Hola, I’m Laura Davies, artist and founder at The Keep It Wild Project in southern Spain. An art and conservation program set up to protect bees and other flora and fauna from industrial farming. Surrounding the Earthship eco home my partner and I built and located in the only semi desert in Europe – the Tabernas steppe in the Almeria Province of Andalucia, Spain. Rainfall is just 22cm (9”) per year, summer temperatures can soar to 40C and winter nights plummet to below zero making this a practise in patience!
Since starting to build the Earthship in 2006, we also started the reserve with 3.5 hectares (9 acres). It now consists of approx. 20 hectares (50 acres) of wild garrigue land, olive terraces, a newly purchased almond grove at the start of the re-wilding process and a more managed ‘garden’ area. Added to slowly over the years, the already wild, left wild and the cultivated areas encouraged to rewild naturally. We’re now seeing increased bio-diversity and an increase in bees.
The new almond grove in January full of bees, blossom and wild flowers
The story of why we’re creating the reserve is a version of the Californian almond nightmare. Just as there, here thousands of hectares of wild or gently farmed almond fields are being stripped out to create industrial farms of olive and almonds. These have no hedgerows, no wild plants as an understory, just bare, ploughed land that turns to dust. The trees are planted so close together they need to be irrigated, unlike the traditionally farmed almond groves that are watered by rain.
Remembering that this is a semi-desert, the aquifers can’t cope with the new style of farming and are being depleted leaving local villagers without water. Pesticides and herbicides are making these olive and almond groves dead zones, where no flower or bee dares to show its face. Coupled with the markets being flooded with these industrial olives and almonds and so slashing the price, the smaller local farmers are finding it harder to make a living and are selling up, compounding the problem.
But we’re ever the optimists and are trying, in our own quiet way, to do something about it. After exploring more official routes, backed up by a 50,000 signature petition, we realised the only way to protect land here is to own it.
Funded in part from sales of my eco-friendly bee prints – 100% of the profits go to the Nature Reserve – we’re now sharing this story with you so you can become a part of bee protection in this unique part of southern Spain. Many don’t even realise this problem exists and bee populations are being wiped out without anyone speaking out for them.
But it’s not all doom and gloom!
A wild flower oasis for bees
We live in a community where many are trying to help bees not only survive but thrive. When we first moved to the area we were invited to a meeting of The Permaculture Group (now called the Pop-up Gardeners). Set up over 10 years ago, with up to 40 members over that time all practising gardening in a bee friendly way. Although this doesn’t sound very many members, this area has only 28 people per square mile. In contrast a UK county such as West Sussex has 1,120 people per square mile. That would translate to 1,600 members in West Sussex, what a network of bee friendly gardens that would be! Learning from this passionate group of environmentally aware nature lovers has been wonderful. In my own garden I’ve been using permaculture methods to manage rainwater for flower beds.
These I let the birds and wind seed with wild plants, interplanting with more typical garden plants. Encouraging the birds into the garden with food and water helps bring in the variety of wild plants, my favourite as I’ve had no success cultivating it myself is the caper. With it’s saucer like delicate blush pink flowers this has attracted a wide variety of bees.
White-banded digger and Ceratina bees in a caper flower
In fact, it was this caper and the large white-banded digger bee (Amegilla quadrifasciata) I saw buzzing around in it that started me investigating and painting the variety of bees that visit us.
Finding two long-horned bees (Eucera) snuggled up in the end of our hose pipe also piqued my interest. These fluffy little bees of the Apinae family are so adorable in a fairy tale, kind of way, with their extra-long antennae – another bee I couldn’t resist painting.
Sadly, we don’t see many bumblebees in the reserve yet. The ground is hard, like cement, I suspect they struggle to find nesting sites and prefer the cultivated gardens with softer soils. But now, thanks to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, I understand what they need and will start setting nest sites throughout the reserve, watch this space for results.
Eucera bee waking up in a hose pipe connector
Two years ago, I had no idea so many varieties of bees existed. We’re now in the process of starting a survey with our friends at the pop-up gardening group to log the different bees (and other pollinators) we’re seeing, what they like to forage, when they’re around. We wish there was a Bumblebee Conservation Trust in Spain so we could join the BeeWalk. I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with our own mini version of it.
And in answer to the question is bumble bee conservation possible in a semi-desert, I’d say a resounding yes as long as we can halt the industrial farming.