Saturday, 31 January 2015

The problem with herbal remedies, part 2



Yesterday we pointed out that herbal remedies do not make a proper substitute for real medicine. Some plants do have an effect on the body, but their active compounds were long ago isolated in a laboratory and standardised, and we no longer call them “herbal medicine” – because they work, they are called medicine.

It’s not that most herbal remedy pills have never been tested in laboratories, however – it’s that they have been tested, and proven not to work. A landmark ten-year study by the USNational Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine tested a wide variety of common herbal cures and found that none of them performed any better than sugar-pill placebos at alleviating the conditions they were supposed to cure. Specifically:
  • Gingko had no effect on memory.
  • Saw palmetto did nothing for prostate problems.
  • Shark cartilage was useless against cancer.
  • Black cohosh was useless for menopausal hot flashes.
  • Echinacea, at least in their experiments, did not help with colds.
Alternative medicine is an industry, just like the mainstream pharmaceutical industry, run by executives in suits, making pills in mechanised factories. Their packaging might have pictures of sunbeams and rainforests, but they were made by corporations just like conventional remedies; the only difference is that the alternative medicine market, in many countries, doesn’t have to follow as many rules about what’s in their products. 

This is one of the most important things to take away: Most herbal pills don’t necessarily contain any of the substance they advertise on the package. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Medicine found “high content variability” in herbal pills sold, with most companies not even testing how much gingko, say, is in the gingko pills. 

A 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that only half the Echinacea pills purchased contained the amount they were supposed to, and 10 per cent contained no Echinacea whatsoever. 

In addition, remember that “holistic” medicines don’t just come from Chinese monks or Amazonian Indians; “holistic” refers to the idea that the body has essential elements that need to be kept in balance, like yin and yang in Chinese medicine or chakras in India. Western tradition has the four humours, used from Polybus in the fifth century BC to the beginning of the 19th century AD, and which we still invoke when we refer to someone as melancholy or sanguine. 

Western writers came up with some creative cures using this method – when 11th-century Arabic physician Ibn Butlan saw a patient who felt cold and clammy, for example, he recommended eating a rooster, an animal that was hot and dry. It might sound ridiculous, but all other holistic medicines work on the same principle. 

Holistic theory was used because no one really understood how the body worked. Why did humours continue to be invoked for 2,400 years if their recommendations were so ridiculous -- she-goat urine poured into the ears for a stiff neck, to use an example from Pliny the Elder? Perhaps for the same reason many modern alternative medicines appear to work; people use them to treat problems like a cold or injury that eventually get better on their own anyway, leading the patient to think that the prescribed remedy was responsible.

In cases where a patient gets measurably worse, perhaps, a certain anthropic principle comes into play; those patients who die aren’t around to complain that the cures didn’t work. Or – again, like modern alternative therapies – they treated symptoms that are particularly hard to measure, like “fatigue.”

If someone were to open a storefront today selling she-goat urine or literal snake oil, though, they would get few customers and might be shut down by the authorities. Nor, if your appendix bursts in China, will surgeons give you such treatments – they have modern medicine and pharmaceuticals, and use them. Why, then, do these now-disproven folk cures thrive in countries far removed from their origin?

I suspect that the reason has little to do with the remedies themselves, and everything to do with the Sixties counterculture, which criticised anything mainstream, modern, or Western, and suspended such scepticism when it came to Native Americans, Chinese, Africans or any other culture too far removed in time and space for most Westerners to consult.  

Then, since we live in a society that a.) takes pills to solve problems and b.) markets new products to the public, an industry arose to take advantage of this new consumer demographic, one that was willing to buy factory-made placebos advertised with words like “natural,” holistic” or “essence.”

None of this, of course, means that local plants and herbal treatments have no value in keeping yourself healthy; quite the contrary, they are the first and last line of defence. They have value as the first and best way of staying healthy – say, getting enough vitamins to stave off illness – and we could consider that medicine, although most people prefer to consider it “food.” They are also your last resort if no medical help is available, and knowing plants that can be used as emergency medicine could save someone’s life.

What will not save lives, however, are pills that contain little or none of the substance they claim to have, substances that wouldn’t work even if they were present. The only difference such pills will make is to cheat money out of people who are already sick and struggling.  

Photo: Dried shark fins used in Asian folk medicine. 

Friday, 30 January 2015

The problem with herbal remedies - part 1



To be published in the Kildare Nationalist next week. Based on an essay from 2011. 

A few decades ago “alternative” medicines mainly came from fringe outlets that catered to the then-marginal counterculture. Today every health food store, pharmacist and supermarket sells a range of “natural” pills, juices, salves, teas and powders that promise to cure your cold, detoxify your body, sleep soundly, stave off illness, brighten your mood, remember your anniversary and return to the size you were when you were a teenager. In short, our poor health, dissatisfaction and desire to return to nature has created whole new fields of enthusiastic capitalism. 

It’s not difficult to see the reason; we’re getting sicker across the industrialised world, as illnesses like heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes have created ever-greater medical costs. Many things cause this: We live sedentary lives, eat too much unhealthy food, work longer and more stressful hours. People also live longer, so they spend more time in an age when people get sick a lot.

