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Bees are crucial for biodiversity. Here’s how to support their survival

Aside from their fascinating social structure (many bees are ‘eusocial’, meaning each individual plays a role within a colony, which itself could be seen as a living individual), bees play a vital role in the continuing existence of humans. They pollinate around a third of the food we eat (although the exact figure is hotly debated), many of the crops that make our clothes, and those used for feeding livestock. Out of the 400 different types of plants grown for human consumption, bees play some role in the yield and quality of 84%. As a result, it’s estimated that annually, bees contribute $170bn worth of crop pollination around the world – vital with our ever-growing population in need of food. Economically speaking, beekeeping can be an important sustainable and alternative source of income in rural areas, benefiting communities living in and around forests. 

Unsurprisingly, bees provide services to ecosystems beyond this anthropocentric viewpoint too. They have evolved to be highly efficient pollinators of a huge variety of trees and other plants, vital for nature’s biodiversity. Bees visit plants for their food, nectar and pollen and have evolved to do so while also (usually) benefitting the plant they are visiting. Their bodies are covered in hairs to trap nectar and pollen, which they can do so year-round (climate dependent), so long as there are flowers available. Their co-evolution over millions of years has led to symbiotic relationships as old as each species – nectar and pollen from flowering plants are bees’ only food source – nectar for energy and pollen for baby food – and bees a primary pollinator for many plants. Bees also act as indicators of the state of the environment. Their presence or absence tells us of the current health of that ecosystem

Because of all of this, there has been an increase in awareness-raising for the plight of bees. In the six years leading up to 2013, more than 10 million honey bee colonies across the world were lost, often to Colony Collapse Disorder, where bees abandon their hives, leaving the queen and young to fend for themselves. Although the full cause of CCD has not yet been established, evidence points towards the use of Neonicotinoids, pesticides brought in to replace other banned pesticides. Inevitably following CCD the hives die out, although mercifully farmers are able to restock honeybee numbers each year. The same cannot be said for less blatantly economically beneficial species, such as solitary bees, which make up the vast majority of bee species. Of these, around 1 in 10 face extinction as a result of intensive farming, insecticide use and climate change. The habitats they depend on for nesting sites and foraging are rapidly diminishing due to urbanisation – since 1945, 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK have vanished – leaving precious few refuges for them to bounce back. 

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was published nearly 60 years ago. It’s credited with catalysing the environmental movement in the US and UK, after documenting the devastating effects for bee populations of indiscriminate use of pesticides such as DDT on crops. In 1972 the EPA banned DDT and it is now classified as a probable human carcinogen. And yet, 60 years on, there is still a constant battle between agricultural industry, and environmental organisations. Following the banning of DDT, new pesticides have been introduced – such as the Neonicotinoids that contribute to CCD – and many subsequently banned. Who’d have thought that removing the base of the food chain would cause everything above to collapse? Despite decades of proving that the indiscriminate wiping out of large swathes of the food chain is harmful to the whole ecosystem, the battle between industry and nature continues. 

SO HOW CAN WE HELP? IT’S NOT TO LAER TO SAVE OUR BEES FROM EXTINCTION. HERE ARE SOME OF THE BEST WAYS YOU CAN PROMOTE THE HEALTH OF BEES, BOTH CLOSE TO HOME AND BEYOND
Buy organic

One of the best things we can do to promote bee-friendly growing techniques is to buy organic. According to the Soil Association, plant, insect and bird life is 50% more abundant of organic farms. By supporting these farms, you’re supporting the expansion of organic farming practices, thus helping bee populations further afield. 

Fill your garden with bee-friendly plants

Reducing the frequency of mowing, and planting native flowers can massively benefit bee populations. You don’t need a lot of space either – window boxes of flowers and un-mown patches of lawn all provide shelter and food sources for multiple different species. Aim to have flowers that bloom year round – grow snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils for early spring feasts and cyclamen, dahlias and begonias for autumn stockpiling. Look for wildflower seed mixes. They’re tough to grow but in the right conditions provide the most benefits for our pollinators. 

