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An Awakening R4B update

An Awakening – an Update from Rotarians 4 Bees

Report from Ted Waghorne, R4Bees Group, Facebook: RotarianforBees

The Rotarians for Bees (R4Bees) group was formed by the Rotary Club of Canterbury (Melbourne, Australia), after seeing David Attenborough outline the importance of bees and their recent decline.  Bees, along with other pollinators, are critical to life as we know it; and in Australia there is concern about the sustainability of our agricultural, horticultural and viticultural industries (i.e. food production).  Bee numbers are dropping and, even though our island continent and biosecurity keep many diseases away, if varroa mite reach our shores the effect will be serious.  
 
My background is not in science or in ecoIogy, but with an interest in gardening, I have been surprised at the issues facing bee sustainability.  What can we in Rotary do to help ?
 
As a start R4Bees, formed under the auspices of ESRAG, has highlighted the risks to bees to a number of other Rotary Clubs / Districts, and is gaining traction.
 
This year my wife Rosemary and I attended the Rotary International Convention and reported the start-up of the R4Bees group to the ESRAG forum.  We also took the opportunity to visit a number of countries in Europe and saw many ideas that could help R4Bees initiate action.  
 
Our trip started in England, where there is a push for bee friendly plants, wide flower borders, flower meadows and roadside plantations.  Rather than making formal gardens, flowers are allowed to grow, bloom and seed.  Bees, especially Bumble Bees, are very common - not only at the Chelsea flower show but also in many gardens we visited around London.  
 
The National Trust is very active in nature conservation and are planting bee meadows (you can donate on-line); and the message about the importance of bees is very evident in bookshops too.  There is a plethora of bee related titles about garden design, suitable plant species for bees, the risks of pesticides, etc; aimed at all aged groups.  Children’s books in particular emphasise the importance of bees.  One can buy seed packs specially designed to attract bees; bees are on cups, on hand-bags and clothes; and there are bee hotels available too.  The message about bees is quite mature in England, and R4Bees could learn a lot by connecting to their official organisations, and local community action groups. 
 
     
 
8 miles of wildflowers planted along road in Rotherham, BBC News
Eight miles of wildflowers have been planted at Rotherham, BBC News
 
Next we visited Germany, where our main focus was attending the Rotary International Convention.  At the ESAG Forum, our presentation on the start-up, vision and plans for R4 Bees was well received.  There were 3 local Rotary bee projects on show at the Convention.  The first involved handouts of seeds for bee friendly plants; the second was supplying bees, hives and training to rural Africa; but it was the third that really interested me.  The project was called “bee meadows” and involved Rotary Clubs organising payment to farmers, with EU support, to intersperse flower fields with those used for cropping.  
 
The bee meadows project came from an expert forum on “Save the Meadow – Agriculture and Diversity” run by the German Wildlife Foundation in 2017.  The forum reported on the loss of diversity in Germany over the last 50 years, detailing a severe reduction of wild life, insects, and birds, mainly resulting from expanded cropping.  Even land at the fringes of villages that used to have grazing meadows, vegetable and fruit farms, which supported a large range of insects, birds and animals, has been turned into other uses. The challenge is how to maintain food production whilst recovering nature’s lost diversity.
 
One of the papers “The Disappearance of the Butterflies”, by Prof. Dr Josef H Reinhold was particularly interesting.  In this he explained that 50 years ago, at the start of his zoological studies, he had an unforgettable experience.  He had been amazed at the many different coloured butterflies and other insects in large numbers that were attracted to a light after dark.  He said it was difficult to breathe with so many insects surrounding him.  This experience was career shaping.  He completed his doctoral thesis and has written a number of books on the life cycle of the butterfly.  
 
Now with the reduced numbers and diversity of insect and bird life, with fewer butterflies, hares, or swallows, he regrets he cannot give his grandchildren the same experience. 
 
