The heritage art of scything dates back hundreds of years and is still a viable and sustainable method of land management today. With the move towards using less fossil fuel it offers a carbon neutral way to manage a habitat which is better for the environment and the wildlife within it.
It is possible to cut various areas such as longer grasses, wildflower meadows, waterside vegetation, orchards and private gardens. Without the need for power tools such as strimmers or mowers. Unlike power tools, there is very little maintenance required and it should last a lifetime, so it’s a good choice in the long term to save money.
Scythes can be used to create islands of wild flowers and longer grasses in rotation, which offers havens for pollinators and other wildlife. It is possible to cut up to three times a year in a mosaic pattern in order to stop some plants becoming too dominant or to allow wildflowers to be able to come though. One can work from the middle of an area outwards in order to allow living creatures in the cutting area the chance to escape. This mimics the use of grazing to maintain scrub areas where animals cannot be used.
A huge benefit of scything is the health and wellbeing of the scythe user versus the use of power tools. It is a great way to build up fitness and used correctly will not put any strain on the body. It is a wonderful and peaceful way to be part of the habitat that you are cutting without loud machinery and PPE including headphones and masks. This makes scything an ideal way for private garden owners, volunteers and green space groups to manage their areas independently.
On Thursday 7th September Stephan Gehrels from the Brighton Permaculture Trust came and delivered a Scythe training day to the Adur and Worthing Council Ranger team.
This was a ground-breaking day as it was the first council ranger team to take on this challenge and consider the use of scythes when possible in their work. It was a fantastic training day that I also attended as the Adur and Worthing Wildflower Trail Projects volunteer (link below)
During the day we learned how to use the scythe in various habitats as well as the method of cold forging known as ‘Peening’ in order to maintain and sharpen the scythe blade.
We came away fully able to use the tools safely. The lighter Austrian Scythes are available to buy from the BPT with the whole starter kit if keen to carry on scything. It is hoped that this sustainable training can be rolled out into the wider Community and further Scythe days can be organised via the Brighton Permaculture trust when the cutting season comes round again. (link below)
Bees, wasps and ants belong (with sawflies) to the Hymenoptera order as they are all related in some way. The earliest known individual of this huge group, a stinging wasp, appeared perhaps 190 million years ago. The first ant was a wasp that lost its wings (about 100 million years ago), and the first bee was a wasp that forgot how to hunt (about 65 million years ago), thus becoming ‘vegetarian’, which may account for why – of the three groups of insects – we might feel more favourably disposed to bees than we do to wasps or ants. Indeed, bees have become the darlings of the Hymenoptera order, their stylised faces appearing on everything from greetings cards to lapel badges. Even if we don’t understand them fully, the whole world loves the busy bees.
With such time spans, we now see species variation on a grand scale. There are at least 22,000 different species of bee worldwide. In Britain, we have over 270 different species, 25 of these being bumblebees.
Plasterer bees (Colletidae) are bees that use secretions from their mouthparts to smooth the walls of their nest cells. There may be nine different types of British Plasterer bees.
Until we find more of these Plasterer bees, Heene shelters just the one species, the Ivy Bee. This bee is the last solitary bee to emerge each year, and is Britain’s only true autumn bee. As its name suggests, it finds nearly all its pollen and nectar from Common Ivy.
Mining bees are solitary, ground-nesting bees that have been on earth for more than 30 million years. They comprise the largest British genus of bees with perhaps 67 species.
Females of the Chocolate Mining Bee nest singly, although they often share a burrow entrance with several other females, as can be seen in one of the photographs below.
The Grey-patched Mining Bee, below, derives much but not all of its food from Dandelions.
Leafcutter and Mason bees
Leafcutter and Mason bees are mostly solitary bees. Several collect plant or animal hairs to assist in nest construction, whereas other collect plant resin for this purpose. All feed on pollen and nectar, although some of these feed on pollen collected by other bees (and so are called ‘cuckoo bees’).
The Leaf-cutter Bee and the Orange-vented Mason Bee chews up the edges of leaves to make a cement with which they seal their nests. Indeed, the Oranged-vented one, below, seems to be doing just that in this photograph.
