The times are out of joint

What has happened to all the bees?

Their drowsy hum in the meadow grass used to be the stock summer accompaniment to the thwack of ball on willow and the drone of Dan Maskell reporting the early exit of yet another British tennis hopeful at Wimbledon.

I’ve seen fewer than a dozen bees out this year, and it’s already July. Several of those were dead, their little furry corpses lying curled and dried-out on the footpaths through the exurban space that passes for a park in our seaside town.

And I’m constantly being emailed to ask me to sign petitions calling on the government not to overturn the European ban on the family of pesticides known as neo-nicotinoids, in the face of angry buzzing from the agripoisons industry and the always despicably self-interested Farmers’ Union.

Neonics have been implicated in the collapse of commercial bee colonies and a worrying reduction in the wild population. Research suggests that complex chemical compounds accumulating in bees from a range of crop sprays are causing them to lose their famous sense of direction, which prevents them from foraging or flying back to the hive with food. Weakened, they fall prey to more lethal viruses borne by proliferating mites.

There’s clearly something more complicated going on than just pesticide poisoning, as the industry argues that their own research has shown no direct effect on bees from neonics in the doses prescribed. If anyone should want to save the bees, it would be the farmers whose crops they pollinate for free.

As it happens, I live in a small part of the world where there is no arable farming, or very little. It’s sheep country. And here on the edge of town people have gardens, and we’re a yard or two away from open countryside, hill pasture, much of which is being allowed to revert to scrub, and from the undeveloped valley floor with its dense copses and riverbanks and marshy heathland vivid with wildflowers.

There is no intensive farming here whatever, unless you count the open savannahs of the sports clubs, cricket and rugby grounds, where some preventative spraying does go on in early summer. An enlightened local authority, too, is responsibly maintaining meadow grassland along road verges and on traffic roundabouts, and planting trees.

You would imagine therefore that our local bee population would be virtually unaffected, certainly by the kind of intensive crop spraying that used to put our son in hospital with asthma every summer, when we lived and had our little smallholding in the midst of a 300-acre industrialised wasteland of acid-yellow rape.

And you might think that the proliferating wildflowers of many kinds would offer them plenty of fodder. Yet there are no bees, or almost none, to be seen. What is going on?

To quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The times are out of joint”.

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the flowers and their specialised pollinators are continually missing one another at the critical times when they need to arrive together. This would be due to the disrupted pattern of the weather as our climate appears to be changing.

Most of Nature can cope with minor annual variations in light, temperature and rainfall. But those factors critical to growth and reproduction have begun to oscillate a little more wildly in recent decades. Spring, for instance, is said to be arriving in Britain earlier each year and is now three weeks earlier on average than forty years ago.

This year, I have noticed that, for some reason perhaps due to last year’s wild and windy but warm winter (or perhaps due to rising CO2?), the tree cover is the most densely foliated I can remember ever seeing it, the scrub vegetation impassably jungly; yet the wildflowers, probably due to a long, cool, dry spell in March-April, have emerged very late, only in the last two weeks of June, in the sort of profusion that would guarantee sufficient variety to feed all the insects that depend on them.

Light levels, too, may have dropped in a Spring when there has been more volcanic activity around the globe than in most years; and un-civil aviation continues to cross-hatch the sky with vapour trails freighting sooty particulates into the stratosphere.

In other words, until the last few weeks there’s been almost nothing for the bees to eat. And now, this week, while most of England has sizzled in 90-degree temperatures, here in the West it’s been cool and cloudy, and it’s been raining all morning, so the bees won’t be flying today either.

Normally, they would survive these minor irritations; but add to them, the probability that wild bee populations are now already dangerously reduced, it may take time for their numbers to build up again, assuming no further environmental stress is inflicted on the survivors; which we can’t. Is there another possible factor causing stress disorders in bees?

Facebook pioneer, Mark Zuckerberg, has announced this week a plan to introduce a parallel service of mobile telephony, using “invisible” lasers beaming down from satellites, to improve his social media coverage in the parts where land-based communications haven’t yet reached. More high-frequency irradiation is all we need.

