Monthly Archives: January 2016

Silent Spring 2

I have just finished reading Dave Goulson’s – A Buzz in the Meadow. Goulson is Professor of Biology (Evolution, Behaviour and Environment) at the University of Sussex in the UK. He has completed many years of bee research and is a strong advocate of bumblebee conservation and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in the UK. This is Goulson’s second book, the first was A Sting in the Tail.

In a Buzz in the Meadow Goulson tells us about the fascinating life of insects. He takes as his starting point Chez Nauche, a farm in the heart of rural France, that he bought in 2003. Goulson has been managing the farm in such as way  as to encourage wildlife, with of course an emphasis on insects.

Goulson’s style is entertaining and informative. However, by the time he gets to Part III of his book the reading gets depressing. Goulson tells us about some of the experiments he and his colleagues carried out on bumblebees and the effect of chemicals known as neonicotinoids (neonics for short). Goulson refers to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and wonders if neonics are todays DDT.

Neonics are the worlds most widely used insecticide. Crop seeds are coated in the neonics and the germinating plant absorbs the chemicals, which then spread throughout the plant. Any insects eating any part of the plant dies. Neonics affect the nervous system and brain. It was Goulson and other researchers from France that proved that the neonics were affecting the bees ability to find their hives (the toxins appear to mess up their navigational system) and hence implicated neonics in Bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Goulson outlines how little we know about these chemical and how they affect insects and other animals. The fact that the chemical will last for up to four decades in the soil is worrying enough, and should ring alarm bells. In addition, by volume neonics are 10,000 times more powerful as DDT.

There was a great article in the UK’s  Guardian Newspaper which goes into more details than I will here and I encourage everyone to read it.

Currently in the EU there is a two year ban on the use of certain neonics, it is essential that this is widened. In the USA, the EPA Administrator has just opened a public consultation period on the use of neonics. I encourage everyone (whether US citizen or not) to have their say. You can do so at this AVAAZ link.  Global neonic sales, according to Goulson, are thought to be worth $3.5 billion, so it is going to take a lot of people power to get them banned.

And a word of warning. Neonics are present in over- the-counter products you can buy from your garden centre. In my opinion, insecticides have no place in a garden. The garden chemicals won’t be labeled as containing neonics so surely it is better to avoid them altogether!



A Buzz in the Meadow is essential reading for everyone.


Woken too early

This poor little battered peacock butterfly had been hibernating in our wood pile. And it was accidentally brought into the house. Of course the warm house fooled it into thinking it was spring time (though the way the birds are starting to sing at the moment I think it is getting closer!).

Anyway my husband managed to get the butterfly into this bucket of bird peanuts and brought it outside to the colder workshop. It was given a sugar-water solution to drink. We’re hoping it’ll have enough energy now to settle back into a sleep till it is warm enough OUTSIDE  to let it free. Of course there will have to be some flowers out there for it to feed on. In previous years I have seen early emerging butterflies and bees feeding on hellebores, fruit blossom and crocuses and wild flowers such as dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara).

If you are at the stage of planning your garden for the year do remember our pollinators. The bumblebee trust have a great garden page including a page on scoring your garden –  “How bee kind is your garden“.

Peacock butterfly

Peacock butterfly

Irish Wildlife Under Threat Again!

Once again Irish wildlife finds itself under threat. If we weren’t causing enough harm to our local biodiversity the Minister for the for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys, has proposed changes to the Wildlife Act that will allow for the burning of vegetation in March and the cutting of hedgerows in August. This will have a serious impact on many of our wild species but in particular wild birds and pollinators. Please sign this petition supported by the Irish Wildlife Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, An Taisce and Hedge Laying Association of Ireland to try and stop this.

Last January people were ask to make submissions on the proposals. Here is an extract from my submission:

I have been involved in a number of country hedgerow surveys and so feel I have a good knowledge of their ecology. Changing cutting to the end of July would have serious impacts on the biodiversity of our hedgerows. We all know hedgerows are important to nesting birds but they are also vital for other wildlife including insects and in particular pollinators. Hundreds of insect species have been recorded using hedgerows (see references below – Corbett & Mole, 2005, Lewis, 1969 and Maudsley, 2000). Many butterfly species will use native hedgerows not only for finding food but also roosting, basking, mating and egg laying (Dover & Sparks, 2000). I have observed pollinators use both shrubs and climbers in hedgerows and the ground flora of hedgerows to gain vital pollen and nectar. We know that many species of pollinator are struggling with some species in decline. While on one hand there are initiatives such as the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan – ( to help protect these species, on the other hand consideration is being given to removing a vital form of food for them. Cutting hedgerows at the end of July removes many flowering plants from hedgerows, including brambles and ground flora. The removal of flowering bramble also reduces crops of blackberries which are an important food source for many of our wild birds and wild mammals. Cutting ground flora before they have time to self-seed is also likely to lead to decreases in flora diversity.