Create nesting sites

While honeybees require large hives to thrive in, the majority of bee species require much less space. Create a bee hotel to allow them to nest and rest, or build a rock garden. Many bee habitats are considered ‘messy’ to most gardeners, but by maintaining some areas of the garden undisturbed, the nooks and crannies can act as warm shelters for the local solitary bees. 

Avoid herbicides and pesticides

As tempting as it may be, using herbicides and pesticides can significantly harm bee populations, as well as everything further up the food chain, such as your garden birds. Mulch around the base of trees and on bare earth – not only will this suppress weeds, it’ll also provide nutrients to your plants, and nesting sites for overwintering insects! Look into ‘companion planting’ – planting more attractive or naturally repellent plants between your crops, to attract or repel unwanted insects. 

Buy local honey

Honeybees are not the be all and end all of the bee population in the UK or further afield. However, buying local honey supports local bees pollinating plants in your local area – a win win for the environment and the beekeepers. Purchasing from small businesses also protects against mass production of supermarket-bought, pollen-free ‘honey’, often packed with artificial sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup. If you eat honey, make sure it’s from local hives. 

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” 
― Rachel Carson

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How the world can learn from Costa-Rica’s biodiversity efforts

Deforestation rates in the tropics are soaring. According to a report by Frontiers in Environmental Science, ‘the world’s forests, particularly those in tropical areas and climates, are being degraded at an alarming rate. Tropical rainforests contain half of all biodiversity, regulate global climate, purify air and water, and serve as a source of resources for local communities, therefore are incredibly crucial to the health of the planet.’ The loss of biodiversity and species diversity is catastrophic, leading to lowered ecosystem productivity, extinction of species and threat to human life.  

But efforts to replant trees and encourage forest recovery are starting to turn the tide. Particularly in certain countries – take Costa Rica as a case study and it should make you realise that with the right ambitions and intentions, we can all, as individuals even, take steps toward a better future. 

After suffering some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world in the 1970s and 1980s, Costa Rica has regrown large areas of its tropical rainforest. Between 1940 and 1983, Costa Rica, lost approximately, 50% of its original forests. It’s now the only tropical country to actively stop, and reverse, deforestation. The small country really has set the bar when it comes to climate action and protecting biodiversity. 

As an incredibly environmentally progressive country, since 2014, Costa Rica sourced 98% of its energy from renewable sources, has reforested large amounts of degraded land and utilises strong constitutional rights such as the human right to a healthy environment to increase sustainability. Costa Rica also has one of the greatest percentages (26%) of protected land in the world. It’s no surprise then that, in 2019, the country was named Champion of the Earth by the United Nations for its contributions to fighting climate change and protecting nature. 

Perhaps most impressive, though, is this way in which it has regenerated lost forests and habitats. As the report by Frontiers continues, ‘Costa Rica successfully reversed deforestation by restoring forest cover from 24.4% in 1985 to >50% by 2011 through implementation of national environmental protection policies in the 1990s that included a portfolio of Pas (Protected Areas), PES (Payments for Ecosystems Services Programs), and ecotourism.’

So, how exactly did they achieve this increase in forestation? In recognising that the situation in Costa Rica was pretty unique, the tourism ministers knew that they could and should target ecotourism as a means to improve and protect their biodiversity.

Although small, the popular tourism destination houses more than 6% of the world’s biodiversity, drawing people in from all corners of the globe to see such a natural phenomenon. Using the four pillars of sustainable tourism (sustainable management, socioeconomic impacts, cultural impacts, and environmental impacts), the government ensure that Costa Rica’s tourist attractions are centered on respecting the environment. Travellers are therefore offered opportunities to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to sustainable tourism and volunteering programmes – most often directly supporting reforestation. Earlier this year, the Costa Rica National Forest Financing Fund launched a carbon-footprint calculator for tourists to understand the impact of their travels and offset in a way they see fit. Donations and contributions to this program are used to strengthen forest conservation efforts in Costa Rica.

