVE bees, the girl at the checkout told me, when I told her I was a beekeeper. She showed me her bee earrings and a bee-shaped pendant. I really love them, she said, tucking the necklace back inside her shirt collar). And yet, elsewhere, out there, where the real bees live, we’re told there are losses and declines and last month I heard a new word, insectageddon.
That came from an article about a study in Germany, among the first of its kind. Between 1989 and 2016, 1,500 insect samples were collected across 63 sites – a total haul of over 50kg, and several million flying creatures. The results are disturbing: a 76% drop in numbers, over 27 years.
Since the paper was published, more scientists have stepped forward to suggest the findings are likely to reflect a pattern occurring across Europe and beyond.
We’ve heard already about losses to honeybee, butterfly and bumblebee populations; these findings dramatically extend the scale. Around one third of our global food supply is dependent upon honeybees and other pollinating species – if flying insects were to disappear, not only would we lose individual species; our landscapes, our ecologies, our diets and so even the stuff of our own bodies, would also be radicallychanged.
It’s one thing to read headlines like these; another to absorb them. The words are big. They’re dramatic, they’re catastrophic. I imagine they’re probably driving the appetitefor honeybee mugs and bath towels – loss can make us grabby. Yet when I look out of the window, it is not catastrophe, not ageddon, that I see.
A few years ago, when I was living in Oxford and about to become keeper to a colony of bees, this was something I’d been struggling with. I’d read about honeybee losses in the papers. It sounded bad, but it felt remote; I wondered what would happen if I stepped to one side of the newspaper headlines and got to know a colony firsthand. Would I sense a slippage, a thinning? And would I, in my slim end terrace with a weedy garden out back and a work/life balance tipping dangerously towards collapse, find a way of sustaining the bees in my care – of keeping them?
I bought a suit. I got a colony. I was suddenly more involvedin another creature than I had been for years. I tended them, fretted over them. I hefted pieces of hive and beekeeping equipment. It was both a love and a labour.
My garden was bordered by a crumbling wall, a hedge and a high fence; standing inside it, I couldn’t see very far at all. I could see the sky. I could see a warehouse roof, our neighbours’ house, the tops of the trees lining the allotments. I could hear the traffic on the road outside, and the man who shouted as he walked. I wasn’t mindful of much of this; I was busy focusing on the hive. I had to become very attentive to what was happening inside it; to watch for slight shifts in the activity of the colony that might signal disease or pests or a drop in available forage. I wanted to get to know their rhythms, understand their processes (these were different, I realised, on different days – a colony is as changeable as the weather).
Up close like this,I learned a little about the landscape. A little about how bees make sense of the world, how they perceive it. And, by watching their journeys, by looking for what they were bringing back, I learned something about what they were findingout there, beyond the fence; about what their world was composed of. Honeybees collect pollen for feeding young and nectar for making honey; they temporarily ingest the nectar when they carry it back to the hive, and stick the pollen to their knees. A few months in, a friend showed me how to tell the source of these pollen nubs by their colour, and so make a fairly reasoned guess as to where the bees had flown. Deep yellow might be dogwood; soft green was probably meadowsweet.I felt like a detective, sifting for clues. Except that, for the most part, the clues were in a language I didn’t speak.
A honeybee colony is like nothing else. It froths and boils and quivers and shakes; it murmurs and thrums and whines. Lifting the lid of a hive and taking a look inside can be a disorienting experience – the bees are so foreign, so far from your familiar, they can make you feel completely lost; they can also turn you around, and inside out – they can rearrange how you see. They rearranged and reorientated me.
I’m writing this on a wooden stool, in the window of a small cafe. They have baklava and free wifi. I can look out and see a road and a row of houses; I can look out and seethe silvery rim of a stand of beeches, a heap of ivy hanging over a wooden fence, two kids in jeans with mud on their knees kicking a punctured football at a wall. For the last half hour, I haven’t actually looked out of this window at all; I’ve been reading about that German study, the one that prompted calls of an insectageddon.
Today I am interested not so much in the findings, but the method. I have been learning(as the football bounced off the window of a passing car, and the car stopped, and the boys made a run for it,) about malaise traps. A malaise trap is like a tent on stilts, pitched at one end and made of netting. Inside the pitched roof there’s a funnel leading to a collecting cylinder with a quantity of ethanol inside, a killing agent. The other end of the tent is wide open; when insects fly in, they head up through the funnel and get trapped in the collecting cylinder. The basic design was invented in 1934 by René Malaise, hence the name. It was the sole means of sampling in the German study.
