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Headstones, pollinators and COP26

Giving pollinators a helping hand is the least we can do in the face of the climate crisis that world leaders are assembling in Glasgow to discuss this November. But the need to do so is pressing – and easy.

Four hundred and seventy-five miles away from Worthing and a hundred miles north-west of Glasgow, where the COP26 global climate talks will be held this November, is the tiny Hebridean island of Coll. In a cemetery on its north-west coast are headstones wreathed in lichen the like of which would amaze you. It takes the form of wiry bristles which are in places six inches long. In around 80 years, with clean sea air streaming across the two and half thousand miles between America and Scotland, this lichen has thrown a cloak around the cemetery’s headstones, graves and stone walls. It is a mesmerising sight.

Worthing Cemetery lacks the pure air that allows lichen to proliferate as it has here on a headstone on the Hebridean Isle of Coll, but it has other natural riches worth preserving and encouraging.

That we have nothing even resembling this in Heene Cemetery is due to Worthing’s traffic fumes and general pollution. Although this may be disappointing, there are other reasons to celebrate. We can be delighted by the fact that the Cemetery’s careful management by the Friends of Heene Cemetery has (at the time of writing) enabled nearly 390 different species of plants, insects, invertebrates and butterflies – and more – to be counted and photographed (since last year’s first lockdown began). You can see this constantly growing list on the species search page of this website. As this process continues – with help from specialists and county recorders – this number is likely to become substantially higher. There may be few lichens, but there is a surprisingly rich variety of other species.

That such a small town-centre site has proved to be so rich in species is due to several factors. Its creation in 1873 made use of land that had until then been ancient meadow, trodden by foot and hoof, and scythed, but never ploughed. Its narrow escape from having been a public park since its closure in 1977 spared it from council weedkillers; and it has probably never been treated with artificial fertilisers or pesticides. And this is to be hugely celebrated. Heene Cemetery really is a wildlife oasis in the middle of urban Worthing.

Heene Cemetery is rich in wildflowers, that provide pollen and nectar for pollinators and other insects. This is Heene Cemetery in May.

COP26 will no doubt tell us that we will need many more places like this. The latest book by Sussex University’s Professor Dave Goulson, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse, says so loud and clear. Goulson is a multi-award-winning biologist specialising in bee ecology, and is founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. It was his work that identified the link between the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on crops and an 85% reduction in the production of new queen bees. This led directly to the 2013 EU Moratorium on the use of such pesticides on various flowering crops. Follow-up studies of his have also found that plants sold by major retailers in the UK as being ‘bee friendly’ and ‘perfect for pollinators’ were often “stuffed full of insecticides and fungicides” and therefore actually toxic to bees. Since then, many major garden centres have corrected this – but it pays to check when you look for such plants.

A White-tailed Bumblebee fending off inquisitive pollen-seekers on a Field Scabious in Heene Cemetery.

Silent Earth parades its science methodically. Around our planet, habitat loss, the use of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers, increases in parasites and diseases, climate change, light pollution, and accidental species introductions; all these are threats to the welfare of our pollinators, our key workers – and all insects.  Encouragingly, Goulson’s book ends with 50 pages of advice on what we can all do to help support our native pollinators. If you are lucky enough to have a garden, various actions could help enormously: stop mowing (or reduce the area that you mow), encourage bee-friendly plants, and stop using any chemicals. These approaches operate in full in Heene Cemetery. At the current count, there are 5 different species of bees and bumblebees, 28 butterflies and moths, 10 hoverflies, and a good number of beetles, wasps and bugs that move between pollen-bearing flowers.

We can compare this with the fascinating story that Dave Goulson recounts of a very special wildlife gardener, Jennifer Owen, who spent 35 years cataloguing everything in her own eighth-of-an-acre garden in Leicester. She notched up a remarkable 2,673 different species, of which some 2,204 were insects. A Wikipedia article on her says that she counted 91 of the UK’s 256 species of British hoverflies in 14 years. In Heene Cemetery we’ve counted just 10, so we’ve a long way to go yet.

A hoverfly (Myathropa florea) – a valued pollinator – in Heene Cemetery.
A different pollinating hoverfly photographed in the Cemetery, Helophilus travittatus – with vertical stripes on the thorax and a lemon yellow face.
A surprising pollinator: a Swollen-thighed Beetle on a garden-escape Potentilla in the Cemetery in July.
Buddleias (aptly called Butterfly Bushes) attract all sorts of pollinators, such as here a Peacock butterfly feeding on nectar. Their seeds are also valued by finches and other seed-eating birds.

COP26 will remind us all that we need to do more for our environment, globally and locally – daily and on so many levels. Whatever changes you are already making in your household, perhaps you might look to your own garden – or several corners of it. Have you stopped using weedkillers? Could you plant more bee-friendly plants? Could you leave an area where you mow less or not at all?

Grow a single marjoram plant, perhaps in a pot on your balcony or roof terrace, and when it blooms I guarantee that the bees, butterflies and hoverflies will sniff it out.

Dave Goulson

The more intractable environmental problems we face need government co-ordination, but repeated, small-scale and concerted endeavours like this could really help our local insects and pollinators.

These key workers of the natural world provide what are termed ecosystem services. Every third bite we take is of food that requires pollination by pollinators. (The other two bites will be of meat or of wind-pollinated crops such as grasses, nuts and cereals, anemophily being the name of that process.) Alongside that, we shouldn’t forget that these creatures, in all their variety of colour, shape and pattern, have an intrinsic beauty that deserves our protection simply for what they are.

A Speckled Bush-cricket – not a pollinator – on a Wild Carrot in Heene Cemetery, beauty in miniature worth encouraging and preserving simply for what it is.
Another non-pollinator merits a lingering eye, a Green Shield Bug (probably a final instar nymph) on a Wild Carrot plant in late August, Heene Cemetery.

It is salutary to think that the majority of the souls peacefully at rest in the Cemetery would never have seen any of the environmental threats that we today appreciate as commonplace. The west Worthing of their day – certainly up until the end of the Second World War – though not perhaps having many examples of the extraordinary lichens seen in the Hebrides, would have been replete with a natural biodiversity that today we can only dream of. How fitting, then, that their final resting place has also become a haven for wildlife in the midst of what is today a bustling urban environment. How urgent it is that we plan for our future, starting at least in our own gardens. As the old mantra had it, “think global but act local”. The climate crisis can’t be left to world leaders at COP26; the planet needs help from all of us.

If you would like to support the work of the Friends of Heene Cemetery, you can become a member at an annual fee of £5. Contact the Membership Secretary, Friends of Heene Cemetery, c/o 77 Northcourt Road, Worthing, West Sussex BN14 7DU. The Friends are ‘recruiting’ at the moment and would welcome volunteers interested in participating in these species counts, in the site’s management, in researching the burials, and in many of the administrative tasks. For more information, please contact Sue Standing on 07771966846 or suestanding@hotmail.com. The Cemetery is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays between 2 and 4, weather permitting. Come and pay us a visit!

[This post is a longer and slightly modified version of the article published in The Worthing Herald on 22nd October 2021.]