There are other families and genera of solitary bees, all with beguiling names, such as Carpenter, Yellow-faced, Shaggy, Bristle-headed, Wool carder, Resin, Nomad, Variegated cuckoo and Sweat bees. Add them all up and the species variety just in Britain is eye-popping.
Bumblebees (and the Honey Bee) are social insects, where all other bees are solitary. Bumblebees live in small colonies, often underground. Most of those seen in Spring and early Summer will be females, males appearing in late Summer.
Bees in numbers
Our meagre efforts have so far shown that we’ve seen just 5 different types of solitary bee and 6 different types of bumblebee. To these, we can add the Honey Bee, making a total of a dozen different species of bee in Heene Cemetery’s one-acre, town-centre site. These numbers – and others – show up again later.
The Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is an abundant species, seen from early Spring until late Autumn. Most flower foragers will be the female workers. The male drones appear in the Summer, and they have fatter bodies and longer antennae. Queens, which emerge in Spring to establish colonies, never leave the hive to forage, but feed on royal jelly produced by workers. But Honey bees, whatever their abundance, remain a single species.
There are two beehives in Heene Cemetery and, according to the hives’ keeper, Stuart, “the average beehive in the height of summer has around 50,000 bees!” That’s perhaps 100,000 bees sheltered under the trees of the cemetery’s south-east corner.
On average, bees forage for over a mile from their hive. A DNA analysis of honey samples that Stuart requested in the late summer of 2021 showed traces of 16 plants/flowers known to be in the Cemetery, alongside a further 43 varieties, many of them cultivated plants from gardens in the locality. No doubt, different honey samples at different times of the year would have shown Honey bees had visited different flowers/plants.
Anecdotally, a huge proportion of the photographs taken of bees on flowers in the cemetery have been of Honey Bees, rather than of other solitary bees. Of the 270 various species of bee found in Britain, 229 (*) species have been recorded in Sussex. Yet, to date, we’ve seen 12.
What’s going on?
We have – rightly – developed the view that Honey bees and beehives are ‘a good thing’. They are pollinators, essential for the pollination of crops that provide much of the food that we eat. They help sustain our orchards and gardens. Bees provide us with honey – and the honey that comes from Heene Cemetery’s hives is indeed delicious! Everything about them seems to merit the traditional ‘darling’ label.
Yet there’s another story starting to be told, and it comes from respected institutions like the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Natural History Museum. This tells us of the potential unsustainability of urban beekeeping, of an insufficient nectar and pollen supply to support beehive numbers, of honeybees outcompeting wild bee populations. In the words of Kew’s Professor Phil Stevenson:
It’s said that a single beehive might need 32 acres of green space.
It is widely acknowledged that Britain’s countryside has become nature-depleted and that there is – perhaps surprisingly – greater floral biodiversity in our cities, towns and villages. Until hedgerows and verges are brought back to the varied glory of former times, the countryside remains largely the theatre for crop monocultures.
Unlike honeybees that seem able to feed on a wide range of plants, solitary, wild bees usually have preferred habitats, ones where specific pollen and nectar providers can be found. Where these locations provide a changing diet throughout the seasons, bees (more than most insects) will flourish. But this does mean that a wide range of different seasonal plant food is needed to support these wild, native bees – and Heene Cemetery should be just right for many of them.
Even on their own, the numbers in the cemetery seem somewhat skew-wiff:
270 known bee species in Britain
229 bee species have been recorded in Sussex (*)
5 solitary bee species recorded in Heene Cemetery
7 social bee species recorded in Heene Cemetery (bumblebees and the Honey bee)
2 beehives in Heene Cemetery
100,000 honeybees in Heene Cemetery at the height of summer
* Bees in Sussex
This blog post initially stated that “at least 44 bee species [can be] expected in Sussex”. It transpires that this was a substantial underestimate. Issue 192 of Wildlife, the magazine of the Sussex Wildlife Trust (Spring/Summer 2023), has an article by James Power, author of The Bees of Sussex, in which he says that “there are an impressive 229 species of bee recorded in Sussex”. Ten new species have been recorded here since 2000.
According to the author, Sussex is one of the warmest and driest counties in the country, making it ideal for bees. Its proximity to the European mainland is a further factor that aids bee species numbers.
This adds impetus to the argument that we should be seeing a broader range of solitary bees in Heene Cemetery than appears to be the case.
