Monday August 03 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Making a bee-line

Posted on April 21 2012 at 2:02:00 0 comments

Hawthorn bee-line

Mary Green explains the importance of hedges for our insects.

What a strange spring! In the hot sunshine I found bluebells flowering a week before the end of March. Then in April we went back to winter, and I was snowed up in a power-cut in Yorkshire over Easter! So, when you go to look for bluebell woods at the start of May, you may or may not be too late.

I’m leading the Alvechurch Village Society walk – a wildlife walk – on Sunday May 13 around Beacon Wood. I was intending to see bluebells…If they’re still around when you get this, don’t forget the pretty little Broadmoor Wood near Waseley which I wrote about last November. And if you are a new resident, you can get copies of my walks for the last couple of years by emailing The Village.

It’s well-known that we have a shortage of bees, and that it matters. However, it’s not so well known that we have a shortage of all pollinating insects, and that we can all contribute to slowing the decline. The problem with honey-bees is actually a separate issue: no-one is quite sure what causes colony collapse, possibly pesticides used on crops, and it is a serious problem.

However, even without honey bees, there are lots of other bees, hover-flies, other flies and insects – hundreds of different kinds – that seek nectar from flowers and transfer pollen allowing the plant to fruit and set seed. Without them we would lose most of our fruit and vegetable production. I understand that there are places in China where the decline has been so bad that children are paid to pollinate the apple trees.

Scientists are agreed that habitat change is the main reason for our disappearing pollinating insects. There have been two recent television series – one by Sarah Raven about meadows and another grandly called How to Grow a Planet – about this.

Both stress the vital importance of flowering plants for the whole development of our planet and all its species, including us. So, flowers are not just something decorative and pretty: they are something powerful and essential.

Insects need flowers, and flowers need insects. Importantly, the insects also need continuous corridors of flowers, and of course flowers that come out throughout the spring, summer and autumn. One of our problems now is that patches of flowers (fruit crops, gardens, occasional old meadows) are isolated.

Scientists at Northampton University have found that bees usually follow a flowering hedge or bank to get from one to the other – they don’t actually make a “bee-line” by the most direct route. They prefer hedges with a variety of flowers.

All we have to do is make sure our countryside is full of linking flowering hedges and verges, and that our towns and villages have gardens linked with avenues of flowering trees, or have green spaces with flowers.

Unfortunately, we have been doing the opposite. Hedges were torn out from arable land during the 1970s and 80s. Even where they remain – as round here – they are often cut so starkly that they are useless. They struggle into leaf but rarely flower. They are a victim of our desire for tidiness. The same is true of roadside verges, often bearing only grass.

And our so-called green spaces in towns are often only green in colour: they are mowed so closely that they do not include flowers. Even planted gardens often have introduced flower species that have little nectar and are inaccessible to bees and flies.

What insects want is open flowers with plenty of nectar. Most of our native plants are ideal. Their prettiness is actually functional – they attract insects. If you look at a proper native hedge that has been allowed to grow and flower you will find a whole year’s supply.

First come the catkins – hazel, then alder, pussy willow and birch. Stand under a willow full of catkins and it will be humming. Then the cherry plum, flowed by blackthorn and bullace, then cherry, then hawthorn, rowan, holly and horse chestnut.

Next come wild rose, honeysuckle, guelder-rose, elder and dogwood. In late summer the brambles flower right into the autumn, when the ivy comes. Even the more insignificant tree-flowers like oak, sycamore and ash make their contribution.

Ancient hedges typically have a range of these species. If you know one like this, cherish it. This spring I walked round Rowney Green several times, and was impressed by the well-established hedges and trees in the lanes round there – plenty of bee lines. I also admired the hedges, copses and new planting in the fields between Cattespool and Wheeley’s Lane.

I have mentioned before that hedge-laying is the best way of maintaining a hedge. In this, the branches are cut almost through and bent horizontally or diagonally to provide a dense hedge, and new shoots come up all along it. It then only needs slight trimming to keep in shape.At one time most hedges that kept livestock in were trimmed this way, as they are very animal-proof.

I have been delighted to see some new ones round here. The latest is by Coopers Farm Shop, and is in beautiful leaf. There are other newish ones along the canal near Grange Lane, all around Cofton reservoir and church, and even on the road entering Redditch. It is a traditional country skill that people are learning again.

Where animals didn’t need protection, hedgerow trees were often left to grow quite tall, and you will see hedges like this round here. They can always be fenced behind if more protection is needed.

I was trying to work out why I feel happier walking along some roads that others. I love the walk along Sandhills Green from Coopers Hill to Barnt Green, despite the traffic being difficult and the motorway not far away.

I realised recently it’s because the road is lined with proper hedges, made of trees! Almost all the species of flowering trees I mentioned above are there, as well as some damsons.

Where there are insects, there will also be birds. They feed on the insects, and other species later feed on the fruits. What’s more, birds and mammals also follow hedgerows to get from place to place. Hedgehogs get their name for a reason.

And then, of course, you look at the verge or bank alongside the hedge. If it is a remnant of old woodland, it will have dog’s mercury flowers from February, along with snowdrops, celandines and coltsfoot. Then there may be daffodils (probably not native round here) and then primroses, wild strawberries, wood anemones, wild garlic and bluebells, herb Robert, wood avens, stitchwort, red campion, violets…all our hedgerow flowers.

