Nature Notes

The Plight of the Bumblebee

The short walk to the horses’ field has become even more of a pleasure of late. Next to the otherwise lifeless, factoryIMG_1475 floor of wheat, a wide nectar strip has been planted. Bird’s foot trefoil, purple vetch and the pink pea flowers of sainfoin ramble through tall grasses. A single, felted spike of great mullein rises above the glorious tangle and when a breeze stirs, there is a blizzard of groundsel seed so thick, it blurs the wood behind it. The honey scent of red and white clover drifts in through the open window at night. For a month now, it has been buzzing with bees and hoverflies, and singing with crickets and grasshoppers, alive with little chasing crowds of meadow brown butterflies, cinnabar and tiger moths and, this morning, a gatekeeper butterfly. Swallows and martins hunt the insects and goldfinches tease out the groundsel seeds before they parachute away.

Riding along the hedgerowed lanes lends height and we pass through several yellowhammer and whitethroat territories – each bird taking up its territorial song at the top of the hedge, level with my eye, as we leave another behind. My horse snatches at hogweed when I am distracted, splashing green foam from her bit onto the road. The white, flat plates of this umbellifer waggle and shake their platforms of hoverflies and coppery-orange soldier beetles, coupling, en flagrante, into the air. Amongst the grasses on the banks, are knapweeds, toadflax, blue scabious and strange, brown, dead-looking broomrapes. There are woolly thistles, appropriately, in the sheep field, where the fence has carded sheep wool into fleecy squares, a fuzzy grid for a viewfinder.

Other thistles are bursting into life, their fat, spiky-green globes spouting purple spray like pufferfish. Below all the flowers, and at regular intervals, badgers have pulled out bumblebee nests; earth, chalk and flints have spilled into the road like builders rubble, accompanied by a few forlorn bees.IMG_1607

Badgers have always predated bees, their thick silvery coats impervious to stings. They are fast becoming a scapegoat for the all-too-human destruction of bees: the loss of more than 97% of our wildflower meadows, changes in farming (hay meadows to silage) and the use of herbicides, pesticides and neonicotinoids on our crops. It is too easy to point the finger at an animal that already stands accused of several crimes; scientific study proves otherwise and the sudden proliferation of bees behind the house is evidence enough.

The surprise of a thundery downpour tamps down the dust and provides relief from the horse flies. The piece of elder in the mare’s bridle can only do so much. We trot through the woods. When we emerge onto the lane, each pothole has become a bathing pool for a dusty chaffinch.

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