When neonicotinoid pesticides were developed back at the turn of the 21st century, did nobody realise what would happen to the wildlife that ingested them?
‘Right, Holly – give it a good whack!’
As the tremor shuddered along the oak’s boughs, green blobs fell to earth, and startled blue tits fled to higher branches. Some blobs hit the cotton sheet at full pelt, others slowed their fall on gossamer bungee strands that swung gently on early June’s warming breeze.
‘One’s gone down my neck!’
‘I did say to wear your big hat, Holly. You know they get everywhere, and it’s baking hot away from the trees anyway. Look! – there they go.’
Brief stun over, the green blobs arched their backs in unison and thousands of green loops began moving hurriedly for cover beneath the pale green leaves dislodged by the thud from the pole. Brazen, the tits fluttered into the sea of looping caterpillars, stuffing their beaks.
‘They don’t miss a trick, do they? Go on, shoo!’ Remembering the looper down her shirt, Holly squirmed. ‘We need these today, there are plenty more up top. Talk about fly-thru food.’
‘Give ’em a break, they’ve families to feed – there are three thousand nest boxes in here, you know.’ Ben unpacked ten clear flasks and laid them out on the edge of the sheet. ‘Be grateful we’re not doing the chick count this year. Now, we need exactly a hundred in each. Do you want to hoover?’
Holly gently rescued the looper from inside her shirt, popping it into a flask. ‘Ninety-nine to go, and they’ll all be pea soup by tomorrow.’ The long clear tube gently sucked the caterpillars up and Ben counted them out into the flasks. Above them, escapees still swivelled on silken threads.
‘All done – let’s eat. We’ve four more trees left.’
They leant back against the oak’s deeply fissured bark as the midday heat pushed deeper into the forest. The sheet was now bedlam: blue tits jostled with great, robins squared up to wrens over the tiniest green titbits, and the blackbirds made a noisy fuss over pretty much nothing. The tits ran relays to and from nestboxes, and coy warblers picked off caterpillars lunging from the sheet’s edge. Thrushes, enjoying a break from shell-smashing, gathered up green beakfuls. The birds quickly cleared the sheet of every last looper, then Ben and Holly folded it up.
‘I don’t know why they need so many. I mean, they’re all going in a blender anyway.’
‘It’s called analysis, Holly, but I guess the blending bit’s right. They need exact numbers so they can test them for the ’noids. The birds are acting pretty normal in here, not like those outside which are still being hit by the poisons. The watchers say there are places near the last intensi-farms where the birds start out all right, but then lose it halfway through raising their chicks.’ Ben pressed a barcode onto each flask. ‘We found that the caterpillars were taking the ’noids in from eating the oak leaves, because the trees had sucked them up through their roots. So when the birds eat the caterpillars, and feed them to their chicks, they get some ’noids, too.’
Clouds of dandelion seeds swirled around their feet as they took the path to the next big oak. A few bumblebees lolloped between the last flowers, although most had moved on to the foxgloves. Ben paused, pointing up to a chirping box.
‘A young blue tit can eat a hundred caterpillars a day, and there might be ten to a box. Every time a caterpillar gets eaten by a bird – or anything else – it passes on a little dose of ’noid, and it all tots up until it affects the bird’s brain. That’s when the parents abandon their nests and go a bit loopy, so the young birds starve. Even if they do get to leave the nest, the young are so muddled they don’t make it – the magpies outside don’t miss a chance. But the more contaminated young birds the maggies eat, the madder they become.’
‘So do all the birds just die?’
‘The adults don’t usually die, they just eat like mad because they’re hooked on the caterpillars with ’noids in them. They fight and lose their mates. Bird numbers are still dropping as more fail to breed properly. Rowan says it’s pretty upsetting being a watcher. You sit around all day watching birds go bonkers, and you can’t help them. Some watchers get so upset they stop.’
Holly gazed into a flask of frenetic green loops. ‘But… surely the birds must prefer grubs without anything funny in them? Why would they get high on purpose?’
‘They don’t. They just get a craving for the caterpillars with ’noids in them, just like with the bees. It was the citizen gardener project that found that bees actually preferred poisoned flowers to pure ones. Even when the scientists proved that, the chemical makers still said the ’noids were safe. I guess if you make pesticides based on nicotine you might expect something bad to happen, but no one ever imagined we’d end up with druggie wildlife addicted to them.’
They stopped in a clearing filled with buttercups gleaming in the sunshine. Butterflies danced in and out of the dappled shade. Squinting, Holly looked up through the treetops. A circling buzzard’s shadow floated across her face.
‘How high did you say the roof was?’
‘Oh, about 90 metres in the centre where the bee groves are. It gradually gets lower where the dome meets the ground. It’s not really a roof, Holly. Haven’t you noticed how it rains in here like always, and the wind still blows? The dome’s bioskin lets everything happen pretty much as normal – it’s just that no birds or animals can get out, and none of the outside ones can get in, not even insects.’
Holly saw only deep blue through the trees. She thought what clever stuff this bioskin was. ‘It seems wrong to me, having to coop everything up like this.’
‘We had to do something really big or we’d have lost some things forever. That’s why we had the nature referendum, when you were still a little girl – remember? The new domes are bigger than this – and this one’s a mile across so it covers the entire forest. They’ve made the rewilding zones around them wider now, and cleaning up the soil’s going well on the old intensi-farms. We might get picked for dirt testing next year. They say the worms are starting to come back.’
‘It’s got to be better than hoovering up caterpillars.’
‘It’ll mean brown fingers instead,’ winked Ben.
His phone scanned a tree trunk, dinging confirmation. ‘This one’s next. Shall I whack?’ Blue tits scolded overhead as they pulled out the sheet. ‘The samples are looking good this year. They’ve found no ’noids in most of them, so the biofiltering’s working a treat. This dome’s almost clear now.’
‘Will nature always be safer in domes? Can’t we set it free again someday?’
‘That’s the plan, Holly. I’m not so sure I’ll see it, but if you have kids, when they’re your age the domes should be starting to come down. It’ll take that long to clean things up. Are you ready?’
Holly fastened the top button of her shirt, raising its collar. ‘I am now – hit it!’
Text and images © John Walker
Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener