Friday night without bees – unthinkable

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Friday night was approaching and I had a choice. Quality pub time with the girls (not something I have the chance to do very often) or sit in a cold meeting room watching a B-movie on a projector.

I chose the film. The B-movie was in fact the bee movie ‘More than Honey’ and was shown by my local Friends of the Earth group who are campaigning to save bees.

A smattering of green types, wildlife enthusiasts and honey bee keepers turned up. The stand-out statistic from the film highlighted why we all should have been there: If bees die out, humans would follow four years later. This is because at least 75% of our food is pollinated by bees. From almonds and apples to broccoli and blueberries, bees do the hard work in our food chain.

At the beginning of the month, an EU regulation came into force banning the use of neonicotinoids for two years. These are pesticides that are already on the seeds, so the crops don’t require spray treatment throughout their life.  Neonics are powerful neurotoxins, which kill insects and, even at very low dosages, can impair their behaviour. Great when you want to eliminate crop pests, not so great when it harms our useful pollinators.

You would have thought bee lovers would be celebrating the ban, but no, it has met a mixed reception. The British Bee Keeping Association is concerned that it is premature and states that there is currently no real evidence that neonics damage bees in the wild. Environmental groups such as the Friends of the Earth, by contrast, are relieved that a temporary prohibition will offer some breathing space from this chemical exposure.

Neither side wants a return to outdated pesticides which may do more harm than the ban will prevent. Proper advice will be needed for farmers and growers so that wildlife friendly measures can be taken.

As ever, one tweak will not solve the crisis. The film highlighted the many challenges facing bees, including disease and habitat loss. Pesticides do of course need monitoring and controlling where appropriate, but if there is not enough availability or variety of nectar and pollen sources for bees then they are doomed anyway.

As Friday nights out on the town go, this one was more sobering than most. It’s easy to feel cut off from decisions that affect us and the next generation. After all, cold meeting halls do not have a big pull. I urge you though, to take a couple of small steps for bees this Christmas. Firstly, visit the Friends of the Earth website and register for your bee saver kit and also sign their petition to lobby government for a Bee Action Plan.

Next, forget those poncy poinsettia plants as last minute gifts this year. Everyone needs a gorgeous Christmas Box bush whose delicate white flowers will provide early nectar for bees.

It’s Friday again. Now where is my Shiraz? P.S thanks bees for pollinating the grape vines, I can’t imagine Friday nights without you.

First published in the EDP and EADT on Friday 13th December 2013

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Beneath those waves

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Forget this winter’s day for a moment and cast your mind back to summertime. You are at the beach, immersed in a world of ice-creams, children splashing in the sea, sandy sun cream and the smell of fish and chips.

Now wrench yourself back to chilly today and our coastline right now. The sea is crashing on the shore, the wind whirls and an oystercatcher calls out in its shrill voice.  Aside from the soggy Labradors accompanied by Barbour and welly clad walkers, the landscape at first glance seems deserted. 

Our coastline has two faces. The one we see most of is the kiss-me-quick, sand between your toes summer fun land. However, the moody, brooding, elemental winter personality can be even more compelling.

 It is at this time of year that our coast really returns to nature. At the moment, seals are pupping on the Norfolk coast and birds such as the pink-footed geese have arrived in their thousands from the arctic. Under the sea, the fish, lobsters, seahorses and whales are quietly minding their own business.

Many of these creatures are under threat. This is because we treat the sea as both our dump site and our eat all you can buffet. We plunder its resources with damaging practices such as dredging for aggregate.

Four years ago, a process began to give more protection to these hidden and vital habitats. This led to the announcement last week of 27 new marine conservation zones in English seas. Disappointingly, this number falls far short of the total recommended in the Government’s own report back in 2009 and means that only a patchwork of areas have a chance to recover.

Our region didn’t fare too well in this first round of protection. Blackwater, Crouch, Roach and Colne Estuaries, on the Essex coast, were the lucky ones with new designation to look after the native oysters there.

There was bad news though for the Stour and Orwell estuaries, which were dropped off the list. This is despite the fact that they contain several very important marine species including honeycomb worms, blue mussel beds and native oysters.

Still on hold is Blakeney Marshes on the North Norfolk coast. The fabulous saltmarsh and mudflats here are very important for birds such as Sandwich terns, ringed plovers and oystercatchers.

Similarly waiting is the Cromer chalk reef, which is most likely the largest chalk reef in Europe. It is home to blue mussel beds, over 30 species of sea slug, harbour porpoises and seals.

The next round of zones will be consulted on in 2015. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly and in the meantime, our natural marine resources, as well as the livelihoods that depend up them, are at risk.

Next time you get a chance to look out to sea, don’t just decide your New Year’s resolutions or fantasise about your pub lunch. Instead, plan a letter to your MP asking what they are doing to ensure our seas are protected. Unless we get this right, a slow, silent tragedy could be unfolding beneath those waves.

First published in the EDP and EADT