With nearly 50% of Costa Rica’s biodiversity found in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, it’s a fine example of the aforementioned ecotourism focus coming in to play. Established in 1972 by a coalition of scientists from the Tropical Science Centre (TSC) and Quakers from the local community to protect one of the last tracts of pristine Cloud Forest in Central America, the Preserve is a pioneer and progressive conservation and ecotourism model based in biodiversity research and education. 

As a feature by Treehugger quite rightly drew attention to also, ‘an example of sustainable management in the community [is] locally owned Arenal Observatory Lodge [which] maintains 270 acres of natural forest and 400 acres of reforestation areas.’ Many hotels and resorts across the country, like Arenal Observatory Lodge, focus an incredible amount of their attention on reforestation, and have access to a brilliant support system from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) and the Certification for Sustainable Tourism, which provides tourism companies with guidelines to manage their business sustainably. 

But it isn’t all down to ecotourism, and direct sources of income for locals and farmers have been a large part of the solution. Known as FONAFIFO, a financial mechanism for the recovery and conservation of forest cover, locals are encouraged to restore forests. Although this doesn’t often lead to them making profit, they can then utilise ecotourism (many will charge a fee to guide biologists, ecologists and sustainable tourists around their land) and PES from the government. 

As well as the government scheme, non-profits such as Reforest the Tropics has planted 356 hectares of forest since it’s founding on the ground of Costa Rica in 1996 and creates a direct source of income for many struggling farmers. According to Borgen Magazine, they ‘create the equivalent of one full-time position for every 15 hectares planted but also require many more short-term workers during the initial stages of planting. Most of these workers come from the local community.’ 

Clearly, innovation, pioneering attitudes to economic solutions and moving quickly on sustainability initiatives are central to the success and progression seen in Costa Rica. It’s about experimenting, working together as a community and recognising the need for urgency.  

A recent National Geographic article shone a spotlight on how researchers are experimenting and have tested whether coffee pulp could also contribute to bringing Costa Rica’s rainforests back to life. The findings were published in the journal Ecological Solutions and Evidence and showed a dramatic improvement from the coffee over the course of two years. This is a prime example of how experimenting and ploughing resources into sustainability campaigns can yield incredible results over short periods of time. Agricultural by-products are a great place to start when it comes to biodiversity and reforestation, and seemingly Costa Rica is, again, leading the way in its acceptance and enthusiasm to keep trying new things. 

Taking that attitude alone is something we could all do in our everyday lives. That is, if we all experimented more with ways to live sustainably and all looked for ways to improve on a daily basis, the world would slowly start looking like a much better place. The Costa Rican philosophy of Pura Vida, meaning Pure Life, is embedded in their culture and manifests in a strong connection between people and nature. As a nation, they are hyper-aware of the effects humans have on the environment and work together to preserve it. Sound like something we could all adopt?   

With Costa Rica’s President Carlos Alvarado Quesada at the helm, who recently announced his plans to decarbonise the country by 2050 and called on several world leader’s to join him, few countries can rival the efforts of the small country. Costa Rica continues to be committed to changing the course of our planet, and recently announced their updated, more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). This commits the country to taking actions that would help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It also promises a further reduction in emissions, aiming for a maximum of 9.11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030.

So, when it comes to trying to live more sustainably, could we all benefit from following in Costa Rica’s footsteps? Keep their enthusiasm, efforts and President Carlos Alvarado Quesada’s progressive attitude in mind, and commit to taking small, yet ambitious, steps everyday. 

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The sustainable laundry company harnessing space-age technology

When we consider how to combat climate change, our laundry pile may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet as we know from recycling, reducing food waste in our kitchens and making everyday smarter purchasing decisions, it’s often the seemingly mundane lifestyle choices we make which collectively determine our individual impact on the planet.