Burning heather at the time it is in full flower (July -September) would have a detrimental effect on many of our native pollinators. Honey bees are suffering declines worldwide due to numerous factors. According to the Irish bee keeping website ( Irish beekeepers get surplus crops of honey from a small number of plants, which include Ling and Bell heather. The website also states that severe cutting of hawthorn and blackberry in hedgerows will reduce flowering, thereby it is also detrimental to honey production. Bramble is second only to white clover as a valuable nectar producing plant, and in cooler summers it is the main source of the surplus Irish honey crop in most areas.

There is no doubt that hedgerows and upland vegetation must be managed appropriately, but an earlier cutting season is not appropriate. The loss of habitats and the general decline of wild flora in Ireland have both being linked to the decline in pollinators ( and are likely to be factors in the decline of other species too.

It is vitally important that we protect our native biodiversity. In fact, under the “Actions for Biodiversity 2011-2016 (Ireland’s National Biodiversity Plan)” the State has signed up to do so. There are also financial reasons for us to protect habitats that provide food and homes to much of our native wildlife including pollinators. According to EU-funded research, pollination services provided by insects, mainly bees, are worth €153 billion a year, ( There is so much more we need to be doing to protect our native wildlife. Please don’t take a backward step and put into force something which will be detrimental to our native biodiversity. In my opinion the closed period for cutting hedgerows should not be changed. My knowledge of burning vegetation is less extensive but again consideration must be given to allowing vegetation to flower before burning.

The majority of submissions were against changes to the act so why are changes being made? Who is lobbying for these changes? There is a general election just around the corner here in Ireland. Am I being cynical in thinking that the changes are being proposed to get votes?



Tree planting and management

Over the weekend we helped my parents plant some deciduous trees in one of the fields adjacent to the existing conifer plantation that is being felled. This deciduous wood will add to trees planted in 2008 and 2010. Both these plantation contain mainly ash trees, though there are a small number of oak, cherry, rowan, birch and chestnut.

Recently a new fungal disease affecting ash and has been spreading rapidly though Europe.  Ash dieback disease (Chalara fraxinea) was first recorded in Ireland in 2012. So far our local trees appear to be okay but once again the drawback in planting monocultures of trees becomes obvious.

Over the winter we have been managing the trees closet the house. This involve cutting out lower branches and where possible having just one leader stem.

With the threat of ash dieback the Forestry Service are grant aiding more oak woodlands and that is what we planted over the weekend. The majority of the trees planted were pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), but also sessile oak (Quercus petraea), rowan, birch and Scots pine.

"Mole hills"

“Mole hills”

A digger effectively creates “mole hills” of soil which are then planted with tree whips. The rain sodden soil meant it was pretty grubby work, though my eldest didn’t seem to mind.

It will be interesting to see how the oak fair. Some of the ash trees planted in 2010 have done well though many of those planted in 2008 are still smaller than the later planted trees.

Lupin surprise

The last couple of days have actually been dry though still excessively dull, with just a few short glimpses of the sun. Still time to get into the garden and do some clearing, well the polytunnel, greenhouse and bee flower garden at least. The vegetable plot is too soggy to even attempt any kind of work.

Still it felt great to clear out the polytunnel. I cut back the broccoli plants but left what I could as they are still producing some small spears. I dug around where last summer I had planted a sweet potato plant that was supposed to be suited to our climate. I found one thumb sized tuber! So not great success there but the cool summer we experienced was probably a large factor. I’ve potted the tuber up in a pot to see what happens.

In the flower garden, I was cutting back the lupins. There is already new growth and I do worry that we’ll get a few nights of sharp frost and they will suffer. But this is what else I found:

It’s so mild the lupin seeds have actually started to germinate while still in their pods! I took the best of them and potted them up. I don’t know if they will grow – but it’s free plants if they do so who’s complaining. Lupins are also great bee plants and I want to get more bee and butterfly friendly plants into the garden as I can. What’s more if I have too many plants I can always give them away and that is more bee-friendly plants in other peoples gardens too!

Hopefully I will be seeing more of this in the summer of 2016!