mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Creating a buzz

I was having a little snooze on the trampoline (as you do – well, as I do sometimes) when I became aware of a buzzing in my ears.

Last year, regular blog readers may recall, we planted half our field with seed designed to attract birds and insects. For a good long while it appeared that all we had managed to achieve was to feed the wood pigeons. But slowly it became clear that the half of the field we had seeded looked very different from the half we had not, and so we concluded that the pigeons had left us something to be going on with.

This all died back in winter, but this spring the planted half has exploded with colour, which positively hums with the sound of insects going about their business. The cats, who have taken full advantage of the cover the foliage provides to stock up on small, hapless mammals, return every evening covered in a fine coating of pollen grains. And I and the dog have been sneezing a great deal.

But it is a small price to pay for all this glorious abundance, which looks beautiful, smells wonderful and is clearly offering a feast to an array of insect life. These in turn are attracting house martins, who swoop and gorge in an amazing aerobatic display every evening, watched silently and malevolently by two pairs of green eyes.

Amid all this bounty, however, I can't help feeling concerned about the lack of honey bees. There are lots of bumble bees, a variety of really weird-looking wasp things, and we can't move for horse flies – literally sometimes, they bite, you know.

Our seed mix is aimed at farmers to plant on the edges of fields and is specifically developed to attract honey bees. It contains, incidentally, an assortment of seeds with fabulous names from a different age – creeping red fescue, cocksfoot, early English winter vetch, and my favourite, black medick – surely something they used to pound up and mix with cow dung and goats' urine to make a cure for baldness or dropsy.

I would therefore have expected our field to be teeming with bees, especially given that there are hives in the village, but there are surprisingly few.

Before we bought our field we spent years working out a system that would provide an income sufficient to keep a family of five, and assorted animal hangers on, but would also give back to the land more than it took as well as creating its own eco system and provide a wider benefit for local flora and fauna. One of the first headings we wrote on our grand scheme was 'Bees' - after which we pondered how we could attract and incorporate them into our system.

Perhaps the sad fact is that there are just not so many to attract. Bee numbers in the UK have declined by 50% in the last 25 years. The cause is open to debate but fingers tend to point at a combination of pesticides, parasites – such as the varroa mite, and destruction of the flower-rich habitats on which bees feed.

Recently new research, published in Science, found a close correlation between pesticides containing neonicotinoids and the ability of bees to navigate back to their colony and produce new queens. Neonicotinoids are widely used in agriculture in this country as an insecticide and are chemically related to nicotine, which I used to pay good money to inhale.

Pesticide manufacturers deny they cause any lasting damage to bees, but as Mandy Rice-Davies put it – 'they would, wouldn't they?'. The UK government also stands by neonicotinoids, and appears unmoved by the latest research. A number of European countries, however, including France and Germany have stopped using certain insecticides on the evidence so far.

Bees pollinate a third of the food we eat, so if they are in trouble it matters in a huge sort of way. Apart from anything else, I don't want my black medick to be wasted on horse flies.

Anyone need a cure for baldness?

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