When we reframe a chore such as laundry in this way, and take into account that the average household uses their washing machine 4.7 times a week, with each wash requiring around 50 litres of water, perhaps it doesn’t seem so trivial after all. Whether washing our clothes at home or taking special care items to be professionally cleaned, creating some impact on the environment is inevitable.

Launched in 2017, Oxwash is a sustainable, ultra-hygienic and on-demand laundry and drycleaning company founded by former NASA engineer Dr Kyle Grant while he was completing a PhD at Oxford University. 

“I fell into the laundry space completely by accident after getting frustrated doing my sports teams kit one day and finding all the machines out of order. I started a student laundry service that very quickly grew due to the demand from small businesses. When I took my first look under the hood of a commercial laundry I was horrified at the waste being produced and the inefficiencies that were often plugged by below minimum wage workers.” Kyle was inspired to re-engineer the process, making it more planet friendly. “I have always wanted to build a business that has a positive impact for every single customer from day one” he says.

The commercial laundry industry is both wasteful and pollutive throughout much of the process. Traditional laundries are renowned for high energy usage from their washing and drying machines. There’s also the issue of microfibre pollution, caused by inadequate filtration systems which are unable to prevent microplastics from entering our water systems. Then the type of detergent used, or the packaging it comes in; most laundries use whichever detergent is most cost-effective, and these tend to have high levels of toxicity, such as the chemical PERC which is a known health and environmental hazard. Finally, the effect of transportation; most laundries that offer collections and deliveries use vans as transport, contributing to GHG emissions and CO2 pollution.

From collection through washing and back to delivery, Oxwash aims to maintain net zero carbon emissions – something which has never been done before. Kyle’s career as a scientist for NASA informed the process greatly, by bringing a systems engineering mindset to the problem: 

“My time working in the aerospace industry has etched in my mind the importance of viewing a ‘system’ as a whole as well as the sum of the parts and analysing our service completely end-to-end. To that end, Oxwash owns the entire value chain from collection, washing and delivery to the tech development and washing research and development. Like launching a rocket it’s only when you build and launch the whole vehicle can you see how all the parts function together in the most efficient way.”

Cutting down on energy consumption, the company uses solar panels to power their washing machines. They use biodegradable detergents and emulsifiers that are automatically dosed depending on the weight of each wash which prevents up to 25% excess chemistry being used. As for the water, where each 8kg wash cycle typically uses 50 litres of water per wash, Oxwash uses 18 litres. Using ozone technology for disinfection, washes are done at low temperatures while still destroying bacteria, viruses and allergens and more recently, dissolvable laundry bags have been introduced to eliminate coronavirus transmission through fabric and clothing. As for the transportations, Oxwash uses e-cargo bikes which save 6,700 KG of CO2 emissions per year.

Oxwash’s model is simple; customers place an order online, choose a collection and drop off time and place, and have their items collected, washed and delivered, all with zero net carbon emissions. The eco-friendly dry cleaning service isn’t just available for individuals, Oxwash has also partnered with companies including Marriott and Airbnb too; both heavyweights in the hospitality industry which is notorious for its huge impact on the environment through laundering, particularly towels and bedding. 

Kyle hopes that disrupting the laundry industry will have a knock-on effect on other adjacent industries. “Laundry is one of the oldest circular economies out there. You don’t sleep in your bed sheets once then throw them away! We believe that this mindset and model can be extrapolated.” Here’s hoping!

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How seaweed farming could help to fix the planet

People are waking up to the powers of seaweed and starting to see it as an option to reverse the damage of climate change. The fast-growing algae utilises energy from the sunlight, nutrients from the water and carbon dioxide from the ocean, too. Sounds pretty brilliant, right? 