Over the past 27 years, between the months of March and October, malaise traps were placed in63 nature reserves across west Germany. The cylinders were emptied and their contents weighed every few days. The work was done not by scientists but amateur entomologists, who visited and monitored the traps and made detailed recordings of the weather. They had strict instructions. The samples were weighed (with minute accuracy, since the creatures were featherlight); the weights later combined and compared. Leaving a trap open for a prolonged period can be harmful to local insect populations, so those used in the study tended to be moved from one year to the next, and for this reason the pattern that emerges reflects not the individual stories of specific sites, but something more like an accretion; a collecting up and laying out through time of umpteentemporary and scrupulously recorded views.
I wonder about those amateur entomologists who emptied the collecting cylinders, who tramped down to the tents each week. Did they have a sense, as they tipped the alcohol-soaked specimens onto the weighing scales, of the extent of the pattern unfolding? Did they sense disaster? Or was the change was too small, too slight to notice week-to-week?
Nature reserves exist with the sole purpose of preserving ecosystem functions and biodiversity, so to find such a sharp decline in resident speciesis alarming. The researchers studied the findings; they factored in changes to land use and the weather. Neither could account for the declines, which occurred throughout the growing season, and irrespective of habitat type. Large scale factors must be involved, they reasoned – but such factors lie beyond the scope of their investigations.
A nature reserve is a protected space but it is also a form of island, and recording only the environmental changes inside the parks will never give a complete picture because islands don’t exist in isolation. Almost every reserve included in the study was surrounded by agricultural land, which over the last half century has undergone a process of rapid intensification. Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature, Professor Dave Goulson, one of the researchers, is quoted as saying. With the loss of field margins, increased pesticide use and year-round tillage, vast tracts of land [are now] inhospitable to most forms of life. It is possible that insects were flying beyond the perimeter of the reserves to find theirforaging and nesting habitats had disappeared; or that chemicals present in the wider landscape were directly harming them.
There is an urgent need to uncover the causes of this decline, the researchers conclude. And so call upon all of us –scientists, amateur entomologists, beekeepers, supermarket cashiers, and people sitting in cafe windows – to join in the work of uncovering. To come close enough to see the detail, to pay attention to small things with the express aim of extending our range of vision, of better reading and making sense of the whole. Such a task will involve getting lost, giving up some of our go-to means of understanding the world, and drawing connections in places we hadn’t before. It will be a love and a labour. And it can start right now.
Remembrance Day for Lost Species, held on 30th November each year, is a chance to explore the stories of species, cultures, lifeways and habitats driven extinct by unjust power structures and exploitation, past and ongoing. It emphasises that these losses are rooted in violent, racist and discriminatory economic and political practices. It provides an opportunity for people to renew commitments to all that remains, and supports the development of creative and practical tools of resistance.
In light of the recent sharp declines in the populations of pollinators, on whose vital environmental contribution so many species (including humans) rely, the theme of Lost & Disappearing Pollinators is offered this year as inspiration. These are animals which move pollen from the male to the female part of a flower, thus fertilising it. Well-known pollinators include bees, butterflies and moths. Certain birds and mammals are also important pollinators, notably bats, hummingbirds and many other animals. Some pollinators, such as the small Mauritian flying fox, are already extinct at human hands, with swathes of others being critically endangered or feared lost, e.g. Franklin’s bumblebee.
Participate in Remembrance Day for Lost Species by joining – or holding – any kind of memorial to lost species or ways of life. This could take the form of an art project, a procession, lighting a candle, planting a tree, or any kind of action you like. Collaboration and inclusivity are at the heart of this initiative, so any offering is welcomed. Please share your plans with us here.
See lostspeciesday.org, or @lostspeciesday on Twitter, or Remembrance Day for Lost Species, 30th November for more information.
Helen Jukes is a writer, beekeeper, and writing tutor. Her first book, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, is due out in July 2018 with Scribner. helenjukes.com @helen__jukes
The World Forest Organisation plant trees on deforested land in Kenya
A SMALL team of Dorset and Devon residents are responsible for removing over 3,000 tonnes of CO2 and other pollutants from the atmosphere.
Tracey and Simon West from Lyme Regis run The Word Forest Organisation, a reforestation charity that plants trees and builds classrooms in impoverished areas in Kenya.
They’ve been planting trees there as philanthropists since 2012 when they got married and had a small Wedding Forest planted. Five years on, those trees are now over six metres tall and have locked in several tonnes of carbon and other man-made pollutants.
In April, the couple formalised their efforts and became a charity so they could replicate the work throughout Kenya.
The World Health Organisation recently reported that over the past half century, human activities – particularly the burning of fossil fuels – have released sufficient quantities of highly polluting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, trapping heat in the lower atmosphere which affects the global climate.
