RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Bees may be at risk from wild flower field margins

It has been wonderful to see, in recent years, the wild flower margins around fields of agricultural crops.

In these narrow belts I have seen masses of summer flowers, from rough hawkbits, wild poppies and ox-eye daisies to hundreds of tall yellow mulleins and bristly ox-tongues. I have watched dozens of species of wild bees including the honey bee and bumble bees eagerly plunging their tongues into feasts of nectar and taking the pollen to feed their young.

It all looks so reassuring does it not, knowing how vital the bee family is for our ability to grow crops in the fields and feed more and more millions of hungry mouths. But recent research at Sussex University, supported by the Soil Association, suggests that bees are at great risk from these wild flower field margins. Neonicotinoid pesticides are contaminating the wild flowers.

A food crop adjacent to the wild flowers could be sprayed a dozen times in a season. Although oilseed rape may be exempt from sprays because of the role bees play in pollination, 25 per cent of cereals are sprayed. Bees may therefore be exposed to a deadly cocktail of poisons and the research team suggest that this could be 1,000 times more potent when gathered from these wildflower headlands.

Some pollen carried by bees and bumble bees has been found to contain up to ten different pesticides. EU law requires a reduction in pesticide use on farmland. So far, the government’s only strategy to combat the decline in bees is to pay farmers to create the flower margins, which appears to be self-defeating.

Meanwhile, urban gardens have been found to be much safer places for bees, so they are helping to save these crucial pollinators. One vital need for bees is flower meadows, and many a close-cut lawn could be left uncut or partially so to give the bees a chance of survival. Vast acres of featureless lawns around our homes are a total waste of a rich wildlife resource and serve only to satisfy our craving for order and need to appear to be in charge of unruly nature.

The taming nature syndrome should have gone out with the Victorian argument as to whether we have descended from apes or angels. Many National Trust and private stately homes have now gone over to a hay meadow management instead of continuous mowing.

West Dean Estate grounds have wild flower meadows around the house, growing rare fritillaries and cowslips among others. Bowood House in Wiltshire has acres of wild orchids in the grounds. Forde Abbey in Somerset has long grass with masses of butterflies and wild flowers. Bosham Hoe is nationally famous for its hay meadow where adder’s tongue fern and 30,000 green winged orchids grow.

East Dean churchyard has a wild flower and bee sanctuary which is a delight. We desperately need more. Even my old curmudgeon brother in Essex at Great Tey has stopped religiously mowing his acre of grass every two minutes giving the bees their chance to pollinate local farmers’ fields. You could too, with your patch of possible bee paradise.

Let the dandelion drink the fire of the sun; it is your friend not your foe.