The challenge? Getting the word out there and facilitating the process. You see, seaweed has the ability to combat climate change by regenerating marine ecosystems, absorbing carbon emissions, and creating biofuel and renewable plastics. That’s not to mention it’s power as a renewable food source, too, and the regeneration of local infrastructure and jobs – the sustainable social impacts could be huge. 

Given that there are so many concerns over our global consumption of meat and the environmental impact of continuing to eat meat, seaweed could be a significant turning point. It’s a source of protein and packed full of nutrients, so when it comes to eco-friendly, nutrient rich food sources, seaweed could be the one. If seaweed can start being used as and seen to be an everyday and usual food fix, it’ll have hugely positive effects on the outcome of our planet. The seaweed to food movement is massive, and holds giant potential. Not only is it a great protein source and meat substitute, but it’s a way to pioneer the positive effects of eating lower on the food chain. 

In fact, a study by Yale University on how ‘third way’ technologies can help to turn the tide on climate change, highlighted that there is ‘one study [that] suggests that if you cover 9 percent of the world’s oceans in seaweed farms, you could draw down the equivalent of all our current emissions – more than 40 gigatons a year – and grow enough protein to feed a population of 10 billion people. That’s a huge opportunity.’ 

Another study by Yale showed the following: ‘Plants in the ocean, from seagrasses to plankton, add up to just 0.05 percent of the plant biomass on land, but are so pervasive and efficient at sucking up carbon that they cycle through roughly the same amount of carbon every day as all the land-based plants. Yet seagrass ecosystems are being wiped out, thanks to everything from pandemic disease to water pollution and coastal construction projects.’ 

In an article we featured recently about the humble sibling to seaweed, seagrass, Evie Ramirez highlighted that ‘these productive plants work as filtering systems for coastal waters, helping to keep them clean by soaking up nutrients and bacteria. They also provide coastal defence against rising sea levels and erosion by stabilising sediment and reducing wave and tidal energy.’ 

But seaweed holds even more power than seagrass. The key difference between the closely related species is that seaweed is a macroalgae, whereby particles will be exported out to sea where the carbon can be sequestered. Unlike seagrass, seaweed doesn’t have roots, so ​​the carbon from macroalgae is stored away from the shore, it’s less likely to be disturbed and returned to the atmosphere. Researchers at Harvard have found that seaweed is, in fact, the most effective natural way of storing carbon emissions away from the atmosphere. 

Crucially, seaweed farms also allow important resources for the growing demand for change in the fashion industry. Recently, New York designer Charlotte McCurdy created a seaweed raincoat. Concocting the creation of this in a laboratory, before teaming up with the renowned designer Phillip Lim, Charlotte wanted to plant a seed of hope in the fashion industry and show that, although material development is slow, we can all step in and do our part. Her focus now is on forming an innovation, helping people to recognise that we don’t have time on our side, and utilising the resources that will ultimately become available from seaweed farms across the globe. 

But, as this article for Time states, though: ‘For the industry to scale, Druehl says, governing bodies—both national and international—as well as private companies have to make major investments to help the industry get its feet off the ground.’ 

One such company that is making waves is SeaGrown, situated on the Yorkshire Coast. With support from the Coastal Communities Fund, they are establishing a seaweed farm in the clean, cold, open waters of the North Sea. ‘Our pioneering seaweed farm will ethically produce a sustainable crop which British customers and Industry can use in lots of innovative ways – from biodegradable plastics to a new source of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, textiles and biochemicals,’ they say. We also produce our own fantastic range of seaweed food seasonings which are a great way of adding serious flavour to all your food with the nutritional boost of SeaGrown seaweed. Most importantly of all, our super-seaweed crop just needs the sun and the sea – no chemicals, fresh water, power or even land.’  


There’s still a way to go to make seaweed the norm, but the tide is pushing in the right direction. Let’s take a look at some of the brands pioneering the way in which the humble sea algae can be utilised, from packaging to homewares…