We live now in an electronic soup of low-energy radio waves emitted at all frequencies by innumerable devices. The cumulative energy of electromagnetic radiation emitted by all this communications technology is experimentally sufficient to power domestic electrical devices when captured, literally, from the air.

Again, the “industry” research has concluded that its by-product – radiation – must be harmless; yet we also believe and warn, especially children, that continual proximity to your cellphone might induce brain cancer.

All I can add is that it is unreasonable to suppose there can be no effect.

Electromagnetic radiation is only apparently safe at certain frequencies; at other points on the spectrum we know it can injure and kill, cook food, prove medically useful, and see through solid objects. We know, because we do those things with it.

Is it too far-fetched to think that the smaller and more delicate a neural organism is, the more vulnerable it becomes to disruption by radiation, inducing altered behaviours and perceptions?

Alterations that might indeed threaten the extinction of a uniquely susceptible – ecologically irreplaceable – and economically invaluable species?

Postscriptum

Many years ago, a bumblebee smashed into my car’s windscreen. It set me calculating (I’m a bit OCD) how many bees might be killed by cars on British roads, given the number of vehicle registrations (36 million +), the average mileage driven (about 7,000 a year) and the total mileage of British roads (about 250,000), if each driver kills only one bee every five miles….

Millions of bees are killed by cars every summer.

Post-postscriptum

The better news is, there are quite a few bees of varying sizes out foraging in the sunshine today. It helps that my magnificent  privet hedge has finally decided to flower, it’s always an attraction for the gatherers.

It doesn’t help however that today, the parks department has decided it’s a good day to send a man with a noisy tractor and a topper to cut down the wildflower meadow boundaries around the river. I imagine they have a date they do it on every year, regardless of what’s actually happening on the ground.

It might also make some sense to seed the strips with bee-friendly wildflowers in the Spring, rather than leave it to Mother Nature; who, as we know, prefers tall grasses, thistles, dock and (highly poisonous) ragwort in her garden. I’m not sure we can leave her to make the decisions anymore.

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They’re spying on you

As seen on TV blueberries

Blueberry Giant – Grow Up To 16,0000 Berries Per Plant

No need to trek out to the grocery store just to buy old blueberries.
With the Blueberry Giant you can grow your very own fresh,
juicy blueberries in your own home.

 

Now, aside from the image of my living room playing host to sixteen thousand freshly grown, juicy blueberries – maybe they’d look better in the bathroom?, and the subsidiary image of myself in snowshoes and a cagoule, beating my way northwards into a howling blizzard, fighting off wolves and injuns as I trek to the grocery store, only to find that the blueberries they have for sale were disappointingly grown months ago, so that the visiting TV crew must have wondered why they had been sent to video a pile of wizened fruit, long past its sell-by, I’m wondering why this refreshingly naive message has appeared in my Spam folder today, of all days?

Could there be a secret link between the world of commerce and this, my anonymous bogl, that has no connection whatever with the As Seen on TV Blueberries Co. to the best of my knowledge?

How exactly has a link seemingly been created to my IP address at Yahoo!, via WordPress, enabling Blueberry Giant to track me down out of the blue with a can of Blueberry Spam all the way from the good ol’ USA?

Could it be something to do with a Page I posted just this morning on this very website, in which the word ‘blueberry’ appears? Not, I have to say, something that happens every day of the year.

I hope not. No, it can’t be.

Mae hin braf heddiw

“Getting relief from a persistent health problem will feel miraculous. It will be wonderful to have the energy for your favourite people and relationships. Take this opportunity to create a new schedule. Set aside time for creative pursuits, like reading, listening to music and cooking. Are you unemployed? You will find a wonderful job that allows great flexibility. You’ll welcome the chance to work for a company that is more interested in making its employees happy than making huge profits.”

– Yahoo! Lifestyle Horoscope, today.