Books and websites
Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland by Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner; Ocelli; revised edition, 2012.
This is a standard text on identifying bumblebees, providing photographs, maps, habitat descriptors of where each species can be found, along with a colour key that helps distinguish species based upon colour bands that one can see with the naked eye.
Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk; Bloomsbury, 2016.
A comprehensive guide to the solitary bees of our islands, this is an authoritative and wonderfully-illustrated guide, packed with photographs.
The Hidden Universe Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Witness Books, 2022.
This is a short and lucid primer on biodiversity that aims to explain a complex subject in terms that most of us can understand. This volume explains what damage habitat loss is doing and how we can all face up to it in practical, daily.
Silent Earth – Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Professor Dave Goulson; Jonathon Cape, 2021.
Professor Goulson – from our local university at Sussex in Brighton – played a huge role in establishing the link between neonicotinoids and damage to bees. In this volume, he sets out the science and moves on to explain how we can all help avert an ‘insect apocalypse’.
The Insect Crisis – The Fall of Tiny Empires that Run the World by Oliver Milman; Atlantic Books, 2022.
In this volume, Oliver Milman, journalist rather than scientist, explains why we need insects more than they need us. You will find this a motivating read.
If you have picked up one of our seed packets, we have provided you with enough seed mixture to cover an area of 1 metre squared. Follow this step by step guide to creating your very own patch of wildflowers…..the bees will thank you for it!!
To increase your chances of establishing a successful wildflower meadow, it is highly recommended that you sow in Early Spring (March/April).
Step 1: Choose somewhere to create your patch. Ideally you need to have a bit of bare ground that gets plenty of sunshine throughout the day, isn’t too fertile and isn’t too weedy. Wildflowers LOVE poor soils that most other plants wouldn’t dream of growing in! Mark out the outline of a 1M squared area using sand, an old hose pipe or some twine/string.
Step 2: If your chosen patch of ground is grassy, it is best to remove the grass beforehand. Grab your shovel and gradually lift the grass and any weeds from your patch, try not to leave any behind to rot down as this can risk returning extra nutrients back to the soil. Remember…. wildflowers love poor soil!
Step 3: When you have a bare patch of ground, dig it over with a garden fork and rake the soil level and to a fine crumbly texture. Then with your wellies on, tread over the ground to firm up the surface.
Step 4: Split the contents of your seed packet in half and mix one half with some fine dry sand (Roughly 1 part seed to 2 parts sand). This helps you see where you are spreading the seed more clearly. Using a tablespoon, scatter the seed and sand mixture over half the patch. Repeat this with the remaining seed, covering the other half of your patch.
Step 5: Tread all over the area again to ensure good contact between the seed mix and the soil, there is no need to rake it in or to cover the seed with soil. Give your newly sown seeds a good shower of water with your watering can. Remember to water regularly in dry weather!
Step 6….Wait for nature to do its thing! Ensure that your patch is well watered as it gets established. Don’t be discouraged if your patch doesn’t suddenly burst into life! It takes a little while for the flowers and grasses to germinate and get going so don’t give up! It will get better with each year. As and when perennial weeds pop up, such as dandelion, dock etc, you can dig these out by hand to give your wildflower seedlings a better chance.
Maintaining your Wildflower Meadow
Year 1 In the first year of sowing, it may take a little while for your wildflowers and grasses to get going. This is perfectly normal and is because most are perennial, that is they come back year after year, and can be slow to establish and some won’t even flower in the first year! What you might see however is some of the existing annual weeds which have laid dormant in the soil come through. This can shade out your meadow seedlings and an easy way to remedy this is to either chop back the weedy growth with shears or mow over your patch. Mowing may sound drastic but it’s quite important in the first year, you should aim to mow or cut back growth in your patch regularly to around 40mm to 60mm. Be sure to remove the cuttings- these can be composted! Doing this ensures that annual weeds are kept under control and provides your slower developing species with time to catch up with fast growers!
Year 2 and onwards Your meadow should be left to develop from spring into late summer to allow it to flower and provide pollinators with a rich habitat and source of food. In Late July or August, after your meadow has flowered you should take what’s traditionally known as a “hay cut”. Cut back your meadow to around 50mm and leave the cuttings, also known as “arisings”, to dry out and shed seed on your patch, this takes up to 7 days. After which you can remove the arisings and pop them in your compost. Any regrowth can be cut back again in late autumn and in the following spring if needed.
The seed mix that we have provided was kindly donated by West Sussex County Council. It is a general mix of flowers and grasses developed by Emorsgate Seeds that can be used on various soil types.
Some of the species that might pop up in your patch are as follows:
At Heene Cemetery, volunteers carry out extensive monitoring of the species that can be found there. Below is a comprehensive list, supplied by the Friends of Heene Cemetery, of all the flowering plants that have been recorded there to date.
American Willowherb Annual Meadow-grass Ash Atlantic Ivy Barren Brome Bay Beaked Hawk’s-beard Bittersweet or Woody- Nightshade Black Medick Bladder Campion Borage Bramble Bristly Ox tongue Broad-leaved Dock Broad-leaved Willowherb Butterfly Bush Carnation Cat’s-ear Cleavers or Goosegrass Cock’s-foot Columbine Common Bent Common Bird’s-foot- trefoil Common Comfrey Common Dog-violet Common Ivy Common Mouse-ear Common Nettle Common or Black- Knapweed Common Poppy Common Ragwort Common Soft-brome Common Sorrel Common Spotted Orchid Common Toadflax Common Vetch Corn Marigold Cornflower Cotoneaster sp. Crab Apple Creeping Bent Creeping Cinquefoil Creeping Thistle Crested Dog’s-tail Cultivated Daffodil Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill
Daisy Dandelion Deadly Nightshade Dog-rose Early Dog-violet Elder Enchanter’s- nightshade English Elm Evergreen or Holm Oak False Oat-Grass False-brome Feverfew Field Bindweed Field Forget-me-not Field Maple Field Wood-rush Flax Fool’s Parsley Fox-and-cubs or Orange-Hawkweed Foxglove Garden Grape Hyacinth Garden Privet Garden Strawberry Garlic Mustard Germander Speedwell Glaucous Sedge Goat Willow Great Willowherb Greater Bird’s-foot- trefoil Greater Plantain Grey Sedge Hairy Tare Hawthorn Hazel Heath False-brome (Tor Grass) Hedge Bindweed Hedge Woundwort Herb Robert Himalayan Honeysuckle or- Flowering Nutmeg Hoary Willowherb Hogweed Holly Honeysuckle Hybrid Bluebell (H. non-scripta x hispanica)
Indian Strawberry Ivy-leaved Speedwell Lady’s Bedstraw Lady’s Mantle Large-leaved Lime Lesser Celandine Lesser Yellow Trefoil Lords-and-Ladies or -Cuckoo Pint Love-in-a-mist Marjoram Meadow Buttercup Meadow Crane’s-bill Mexican Fleabane Michaelmas Daisy Montbretia (C. aurea x pottsii) Musk Mallow Nipplewort Oxeye Daisy Pedunculate Oak Pendulous Sedge Perennial Rye-grass Perforate St John’s Wort Prickly Lettuce Prickly Sow-thistle Primrose Purple Toadflax Quaking Grass Ragged-Robin Red Campion Red Clover Red Dead-nettle Red Fescue Red Valerian Ribwort Plantain Rose Campion Rosebay Willowherb Rough Meadow-grass Scarlet Pimpernel Selfheal Sheep’s-fescue Short-fruited Willowherb Silver Birch Smooth Hawk’s-beard Smooth Sow-thistle Sneezewort Spear Thistle
Spindle Tree Spring Crocus Square-stalked St John’s -Wort Square-stemmed -Willowherb Stinking Iris Summer Snowflake Sycamore Thale Cress Three-cornered Garlic or -Leek Thyme-leaved Speedwell Trailing Bellflower Tutsan Viper’s-bugloss Wall Barley Wall Lettuce Water Figwort Wavy Bitter-cress White Campion White Clover White Comfrey White Stonecrop Wild Carrot Wild Onion or Crow Garlic Wild Teasel Wood Avens or Herb-Bennet Wood Dock Wood Forget-me-not Yarrow Yorkshire-fog
Green Tides CIC is the local partnership of Friends and green space volunteer groups across Adur and Worthing. The Wildflower Trail is a project for bees and people, working with local communities, groups and schools to grow, promote and maintain.