The Vital Importance of the Commonplace

'Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got till it's gone...'

Joni Mitchell, 'Big Yellow Taxi' 1970

The short haired bumblebee Bombus subterraneus, absent from Britain since 1988, was recently re-introduced to the RSPB reserve at Dungeness in Kent. An enormous amount of effort went into regenerating the site to create a suitable habitat, so I sincerely hope the re-introduction succeeds, particularly as it's the second attempt to be made in recent years. But even if it does, returning a single species to one site may not be as effective in the long run as not having driven it to extinction by wrecking its wider habitat in the first place.

In Britain, farm land has since at least the 1940s been an increasingly poor habitat for wild bees, and more recently much of it has become a downright dangerous one due to the use of persistent systemic pesticides. However Britain's gardens, "green spaces" and road verges long provided an alternative. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust calculated in 2009 that the total area of private gardens in Britain was greater than one million hectares, 'far exceeding the combined area of all our nature reserves' 2  and the aggregate area of grassed road verges, village greens and urban/suburban amenity grassland is at least of the same order. As many of the wild flowers bees most favour are by no means rare or fragile and naturally inhabit grasslands, there should be an abundance of habitat for them, but there isn't.

The reality is that private gardens are disappearing fast and most publicly managed grassed areas are now essentially wastelands. More than a third of private gardens have been paved over, decked or even (unbelievably) laid to Astroturf 3  by their owners in the last few years. At least half of all public grasslands and road verges in England and Wales are currently mowed to a height of 30 mm (1.2 inches) or less as often as every couple of weeks, regularly decapitating even the lowest growing common grassland plant species so they never get to flower. The result may technically be "green" but it's a barren landscape for the bees.

But although the threat to bee populations is indeed serious, there's actually much more at stake - the survival of an entire ecosystem. The flowering plants on which the bees feed also sustain butterflies and other arthropods, which support populations of small mammals (some of whose abandoned nests are used by bees) and of insectivorous birds, which in turn influence the survival and selection of plant species and sustain a variety of predators. But it can't be a robust and durable ecosystem if it staggers along with much of its complex mesh represented by tiny isolated colonies scattered across an increasingly barren landscape.

Impoverished and fragmented habitats are not objectively inevitable even on such a densely populated island as Britain, and I'm sure they're not the result of intentional policy. They are just among the many outcomes of prevalent societal neglect. But although the natural environment has not been singled out for special negligence, it is particularly threatened. For over half a century, most of us have become habituated to synthetic entertainment and a noisy, smelly, barren landscape of concrete, asphalt and ordered artificial tidiness. Few of us have experienced the thriving wild at first hand, but, if we've noticed it at all, have merely been exposed to a sanitised and romanticised second-hand version of it through the borrowed eyes of TV and rural sound bites for urbanites. The unsentimental pragmatic understanding of our relationship with the rest of the living world that was the heritage of our most ordinary forebears has been all but lost. Granted, it's difficult to recognise, let alone respect, what one has never experienced, but the result is that we are ill equipped to maintain the wellbeing of the natural environment on which we largely rely for our own.

The good news is that redressing the balance doesn't have to be costly or inconvenient. A huge amount can be accomplished by merely not doing certain basic things. Not cutting road verges and amenity grassland too short or too frequently, not paving or decking over private gardens, leaving odd corners of gardens, allotments and open spaces uncut and unweeded. Many of the wild flowers most favoured by bees - ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), bird's foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), the red and while clovers (Trifolium pratense and T. repens), and several of the cranesbills (Geranium spp.) - are so widespread and successful that they are often considered as "weeds", and even the humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is an important early food plant for both queen and worker bees. Given a half a chance such species will largely look after themselves, and they will all flower quite happily in grass not more than about 100 mm (4 inches) in height. Where grass can be left longer, for example on intelligently managed road verges and under hedges, hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), white dead-nettle (Lamium album), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), bush vetch (Vicia sepium) and greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) are among the many common wild flowers attractive to bees, and linear features such as hedgerows, ditches and banks have been shown to provide particularly good nesting sites for them. Importantly, plant communities including such common species do not necessarily have to be very diverse to be effective as habitats for bees. A drift of white comfrey in my garden is regularly visited by Bombus terrestris, B. pascuorum, B. lapidarius and the newcomer B. hypnorum.

Nevertheless, the species-rich grassland that is the best habitat for bees - and is so prized by conservationists - was once commonplace. It is now scarce only because the brutal way we have managed the majority of our grasslands has made them species-poor. So given the total area of public grassland and road verges, allowing such ubiquitous and robust wild plant species to flower - merely by not butchering them with over-zealous mowing - could make a major beneficial contribution to wild bee populations and, by extension, to the wider ecosystems in which they participate. It might even help much of it in the long term to develop higher diversity. If those responsible for our public open spaces can be helped to recognise the significant benefits of such small changes in management practice, we might escape having to expend in favour of many other species the huge effort and expense that has gone into re-introducing Bombus subterraneus.

But the specifics of wild bees apart, the fundamental principle is that the commonplace is essential to the healthy functioning of the natural world. Ecosystems are resilient by virtue of massive redundancy. However attractive or scientifically intriguing they might be, scattered fragments of "species of conservation concern" that have been reduced to that position by the demolition of their wider supporting infrastructure have no long term future other than as fragile and depressingly futile show pieces reminiscent of the "tree museum" in the '70s movie Soylent Green. If we wish to take our rightful place in the living world - neither as casual despoilers nor as self-appointed 'custodians' but as functional contributors to and sustainable beneficiaries of the wider web of life - no amount of effort to preserve small pocket handkerchiefs of "special significance" will be enough. We must internalise the truth that it's all of special significance. Rather than a few of us expending their energy and resources on last ditch attempts to preserve the last remnants of individual species as the rest of us ruthlessly drive them to extinction, every one of us should be trying to stop them becoming endangered in the first place. That will require us all to open our eyes, open our hearts, and start treating the commonplace with at least as much respect as the rare.


1  "'Extinct' short-haired bumblebee returns to UK" BBC News online 28 May 2012

2  "Gardening for bumblebees" The Bumblebee Conservation Trust 2009

3  "The mystery of Britain's vanishing gardens" Telegraph online 10 April 2012

4  Barwise M. et al., Improving Amenity Grassland Ecosystems. Research project in progress

5  Eeva-Liisa Alanen. Habitats and food plants of bumblebee queens in an agricultural landscape. Proc. Neth. Entomol. Soc. Meet. - Vol. 19 - 2008

6  Juliet L. Osborne et al. Quantifying and comparing bumblebee nest densities in gardens and countryside habitats. Journal of Applied Ecology 2008, 45, 784-792