No apologies for relying on this tired old trope once more, twice in two days, cos I’m so excited. I can’t believe this is happening to me, here, now, today! Oh, thank you, Russell! Thank you! I have been reading, singing and cooking like a crazy one while looking for a wonderful job with great flexibility for more years than I can number, and now it’s coming true. On a Saturday, too!

Tell us, oh pray tell us, who this exemplary philanthropic industrialist may be, who is concerned only for my happiness and bugger the shareholders? Sir Willy Wonka of Chocolate Factory plc, possibly?

 And getting relief from a persistent health problem… well, that will be more miraculous still. I have been trying to persuade various well-paid members of the medical profession to become interested in my humiliating genito-urinary problem for four years, and all I ever get is more blood tests. I rarely get to see the same GP twice, and despite last week’s tests (they always come back negative) I have to wait three weeks to get another appointment with another GP I have not yet met, who will not have read my notes.

They will stare moodily up at the ceiling and down at the floor while I explain in layman’s language how I had to piss in a shop doorway in Knightsbridge when I wasn’t even drunk, and how my formerly flamboyant member – I seriously once considered a career as an escort, being out of work in Wales can do that to you – goes all floppy if ever I do meet a lady, and how I have so little energy for my favourite relationships. They will briskly write another chit for more blood tests, and hand me a little bottle to piss in next time I need to go in the street, and wave me on to the next GP.

Even the bloody internet knows what the problem is, it’s so common that fifty percent of men over sixty will have it, but you will not find a doctor in the land nowadays willing to risk an actual diagnosis and course of treatment for their hundred grand a year. The key to progress in the NHS is not how you are diagnosed, or even that you are treated, God forbid they should fix the problem – but within what period of time were you seen and at whose expense?

But I have promised to be a reformed character and not to be so cynical and grouchy about everything. This late March warm spell is much too glorious to stay indoors and look for work while morosely twiddling with my useless dick.

 I think I’ll go and spray the weeds.

Postscriptum

Divine punishment is visited on the apostate who dares to criticise the holy NHS. A Dark Angel with a flaming sword has cauterised my urethra in the far reaches of the night. I am straining and groaning to piss a few miserable drips every twenty minutes or so and get little sleep. With the effort, something else messy happens. Turning around, however, it seems I can’t now shit either. I can only produce tears from my eyes, maybe even they will soon be sealed shut.

1.15 pm. Returning from our walk round the industrial estate, Hunzi and I, we arrive at the front door. As I am slowly deciding which of two dissimilarly shaped keys must be the front-door one, a familiar urge comes over me. By the time I have got inside the hallway, before I can get up the stairs, I have pissed myself. And to think I wanted to be a grown-up.

Only two more weeks to go until I get to see a GP I’ve never seen before and have to explain the whole thing to them over again, to mute incomprehension.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had actual doctors, like in Liberia?

Gardening News: a note of impatience creeps in with the late-summer weeds

‘Old Bogler’ writes:

During the past 15 years, whenever the necessity has arisen, which as I grow older is increasingly often, I have gone out to work the odd day here and there, whatever I can get, for an unskilled wage as a jobbing gardener. It is hard work, but honest, and I very much welcome the opportunity to get out in the wind and rain without being attached to a dog.

As the result of forty-plus years’ experience of owning my own homes with gardens; of having spent time around my grandfather, who lovingly bred dahlias; of listening to episodes of Gardeners’ Question Time on rainy Sunday afternoons, and of poring over learned books on gardening; whose London garden once featured in The Observer Colour Magazine (for its ‘natural’ appearance!), I may no longer be able to recall the names of plants: I don’t have an RHS certificate, like my ex-wife. Nor, having only a town garden of my own now, do I have my own tools.

Nor do I have ‘green fingers’. None of my clients has ever, to my recollection, asked me to sow any seeds or plant-up a border or grow edible vegetables for them: all I ever get to do is cut stuff down or dig it up or haul it out; and rearrange the compost. I am a human bulldozer, who practices a form of ‘extreme gardening’ from which I emerge like a Japanese soldier who has not realised the war is over, covered in scratches, stings and bites and totally exhausted. It’s a good excuse for a bath.