Whilst Germany’s ecology suits a rich diversity of insects, recent changes to agriculture, reduced habitat and shifting conditions with climate change are all contributing to the loss of diversity.  The reduction of butterflies over the last thirty years has become starkly evident (evening counts have reduced by 75%, and a number of species have already been lost).  Such findings are alarming and there is real concern about how our butterflies will survive into the future.  
 
The least impact has been on butterflies relying on parkland, forests and National Parks – where there has been little change.  However, in his lifetime enormous changes have occurred in the countryside.  There have been significant changes on farms, on the outskirts of villages, and in corridors between villages.  On farms, widespread replacement of grassland for wheat and maize crops has occurred, with land consolidation allowing large scale production.  The village has become an island for half the year with little to no vegetation in its surrounds.  For the rest of the year it sits within a wide expanse of a monoculture crop.  Even where grasslands remain, these are often heavily fertilised and mowed to feed stabled animals, reducing native flowers.  To make matters worse, most of the flower gardens and fruit trees previously found at the fringe of the village have also been replaced.  Supermarkets now provide fruit and vegetables from global suppliers.  The effect of these changes on Butterflies has been enormous, especially as butterflies not only need flowers, but different plants are essential for the caterpillar phase too. 
 
Butterflies are losing their habitat.
 
 
   
Photos from ‘Das Verschwinden der Schmetterlinge’, Prof. dr Josef H Reinhold
 
I was fascinated by a further example of Rotarian action relating to Butterflies presented at the ESRAG forum by Dr Chris Puttock.  His presentation about the flight path of the Monarch Butterfly across central USA from the Mexican woods.  In good years the trees hold millions of butterflies prior to their flight north.  They migrate northwards into the USA and reach the Canadian border after 3 generations.  The fourth generation flies back to Mexico to the start of the cycle.  No-one understands quite how the knowledge of this return journey is passed through the generations !  
 
The numbers of butterflies have drastically reduced over the years – why ?  One reason is the loss of habitat on the flight path.  As the butterflies fly north they land, mate and the next generation of butterflies emerge to fly further north.  The caterpillars require suitable vegetation (milkweed).  However, as in Germany, the mid-west has been turned into a food bowl with large acreages of monoculture cereal crops.  To the butterfly, these are like deserts, and unless they can fly beyond the crops or find a local place to support their landing, this could cause their demise.
 
Along the flight path, a partnership between Rotary Clubs and schools have taken up the challenge to provide suitable gardens for the butterflies.  The life of the butterfly has been included into their curriculum and each year children can study these creatures as they land and visit for a while.  This initiative is succeeding, improving the chances of survival for these butterflies, whilst at the same time introducing school children to nature.  
 
Whilst both of these examples are of the difficulties facing butterflies, they are symptomatic of issues facing bees and other insects across the world.  
 
We need to retain the diversity of nature in all its forms. 
 
These simple examples showed me that Rotarians can make a difference.  
 
R4Bees will continue to investigate how we can best improve diversity and bee sustainability in Australia.  We will seek ideas from all quarters.  One of our initial projects is to simply offer flowering plants and information at Farmers Markets, and to get pollinator friendly plants into every Rotary Garden across Australia.
 
September, 2019
 
You can contact Ted Waghorne at waghorne(at)dcsi.net.au for more information. or check out the Facebook page: RotarianforBees
 
References
1) Why are England’s roadsides blooming ? Neil Heath & Gavin Bevis, BBC News
2) “Save the Meadow – Agriculture and Diversity”
Expert Forum 
Deutsche Wildtier Stiftung (German Wildlife Foundation), 2017.
German; 14 Papers, 3 Debates, 90 pages, numerous diagrams and figures 
3) ‘Das Verschwinden der Schmetterlinge’, Prof. dr Josef H Reinhold
Funded by Deutsche Wildtier Stiftung (German Wildlife Foundation) (www.DeutscheWildtierStiftung.de)
German, 70 pages, 26 figures, 36 photos, March 2018