Organic Farming and Bee Friendly Pest Control
How organic farming helps bees
Bees have been declining at an alarming rate in recent years. The reasons for the decline in bee numbers are complex, and not yet fully understood. One major problem the issue of intensive agricultural practices in general. For example, monoculture (where the same crop is grown year after year) and the use of a range of pesticides, including herbicides which kill off plants which bees forage on, can have negative impacts on bee populations.
In contrast, organic farming is based on a system which works with nature, rather than against it. Organic farmers aim to produce good food from a balanced living soil. For example, organic farmers use clover to harness the sun’s solar power to transform nitrogen in the air into soil nutrients, and they place strong emphasis on protecting the environment. Genetically modified crops are banned, and pesticides are avoided.
Biodiversity, in terms of a wide range of plants, insects and animals, is key to organic farming. Each plant or animal has a specific role in the life of the farm, and this is especially true of the bee. Bees play a crucial role in pollination, so that we can grow fruits and vegetables, one in every three mouthfuls of our food is thanks to bee-pollination. Without the bees we would not be able to support the wide range of crops and plants on the farm – the two go hand in hand.
Intensive agricultural techniques are causing such concern that new research is being carried out at the laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex. Professor Francis Ratnieks, who heads the laboratory stated: "The use of herbicides and intensive forms of agriculture means that fields of wheat and barley now have few weeds. Fields of grass now have few wild flowers, clover is less used and much of the heather moors have been ploughed up." As a result of this concern, one of the laboratory’s research areas will be to investigate how changes in land use can affect bees.
A home fit for a bee
Getting the habitat right for the bee is a pretty exacting task; a bee's habitat must consist of both flowering plants and suitable nesting sites, all within flight range of each other (with nothing harmful en route). In addition, not all bees like the same plants, so the suitability of the plant species must be compatible with the species of bee. With over 250 species of native bee in Britain it’s no wonder that the majority of these are threatened with extinction due to loss of habitat. Some, especially the so-called solitary bees, will visit only one particular type of flower – so as the bees get scarcer, so do their favoured flower. The other factor is the flowering season of the plant must match the foraging, (or feeding), season of the bee. So within flight foraging distance of the bee, (typically a few miles), there must be a range of its preferred flowers, within bloom at varying times from Spring until Autumn.
Not all bees live in hives, there are the ‘solitary bees’, such as the Leafcutter and the Red Mason Bee, that live in tunnels in the ground, or in hollow reeds or twigs, or they make nests in holes in wood. These bees are very important because they are ‘oligoleges’- which means that they only gather pollen from a very few species of plants, indeed our most precious and rare wild flowers. Homes for ‘solitary bees’ are thus provided in wooded areas, or log piles, and in purposefully ‘neglected’ corners of the farm.
The focus on natural ecosystems and native species, as well as the lack of pesticides used in organic farming, make it a haven for the bee. Organic farms also provide the wild spaces at field margins and in hedgerows, providing a diversity of flowers and habitats for bees to nest and shelter. Thus, by supporting their place in the delicate natural balance of plants and insects that are all mutually dependent on one another, Organic farming is both supporting biodiversity and the bee.
In particular, red and white clover are mainstays of organic farming systems. Red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) is used extensively as part of the rotational farming systems that maintain soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilisers. In addition it is one of the bumble bees favourite foods. Its traditional name ‘Bee Bread’ says it all. White clover (Trifolium repens) is also found in abundance on organic farms. Honeybees are particularly drawn to this plant, as White clover is better suited to their shorter tongues.
How you can help bees by using bee friendly pest control in your own garden
The European Commission completely suspended the use of three neonicotinoids – imidiacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin – that have been found to damage bees. Thes have also been found to be a key factor in the recent reduction in numbers of farmland birds.
Found in an assessment in June that warned that pervasive pollution by these nerve agents was now threatening all food production.A two-year EU suspension on three of the poisons began at the end of 2013.
Encouraging as this is, there are another two types of neonicotinoid – acetamiprid and thiacloprid – found in common gardening products, which are aimed at controlling five pests of the garden: aphid, whitefly, vine weevil, thrips and butterflies. And these chemicals also seem to pose a direct threat to bees.
Hopefully there will be more progress on getting all neonicotinoids banned, but in the meantime the obvious thing to do is for people to stop using them. This still leaves the problem for gardeners as to how to keep pests at bay. So, if you, or anyone you know, is currently using bug sprays with neonicotinoids in here are our top five tips for controlling pests while staying on the good side of our furry flying friends.
Don’t panic! Chances are, if you have a low level of pests in your garden it’s keeping the predators happy by providing them with a meal or two. Pests are essential to your garden in order to maintain the balance of keeping other animals alive - without them, those animals might not survive. Of course, there is a difference between seeing one cabbage white butterfly and losing your entire crop of kale. Each pest and crop will present you with a different situation and there may be a point where you need to take action to save your plants.
Swap the harmful chemicals for bee friendly biological replacements such as nematodes for vine weevil or BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) for cabbage whites. Biological replacements should be an effective way to keep these specific pests at bay.
If you feel that biological replacements aren’t doing the job, chemical options such as soft soap can be used. Unlike biological controls these are not targeted at a particular pest - but they can be good at quickly reducing an infestation. You can then go in with the biological replacement afterwards to keep the numbers down for the rest of the season.
Cultural changes such as netting and hoovering (using little hoovers that you might use to clean your car) could be the answer. These options are good because they have no impact on the plant at all, other than to reducing the number of pests nibbling away.
For the more hardcore gardeners out there, consider alternative systems that build a diverse and balanced ecosystem where pests are under control. Getting a wide range of habitats into your garden is the best way to encourage a wide range of predators. This also includes having access to fresh water and shelter. Some areas of permanent planting – whether trees or perennial plants, will help to contribute to your garden habitat. And last, but by no means least, don’t forget to plant some bee-friendly flowers to keep the pollinators happy!
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