Ahead of the Abergavenny Food Festival, where she is speaking at the Triodos-sponsored Farmyard Stage, we had the chance to catch up with Brigit to find out more about her passion for pollinators and her new book, Dancing with Bees.
How did you first become inspired by sustainability, and bees specifically?
If I go back about 15 years, when my children were in their mid-teens and I was spending less time mothering, I suddenly became aware of all manner of environmental issues and what was going on in the wider world.
At that time, I moved down to Cornwall with my then-husband and bought a smallholding that we renovated specifically to make more sustainable. The aim was to show other people how easy it could be. We were followed by a BBC crew filming It's Not Easy Being Green and I immersed myself in the world of sustainability – in a way that you wouldn’t usually, to such a degree.
I then became aware of colony collapse disorder, which was a phenomenon happening in the United States. Vast amounts of honeybees were leaving their hives and not coming back, and the headlines in the newspapers were quite apocalyptic.
So, for me, it developed to be all about bees. I became aware of the enormous amount of different species of bee and other pollinators, and I started watching them in my garden. I just fell back in love with the wildlife around me that I’d been blind to for so many years.
What motivated you to write Dancing with Bees?
I started writing the book nearly eight years ago. I was living in the Malvern Hills and I used to walk to work in an organic café in Great Malvern. The book opens with a eureka moment: “I was quite shocked the day I realised I knew more about the French Revolution than I did about our native trees.” That was an actual moment – I literally stopped in my tracks and was stunned.
But it was a gift really, as I was given an opportunity to reconnect and look again at the world around me with different eyes. And that hasn’t left me since – I’m a nightmare now to go for a walk with because I cannot walk past anything that moves, or anything that captures my eye, without stopping to examine it and wonder about it.
Throughout the book, I try to weave the story of my journey back to nature in with the information I’ve gained and acquired during the last 10 years. The book is packed with information about bees and their behaviours – but it’s not an identification or reference book – it’s full of stories of the bees that I have met and fallen in love with. And, although it started off as a book about bee decline, all manner of other creatures are included too.
So, it’s a nature memoir – but I have tackled all the causes and reasons for bee decline throughout the book. I talk about climate change because I find a hairy-footed flower bee foraging on snowdrops, which isn’t a bee you normally see in February. I talk about pesticides and neonicotinoids, habitat loss and invasive species – but all introduced within the context of stories of bees I’ve come across.
Why are bees so important?
Bees are important for human crop pollination. They’re not the only pollinators, but bees are the only insects that go out deliberately to collect pollen to feed larvae. Most bees are hairy, so they can take pollen from one plant to another more easily that an insect that doesn’t have any hairs. They’re not just important for crops, bees are responsible – to some degree or another – for pollinating about 80% of the flowering plants on the planet. Without them, and other pollinators, many ecosystems would collapse.
There are three different types of bees – bumblebees, honeybees and solitary bees – and they are all important in different ways as pollinators.
Honeybees can be managed – they can be taken to the crops in their millions, making them incredibly important as crop pollinators. Bumblebees are able to pollinate crops that other bees can’t – because of the length of their tongues, the size of their bodies, or a special technique called buzz pollination.
And then solitary bees – to give you an example of how important just one of our 20,000 solitary bee species on the planet is – the red mason bee is vital for apple pollination. It’s very messy in the way that it collects its pollen – it gathers it all over tiny branched hairs, underneath its abdomen. This means that one red mason bee can do the same amount of work in one apple orchard as a hundred honeybees.
This is the message that I try to get out there. All of these species are vital in their own rights and for different reasons – there is no one species of bee that we need to save above others.
What can we all be doing to help protect bees, and other pollinators as well?
There’s a lot we can do. As individuals, and as landowners and farmers, we can reduce or completely stop our use of pesticides – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides. The toxic chemical cocktail affects bees in ways that we don’t even know yet.
What’s become even more important these days is to plant to give us flowers not just between March and October – which used to be the flying season for bees – but from January through to December. Bees flying because of unseasonably warm weather can’t find enough forage, so planting for winter is one way we can help mitigate against the effects that climate change is having.
We also need to plant a huge variety of flowering plants – it’s not a case of one plant fits all. We need different shapes of flowers in the garden, because each one will appeal to a different type of pollinator. And for our native solitary bees in particular, wildflowers are important – we need to get out of this habit of thinking of them as weeds and think in terms of forage.
Also, plant in great big clumps if you can, because that means that when bees go out foraging there are lots of the same flowers in one place. It takes less energy for the bees to fly from one to another.
Finally, recent research suggests that there are some plants that produce a higher quality nectar and pollen than other plants. If you want to have an even greater effect, you can research which plants have the highest sugar or protein content. For example, wild marjoram has pretty much the highest sugar content in its nectar of any plant – so consider the nutritional quality of the flowers.
About Brigit Strawbridge Howard
Brigit Strawbridge Howard is a bee advocate, wildlife gardener and naturalist. Brigit writes, speaks and campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of native wild bees and other pollinating insects. You can follow Brigit on Twitter.
Brigit will be speaking about her book at Abergavenny Food Festival on Saturday 21 September - her talk is at 2.40pm on the Farmyard Stage.
Dancing with Bees: A Journey Back to Nature (Chelsea Green Publishing) is out now from all good bookshops.