On my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, I often find myself drawn, by the constant lilting hum of countless bees, to the lavender that grows around the border of the plot. I love to watch these wonderful, busy creatures at work. Some of the bees are honey bees but many of them are wild, such as carder bees and red-tailed and white-tailed bumble bees. When I observe the natural industry of these extraordinary insects it is hard sometimes to remember that their very existence is under threat.
Fifty years ago there were around a quarter of a million honeybee hives in the UK. Today that figure has dropped below 100,000. Fifty years ago there were sufficient numbers of honeybees to pollinate most of Britain’s crops, but now they pollinate no more than a quarter, the shortfall being made up by wild bees and other pollinators. But, just like the honeybee, wild bee numbers are now in decline.
The single biggest cause of their decline is the abandonment of traditional farming practices in favour of highly mechanised industrial-scale agriculture. In Britain and other developed nations this has led to a massive reduction in the number of wildflowers upon which bees, and wild bees in particular, depend (it has been estimated that in the UK we have lost a staggering 97% of our wildflower meadows since the 1930s, much of it to farming).
Industrialised farming has also introduced harmful herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, with the neonicotinoid group of systemic pesticides regarded as a major threat to bee health and currently subject to a temporary EU wide ban. Scandalously, three weeks ago the UK government admitted that it was temporarily lifting the EU ban, to enable British farmers to use neonicotinoid pesticides on oil seed rape crops.
It is estimated that pollinating insects are worth £400 million per year to the UK economy alone, and worth many billions of dollars worldwide. But the reality is that their disappearance would have much more devastating repercussions than mere financial loss. Without pollinating bees we would lose much of the food we currently take for granted – apples, oranges, lemons, coffee, strawberries, vanilla, peaches, nuts, avocados, cucumbers, cabbages and coconuts, to name but a few examples. It is vital for our own futures therefore, as well as for safeguarding biodiversity, that we take steps to protect and promote the lives of our bees because our own long term survival as a species is so intertwined with theirs.
The loss of wildflower areas in the countryside makes survival an enormous challenge for the wild bee. Whilst honeybees can patrol a range of several kilometres from their hive, many wild bees will venture no more than 100 metres away from their nests.
Aside from a return to organic farming methods, some relatively modest changes to the way all farmland is managed can help stop the decline in bee populations, for example by leaving flower rich margins around the edge of fields and by preserving hedgerows which provide important habitats for some species of wild bees.
The most important thing we can do at an individual level is to grow bee-friendly plants, such as lavender, salvia, rudbeckia, poppy, echinacea, rosemary, thyme and dahlia.
This really can make a huge difference. Ironically, the areas of the UK where bee numbers are healthiest is in the big cities. Here, throughout the year bees have a wide choice of nectar and pollen from flowers in parks, suburban gardens, allotment plots, courtyards and balconies.
I’m using some fresh of that fragrant lavender from the Circus Garden in this recipe, along with some of my loganberries. Loganberries are a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry. They arose by happy accident, the result of a 19th century American fruit grower, James Logan, planting a blackberry bush too close to a raspberry plant (the bees did the rest).
I planted a loganberry bush on my plot about four years and until this year the yield has been very modest. This year, however, we have been harvesting lots of them.
This recipe proved to be a great way to use some of them. It produces a beautifully light, flavourful sorbet, perfect served with a compote of summer fruits, such as raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants strawberries and blueberries.
loganberry and lavender sorbet
400 g fresh loganberries
6 fresh heads lavender
550 ml unsweetened soy milk
140 ml maple syrup
1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp organic vanilla essence
15 g ground arrowroot
1. Combine 50 ml of the soy milk with the ground arrowroot and mix to a smooth, lump free paste.
2. If using a vanilla pod, split in half lengthways with a sharp knife. Put the loganberries, lavender, remaining soy milk, maple syrup and vanilla into a pan over a low heat and stir with a wooden spoon, gently crushing the loganberries to release their juice. As soon as bubbles begin to appear at the edges of the liquid, remove the pan from the heat. Set to one side to cool for five minutes.
3. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve to remove the lavender, vanilla and loganberry pulp. Add the arrowroot liquid and whisk to combine. Set to one side to cool to room temperature then refrigerate for at least one hour.
4. Set your ice cream maker running. Give the chilled ice cream mixture another good stir then pour it into the ice cream maker and churn. Once it is starting to set, tip the sorbet out into a freezer proof container. Cover the container with a lid and freeze for at least 4 hours. Remove the sorbet from the freezer and leave to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving.