The gentle hum of a lawnmower, one of the reassuring sounds of spring and summer, should be heard less often if Britain’s bee population is to be protected, the environment secretary will say on Tuesday.
Gardeners should give up their lawnmowers and let their grass go rogue to protect daisies and lavender, which provide vital pollen for bees and other pollinators, Liz Truss will suggest. Calling for people to do more to help pollinators in their gardens and local parks, Truss will say, echoing the folksong An English Country Garden: “Oxeye daisies, lavender, primroses, cyclamen – they are just a few of the common flowers that are bee-friendly.
“I have to confess that not mowing your lawn so often is one piece of advice that I have no problem following.”
The environment secretary is acting after a series of warnings that bee populations are falling dramatically across the world.
She will announce a new 10-year bee and pollinator strategy to try and reverse the trend. “There are at least 1,500 species of these insects: honeybees and wild bumblebees – but let’s not forget the moths, butterflies, wasps, beetles and hoverflies; all of them contribute,” Truss will say. “They are indispensable to our food production. Without those insects, not only would our parks, gardens and countryside be much more drab places, our food could well become less varied and some of it more expensive.”
Truss feels they need to be protected in the same way as Premier League footballers: “Their work is valued at around £430m – four times the salaries of the top 10 players in the Premier League. Like the football players, they require excellent accommodation, training and the best diet and nutrition to make them world-beating. That’s why I am ensuring across all land uses there are strong incentives to provide pollinators with habitat, forage and space.”
As part of the strategy, Truss will champion a plan to revive traditional meadows which provide the most fertile habitat for pollinators. ”
A new £900m Countryside Stewardship scheme will provide payments to farmers to maintain hedgerows and other “wildlife-friendly ground round the edges of arable fields”. The government is to support a series of projects, including the Prince of Wales’s Coronation Meadows project to restore 97% of meadows lost since the 1930s. The government is to make a contribution by installing its own beehives on the rooftop of the environment department’s headquarters in central London.
Truss will say: “From what we know so far, the number of wild bee and other pollinator species has fallen as their flower-rich habitat has been built over or used for intensive farming … As well as giving us much better evidence about bees and pollinators; the strategy will ensure much wider action to help boost their population and it will bring huge benefits to wildlife and the countryside – and to our food producers.”
Andrew Pendleton, head of campaigning at Friends of the Earth, said: “This action plan is an important step towards safeguarding Britain’s bees and other pollinators. But unless it properly tackles the impact of pesticides and helps all farmers to develop bee-friendly practices, its effectiveness will be significantly undermined.
Tens of thousands of people have backed Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause campaign for a national action plan. They will expect a robust strategy capable of saving our bees. Bees are crucial pollinators for our farms, gardens and countryside – failure to protect them from every threat they face will have a costly impact on us all.”
Critics are likely to point out that Owen Paterson, Truss’s predecessor, blocked an EU directive that would have suspended three pesticides that are believed to have harmed bees.
Doing your bit to help the pollinators
The government’s pollinator strategy aims to encourage everyone to do their bit to help bees and other pollinators.
Urging us to cut the grass less will allow clovers and dandelions (both excellent bee food) to flourish, and leaving piles of leaves and logs could provide nesting sites for hibernating insects.
The advice won’t prove popular with pristine gardeners, or council maintenance contractors paid per lawn mowed, but it would increase urgently needed forage and habitat in our towns and cities, as will creating wildflower meadows on public land.
Yet creating pollinator-friendly cities full of year-round nectar and pollen-rich flowers and shrubs in all available green space from roofs to window boxes and road verges, means a shift in our thinking about what flowers are: beautiful, fragrant objects for our pleasure to vital food for pollinators, or “tarts and prostitutes to bees” to quote Uncle Monty in the film, Withnail and I.
But encouraging people to help replace the 97% of wild-flower rich grasslands lost in the UK since the second world war will never be enough. In the countryside, paying farmers attractive subsidies to maintain hedgerows and strips of wildlife-friendly ground around arable fields and banning the use of pollinator-harming pesticides is the only way forward.
In urban areas, more bee-friendly trees, such as hazels and pussy willows, whose catkins provide early pollen, should be planted in our streets, parks and on the roofs of many new developments, as a condition of planning, to create pollinator-friendly corridors.
If Defra was really serious about saving pollinators it would be greening its Smith Square roof to provide abundant forage for all pollinators, rather than sticking honeybees hives on it.
Alison Benjamin, co-author of A World without Bees
• This article was amended on Tuesday 4 November 2014 to include Alison Benjamin’s piece.
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