But I am also one of those people who retains weird tidbits of information, quite like a sponge. Consequently, I have excellent technical knowledge of garden management; my head is buzzing with a lifetime’s supply of handy hints for successful growing, acquired from here and there.

Which is why there are certain secret frustrations I have with my ‘clients’ that, if you too are a jobbing gardener, you will understand and sympathise with. Because, although a good garden ought to be like a slow-motion fireworks display, a year-round succession of colourful and thrilling explosions popping-off everywhere, gardening is not ‘rocket-science’ (unless you are growing rocket…). Remembering the names of all the plants in your garden is good, you can and I can’t; but caring for them is pretty straightforward.

You just need to know a little about how, why and where they grow best; and figure the rest out for yourself.

So why don’t you? Grrr!

People by and large don’t have money to spare. But they very often have mistakenly acquired gardens that prove too big for them to manage by themselves. (I have been lusting this morning over details of an outstandingly ugly but affordably cheap property the interweb thing has sent me, with 10 acres… sheer lunacy to contemplate, at any time of life!) They are also time-poor, which is why they will get halfway through a project in the garden, leave little heaps of stuff rotting quietly everywhere, abandon their tools in the undergrowth; and then call me.

Much as I love them all, there are six things I would say to my clients, if I dared, as follows:

  1. There is no point paying a man to cut the grass or weed your herbaceous borders to get rid of all that suddenly explosive alchemilla mollis or escaped crocosmia once a year, because it is “all you can afford”, if at certain times of the year you need to cut the grass or weed the bed twice a week…. It is simply not a cost-effective management strategy! It is impossible to achieve the permanently cultivated effect you naturally want, in this haphazard way. Gardens respond to regular, patient cultivation; they quickly recover from my infrequent visitations to resume their happy path of regression to temperate forest. God knows I understand, you are living on a budget, but maintaining your garden in dribs and drabs like this is worse than doing nothing at all – as, whatever I do in May, will have to be done again before July! Why not put a little money aside during the winter months, to employ me once – and then briefly twice – a week in the late spring and summer, and in early autumn, when I am needed most? Or invite me to live rent-free above your garage?
  2. Why are your compost bins and burning ghat as far as you can possibly put them away from where your garden is generating the most combustible material? I have to spend half the money you have scratched around to pay me, trundling to and fro, conveying the greenwaste for disposal to a heap somewhere over the horizon. Where, invariably, your bins will be far too small to compost properly, the amount of greenwaste your acre of garden is liable to generate, and is overflowing with material that can never rot down, to which I am going to add another half-ton by the end of my shift; and sprouting nettles. One of my clients follows me around, obsessively sorting my greenwaste into separate heaps and plastic bags according to its degree of softness or woodiness, and spends hours shredding material and spreading the chippings everywhere, on paths and beds. Most laudable, but none of the recyclates ever gets properly composted because her bins are too small and disorganised and too far from (and steeply uphill of) the garden, being distributed around a number of distant specialised sites where they are never given time or sufficient heat to rot down, and are therefore of little nutritional value. “Calm down, dear!” is Old Bogler’s advice. Gardening takes time and patience. And money.
  3. If your hubby must mow the grass at the weekend by racing his crisis-red lawn-Ferrari around it in five minutes flat, and then rush off to play golf, leaving little heaps of browning detritus everywhere, you should expect a) a ‘lawn’ full of broadleaved weeds, dandelion and plantain, sycamore seedlings, ruts and furrows; and b) all those cuttings the machine spews out sideways to pile up in your border margins, on top of the weed barrier, stifling those tender annuals, until they rot down and the creeping fescue invades and forms mats and, in a couple of years, produces a nice environment for those nasty, sticky cleavers and convulvulus and horrendous burnets (I de-burred my poor Hunzi the other day after a walk in the country, the viciously hooked seeds in his thick fur had blood on them. They have become carnivorous!) Eventually, bramble runners and sowthistle and ground elder take over. Please establish a careful mowing regime (a cylinder mower is best for lawns), respect the lawn edges, try to maintain a few helpful hygiene measures, rake out grass cuttings and compost them somewhere else, or you will forever be hiring me to clear out your beds. I know, “it’s not really a lawn…” You’re telling me?