In the last 130 years, Earth has warmed by approximately 0.85°C and each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.
The Word Forest Organisation’s office in Lyme Regis is 22 metres above sea level and the team are well aware of the planetary changes taking place as a result of climate change, include rising sea levels, glacial melting and changing precipitation patterns, with extreme weather events becoming more intense and frequent.
More than half of the world’s population lives within 60km of the sea and people are being forced to relocate; Marine Parade in Lyme Regis is an average of six metres above sea level and regularly has tides above four metres.
The tropical forests the charity have planted in Kenya so far will be responsible for removing approximately 3,125 tonnes of damaging pollutants from the atmosphere and that will clean up the air that blows all over the world, but this is only one element of the positive impacts of reforesting Kenya.
The charity also promotes the building of schools in Kenya
Tracey explains: “The communities we’re working with in Coast Province, Kenya are incredibly impoverished, but the villagers are starting to lift themselves out of poverty with the commodities from the trees.
“They had been struggling with countless failed crops from the drought Kenya has been in for many years and the horrific backstop for many of the families was to let the youngsters go into child prostitution on the coast. I’d like to say we’ve eradicated that and we’re not there yet, but it is certainly reduced.”
Simon adds: “It’s absolutely necessary to support our communities by building schools. In rural areas like ours, shabby, unsafe mud hut structures for learning are common, but frequently, children have no buildings at all and they have to sit outside, braving the elements, desperately seeking the shade of trees. But deforestation has bitten Africa greatly and cooling shade from old trees can be a rarity.”
Word Forest Organisation are working with 100 primary schools in Kenya and they plan to build 300 classrooms and plant over 1,200,000 trees in the next 10 years. They are raising money in a variety of ways, including putting on fundraisers like The Big Green Christmas Fayre in Lyme Regis on Saturday, December 2nd at the Woodmead Halls.
Tracey is hoping to be able to plant more than 100 trees as a result, which will lock down another 25 tonnes of CO2 in a tiny handful of years. “The whole world needs to recognise the importance of tropical forests in places like Kenya. Those equatorial zones offer the best conditions for growing trees at an exponential rate. The benefits to the planet and all its inhabitants are truly priceless”, Tracey concludes.
For more details on ways to help them get more trees in the ground, visit www.wordforest.org
The benefits of a district heating network are numerable, as reported in this piece from the Guardian a couple of years ago: District heating: a hot idea whose time has come | Cities | The Guardian The only problem is that it needs a lot of capital up front - which means locking householders into standing charges: The capital and running costs of DE systems are recovered by the owners levying charges on building occupiers.
Tariff structures are frequently two-part, with some form of monthly standing charge designed to recover fixed-system costs...
Cranbrook was left without heating and hot water on Sunday morning.
The new town in East Devon has its heating and hot water supplied by the UK’s first community-wide energy scheme based on emissions-free renewable energy sources. The project, to be funded by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, is based at E.ON’s energy centre in Cranbrook to the east of Exeter. The district heating network supplies the whole of the town and residents are required to sign up to the scheme.
But residents in the town reported that on Sunday morning they were left without heating or hot water and that it is not the first time that it has happened.
Aerial shot of Cranbrook
Sarah Jenkins, Acting Town Clerk for Cranbrook Town Council, said: “The Town Council is aware that there was an outage on Sunday morning and I understand that it lasted about one and a half hours. I do not know how many homes were affected. The Cranrbook Consortium was made aware immediately on Sunday morning and has followed up the matter with E.ON.”
Several residents contacted DevonLive.com to report they were facing problems.
E.ON have been contacted but have not responded to request for comment.
Energy giant E.ON is behind the development of a district network heating hub at Exeter’s Skypark that will service commercial buildings developed at the business zone, as well as homes and community buildings at the nearby Cranbrook village. Its combined heat and power engines, which will provide heat and hot water 24 hours a day, with surplus electricity generated fed back into the National Grid. Fuelled initially by natural gas, it will develop over time to run on waste wood biomass.
E.ON in Cranbrook
The community energy centre will be located on the £120 million Skypark development and will supply heat and hot water to both the community of Cranbrook and the Skypark business development. The low carbon heat source will change as the developments grow, with gas-fired boilers being supplemented by gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP), and later by biomass fuelled CHP.
Alongside the lower carbon heating solution, renewable microgeneration technologies can be added to the Cranbrook and Skypark properties to further meet low carbon targets in the future.
E.ON though has an 80-year contract to supply Cranbrook, and once people have bought into a development, residents are locked into a deal with E.ON and are not allowed to fit solar panels or heat source pumps and, whether or not they use their heating, remain liable for often large standing charges which include maintenance and repair of the infrastructure.