Field of Enquiry II: Birds and Bees. And Beetles (let’s not forget those)!

If it had not been clear to our 35 participants at the start of the programme, there remained no doubt about not only the well-being of birds, bees and beetles as an important indicator of the general health of our ecosystems, but also their extremely important direct role in food production and its sustainability. Miesbeth Knottenbelt, Nourish member & volunteer, reports on the second session of the 2000m2 Field of Enquiry series at Whitmuir The Organic Place, on Saturday the 22nd of October.


Some of the depressing highlights were (as presented by Vicki Swales, Head of Land Use Policy, RSPB):

  • To foster a range of diverse neighbouring habitats that meets the needs of different bird species thriving side by side, we need to have different types of nesting sites, and reliable sources of summer and winter food (all three). The threats to this are clearly agricultural specialisation and intensification (with lots of disturbance) but also abandonment (“MAMBA: Miles And Miles of Bugger All!”).This is of course worrying, since much farmland is being abandoned in Scotland due to economic pressures.
  • Scotland provides 40% of Europe’s High Nature Value farmland! This is most of Scotland minus the intensively farmed East coast. There is a strong match between the geographical allocation of EU Common Agricultural Policy subsidies (allocated to 20% of all farmers, the large farms) and the location of Low Nature Value Farmland. The good news is that this trend can be reversed by changing our agricultural support policies (perhaps an unexpected benefit of Brexit?).

By Skype from Sussex, biologist and conservationist Dave Goulson gave us some astonishing stats about bumblebees: There are 270 species in the UK, which is in addition to the 20,000 or so other bee species. Each of these species is an important pollinator with different roles for different crops. Together 3/4 of our crops require pollinators, mostly bees. Yet, worryingly, the numbers of bees have drastically fallen since 1950s and really alarmingly since 2000 due to habitat loss (regardless of where you are across the world, intensive farming looks like the same flowerless desert), climate change, disease and pesticides. How so?

A Sussex study showed one farmer routinely using 20 types of different pesticides on one field as normal practice, 9 of which were harming bees. Money is now being spent on reversing trends (e.g. planting hedgerows) but with limited results as neonicotinoids which are a kind of insecticide widely introduced in seed dressing, have been building up in soil, root systems and water. In the EU, a moratorium was introduced for neonicotinoids in Dec 2013, but perversely, since then its use has increased in the UK, partly due to pesticide producers’ marketing successes – a problem the scientific community does not know how to handle effectively.

Goulson’s list of things we should lobby for are completely ban neonicotoids and similar chemicals (and take them off the shelf for domestic use), fund independent advisers for farmers, and redirect the funding that is currently given to large intensive farming to small-scale and sustainable farming.

Jenni Stockan, an entomologist at the James Hutton Institute, sketched a delightful picture about the life of beetles. E.g. did you know that beetles help with pest control (e.g. by eating slug eggs), help pollinate, and transport seeds? The common dung beetles also reduce parasites in cows, help with soil structure (tunnelling), increase soil nutrients, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7-13 % (by moving dung under the ground).

Sharp declines of beetles have been reported since 1984, again due to habitat loss as a result of mono- agriculture, but they remain stable in woodlands. A particularly worrying threat is worming tablets routinely given to cattle, which affects beetles’ egg productivity and larvae mortality. Similar lobby recommendations were in Stockan’s wish list: We need to reduce chemical input into agriculture without delay, provide undisturbed strips that allow bugs to move around, do mixed cropping, and create ground cover for shelter all year round.

Then, lastly, the sad story of the honey bee came from … a third generation bee keeper now working at the Edinburgh Zoo. Some striking points in this story: Viruses make it essential that all hives are treated, so there are no more wild swarms anywhere; the average age of beekeepers is 68, bees do so much better in urban environments, in fact he keeps several hives on top of the Balmoral Hotel (which had to be rescued when it swarmed onto Princes Street recently).

What emerged from these experts’ materials were very worrying and now increasingly familiar patterns, and what’s more, the grave extent of the decline (particularly in the last 20 years) of these creatures. The apparent invisibility of their importance in formal agricultural management, policy and macroeconomics is something we addressed implicitly today, and there was also no shortage of clear messages to be taken forward and lobby for.


If you want to read more about the topics of the session, you can access the presentations and resources of the day in this Dropbox folder. You can read Miesbeth Knottenbelt’s blog about the first Field of Enquiry series here. If you have questions about the series, you can e-mail Heather Anderson at heather @