  4. Please, PLEASE STOP! chopping the ends off those inconvenient side-branches of your trees and shrubs, that you have planted too close together and too near to the footpath! It breaks my heart to be confronted with a forest of tortured, dying gargoyles, beset with spindly water-branches and bottle-brush epicormic growth, and to be asked with a hopeless air if I can “do something with” them? The only thing to do, is to put them out of their misery…. Your trees and shrubs are like your pets. They are eager to please you by growing just how you saw them in the catalog. They have genes, just like you, that are trying their best to grow up to be just like their mums and dads. Chopping random bits off only panics them: they no longer know what you want them to do, they suffer an identity crisis and start growing frantically every which-way. If you must cut them back, because you didn’t believe when you bought them that they would really grow up to smother your azaleas, then carefully prune them back to a growth node that is pointing in the direction you want them to grow – or take off the whole branch, but try to leave enough leaf-cover so they can still get some sunlight into their hungry little chlorophytes. Better yet, call me before you reach for the secateurs.
  5. Who told you if you put down a barrier it would stop weeds growing? Why on earth did you listen to them? Expensive woven black plastic sheeting; odd junk like carpets and cardboard – these are known as ‘membranes’; and ‘mulches’, consisting of chipped wood or bark, nutshells or coconut fibre (‘coir’). They have only a limited role to play in the garden. The latter are perfect for growing annual weeds and fungi: the longer it stays down, the more rotten and soil-like it gets and the more soft growth like chickweed and creeping Jenny will spring up, as a precursor to worse. Nature abhors a vacuum. No-one ever wants to spend money on putting enough mulch down to really make a difference. Your membranes on the other hand provide the perfect environment for aggressive perennials like nettles, brambles and wandering raspberry canes, all of which will happily propagate (among other infernal habits) by growing extensive root systems along the surface under the membrane, where they are warm, dry and free of competition; sending up shoots wherever the opportunity arises (around the edges, or where you made planting holes for garden-centre ceanothus that didn’t survive the dry conditions). If you must ‘suppress’ weeds with a membrane, do so tactically, a season at a time. In three years, if you leave a membrane down on the ground, mats of grass will grow over it and rot down; wind- or bird-sown weeds will root into it (woven plastic sheet is not impermeable, it only keeps out light. Stuff mostly won’t come up, but, just like your savings and investments, it can grow down.) Then try digging the roots out…. your membrane cannot stop weeds growing, but it will successfully resist a spade or fork. Finally, the membrane itself rots, leaving a scrappy mess – but, by then, your garden will be gone, lost forever under a six-feet-deep thicket of brambles, beneath which your roses have been reduced to long, spindly suckers gasping for light. No, the best way to suppress weed growth is to hoe beds regularly – or pay me to clear them out once a fortnight, starting in April. Weeds soon learn when they are not wanted, and go elsewhere.
  6. For heaven’s sake, keep your power-tools properly serviced! I waste hours struggling to start stubborn mowers and strimmers whose spark-plugs are sooty and worn. It can take three days for my wrists and hands to stop jangling, after three or four hours of operating tools that are vibrating badly because of worn gears and bent shafts; forcing them to do heavy work they are not rated to do. I honestly fear permanent nerve damage. Don’t wait for the spring to get a service, the engineers are up to their necks by then. Do it before Christmas. And make sure there’s enough line loaded on the strimmer! You can’t cut anything with only an inch or two of line, it’s the least efficient use of the machine. Smaller power tools are designed not to last forever, three seasons at most; and are very often not robust enough to do the jobs you expect me to do with them. The bigger and wilder your garden, the sooner you must consider replacing them; or ensure that what you buy to begin with is of a capacity able to cope for years with your dream acre of wilderness.

I know, you don’t have money for tools. Have you thought of moving to town? (No, don’t, I need the work!)

Cheerio, m’dears!

– Old Bogler