Scarfield Hill has good early flowers on the road banks, despite over-trimmed hedges. The canalside also forms a lovely wildlife corridor, except where it is mown mid-season.

Later, when the trees have come fully into leaf, there will be fewer flowers under them, but then you can look at open grass verges and banks, meadows and field edges. I have seen some decline in flowers on verges round here over the years. Most verges still have cow parsley, which comes in April before they are mown.

Where mowing is kept to a minimum, you should find lady’s smock, bluebells, cowslips and primroses, occasionally even orchids. Then later come buttercups, campion and stitchwort, followed by moon-daisies, woundwort, poppies and mallow, to end in scabious, knapweed and trefoil in late summer. You will probably still see these on motorway verges, as they are generally left alone during the year.

Verges should be mown once at the end of the flowering season, and the cut grass removed – just like a hay meadow.

Most of the pasture round here is old grassland, not very intensively farmed, so it will have flowers, including the useful clover and the less useful buttercups (OK for bees but not for cattle). Some have quite a range of species: the field above the little aqueduct by Scarfield Dingle has cowslips, agrimony, knapweed, trefoil, buttercups, self-heal…almost meadow-like. Other fields have been “improved” and have little but grass.

The other rich source of pollen is the annual plants that grow around, and traditionally in, arable fields. This is where there has been a huge decline in recent decades. Modern farming practice has weed-killed most of them. These are the opportunistic flowers that like ploughed land: poppies, heartsease, camomile, cornflower, corn cockle, corn marigold, rocket, wild radish, bistort and hempnettle.

Some farmers are helping biodiversity by deliberately leaving field margins, and re-introducing these species and others to provide wildlife corridors. The poppy-filled Wildlife Trust fields near Bewdley are an excellent example.

What can we do in our gardens? If it’s big enough for a hedge, start there. Get rid of that leylandii and plant holly and hawthorn. Use some non-native shrubs for early nectar: winter honeysuckle, sweet box, cornelian cherry, viburnum. Plant a native cherry and a rowan. Then get rid of as much lawn as you can bear.

Let some grow into meadow-grass – children love this. Strip some and plant meadow flowers. There are two kinds, needing different treatment. Perennial meadows aim to mimic hay meadows, including grass.

Annual meadows are like arable plants, needing bare soil. They self-seed and come up again next year, but less predictably that perennial ones. In your flower beds, choose flowers as near as possible to native species, like foxgloves and bell-flowers.

Open old-fashioned varieties (single dahlias and hollyhocks for example) are much more pollen-rich and accessible for insects than highly-bred double or complex modern varieties (like pom-pom dahlias).

On Sarah Raven’s programme, she showed an interesting experiment in Birmingham. She planted a bed with nectar-rich flowers near a traditional bedding-plant bed (begonias, French marigolds, pelargoniums, silver foliage…) in a park. Visitors were asked to comment.

They all noticed the bees round her bed. Most of the women preferred her bed, but many of the men liked the more regimented, insect-free municipal bed. Perhaps men are used to being expected to mow and cut and make things tidy, rather than take an interest in growth.

Time for a change! I would like to give a prize for the best untidy but beautiful garden. Perhaps the people who organise the best-kept village, best-kept churchyard and Britain in Bloom contests are the ones who need persuading.

There is also a school of thought that says that road hedges have to be cut back severely for “safety” and visibility. This has been proved to be a myth. In fact, where hedges grow out naturally, people perceive it as a country lane and drive more slowly.

This is not a plea for things to be “left wild”. No-one really knows what that means anyway, in our human-influenced landscape. Most flowering plants benefit from a light pruning (trees) or annual mowing (verges and meadow species) in autumn or winter. But it is something we can all be part of, even to a window-box full of flowering herbs.

I seem to have seen an awful lot of trees cut down recently. I know sometimes this is inevitable as they are diseased. Several trees in the lovely horse-chestnut avenue in The Meadows in Alvechurch have fallen prey to honey fungus and have been removed. I hope we have caught it before it spreads to them all.

New native trees will be planted instead, as part of the Jubilee celebrations. In other places the reasons do not seem so clear, and I can only hope people are planting replacements whenever they cut something down.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago, when the Withybed Poets’ theme was “darkness and light”.

Lady Icarus

I am a woman of the light
Believer in original virtue
The yellow hair is no accident
It absorbs the sun.
I have to be optimistic
Winter holds the stirring seeds of spring
Summer the ripening fruits of harvest
Birds’ song brings me joy, though my brain
Knows they are territorials.

People who are born from dark
Find me irritating, trivial.
In the long dark mornings
I don’t sink deep into my soul
Instead I look out of the window
Watch out for the moon’s end and the sunrise.
I am stark raving sane
Living lightly on the earth
Leaving only a snail’s trace.

I think life pushes us to good
Though light is a tightrope
And the dark is always there.
Where there is death I light a candle
Where grief I sing a gentle song.
I do not understand war
Though I would struggle for life.
Touching the body’s intricate miracle
I could not cut and smash and blow apart.

Sometimes I would like to join them,
The dark ones, the fiery fighters
Pulling you under with their passions
Drowning in love and hate and possession.
But, older now, I even more
Know to be true to the light
Seeing it a gift, even though my wings
Are gossamer, my path erratic
Flying always towards the sun.

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