Even those Westerners who can afford treatment don’t always get it; the number of parents who refuse to give their children vaccinations, for example, increased by 77 per cent from 2003 to 2008. Part of this might be because modern medicine has done its job so well, wiping out almost all major diseases in a mere century; if you’ve never heard of anyone getting polio, tuberculosis or measles, you might not be motivated to protect yourself against them. We have quickly forgotten what it was like many generations ago, when most children did not survive into adulthood and everyone knew someone who died or were crippled by these diseases. 

Part of it, however, might stem from an increasing scepticism of a medical establishment that seems so distant and costs so much, the same sentiment that makes pharmaceutical companies a reliable villain in Hollywood movies. Unsurprisingly, then, more people spend money on herbal remedies – and at first, that might seem a sensible alternative. After all, you might think, if we value a more traditional way of life, shouldn’t we be exploring more traditional cures, and rediscover how to heal ourselves with a field of wildflowers?

Let’s get a few things straight. Firstly, words like “alternative” or “natural” cover a lot of ground, and will encompass methods that work and those that don’t. All foods affect the body – they’re food – and some have long-noticed effects beyond mere nutrition; dandelions, for example, are famous diuretics, as their colloquial name “piss-a-bed” suggests. Almost all humans in history knew a great deal about the plants all around them from the time they were children, and knew them as intimately as we do the sexual lives of celebrities. As much local knowledge as those practitioners of herbal medicine had, their patients still died, often at young ages, until science brought microscopes, sterilisation, clean water, trial and error and peer review into the medical world in the 19th century.

Secondly, most herbal medicines that actually work were isolated chemically long ago and sold in pure form – aspirin, for example, from willow bark. We still use them, but have stopped calling them herbal medicine; we call them medicine. In order to become medicine, however, they had to stand up to scientific tests, and that’s where most alternative therapies fall apart. 

If we are less likely to be able to afford conventional medicine in the future, we might want to know what plants work as a backup; for example, to boil willow bark to make a headache cure. This should be backup knowledge for an emergency, though, for sterilised and standardised amounts are surely preferable to unknown combinations and qualities.

Thirdly, companies have an interest in patenting and selling cures that work, and pharmaceutical companies must follow public law to prove their products work. If such companies could spare themselves the trouble of manufacturing antidepressants and just patent an herb instead, they would save themselves money. The herbal cures that work were patented long ago; if an herbal cure has never been patented to make a profit, it probably doesn’t work. 

Tomorrow we’ll look at an even more important reason not to rely on herbal cures – most of them are not, in fact, the substance labelled on the package. 

Photo: A jar of dried sea horse.  

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Nights with The Girl

Our whole family saw the ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland last month, owing to a great new trend I’m seeing in cinemas here – and possibly where you are. Organisations like the UK's Royal Opera House are filming performances of stage plays, operas, and ballets, and broadcasting them live to hundreds of cinemas around the world, allowing people like us in the Bog of Allen, Ireland to be able to see the world’s top performers at work, with better seats than you’d get in a theatre, for a quarter of the price, and without having to fly to London.

 The Girl was sceptical about seeing a ballet, but by the end she was asking to see more, and I'm pleased to introduce her. I’m no ballet expert, but I can be duly amazed by actors conveying an entire story without dialogue, silent-film style, while performing Olympic-level gymnastics.

**** 

Every night I quiz The Girl on some of the lessons we’ve had recently, and while I’ve been trying to focus on practical lessons – energy efficiency, first aid, self-defence and so on, sometimes we go off on a tangent – she will ask about an unfamiliar word or phrase, I’ll explain, and we go off on discussions. We often have to leave the lessons behind at that point, but I don’t mind – there’s usually a new lesson waiting for us.

The other night we came across the word “laconic,” and I asked her what it meant.

“Sure – it means that you say something really short, no longer than it needs to be. You want the classic example or the extreme one?” she said.

I’m not sure what they are, I said, smiling, so can I hear them both?

“Well,” she said, the extreme one was when this writer wrote a famous book … I forget his name …”

Oh I know what you’re referring to, I said – Victor Hugo, after he wrote Les Miserables.

“Okay,” she said, “and when he sent it to the publisher he went on holiday on an island somewhere. After a while, he wanted to know how his book was selling, but he didn’t want to write any more than he had to, so he wrote to his publisher a single thing – a question mark. And his publisher wrote back, ‘!’”

Brilliant, I said – I think I can guess what the classic one is, but tell me all the same.

“Well, Laconia was where Sparta was, and you know how the Spartans were,” she said knowingly. Sure, I said -- we've read about them before.

“So someone – the Athenians, maybe, or the Persians – sent them a message before battle, saying, ‘If we win we will destroy your country, we will burn your city, we will do all these bad things to you,’ and the Spartans sent back a message with one word … IF.”

You’re absolutely spot on, I said – that was excellent. I think it was Phillip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, who had threatened them, according to Plutarch – and after that, not even his son, who conquered most of the known world, tried to conquer Sparta next door.

“I love the Spartans,” she said fondly. “They should make a movie out of them someday.”

Maybe you can make a movie yourself, when you grow up, I said.

I thought of mentioning that there was a film that popularized the Spartans a few years ago, but I’m afraid she might want to see it, and that’s not going to happen. I’ve raised her on Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin, and while she’s ten now and I let her see things like X-Men, that film’s cartoon violence is still a long way from 300’s slow-motion arterial sprays.

Also, while I forgive much in adapting a story for the silver screen, I’m pretty sure the Herodotus did not mention any giant mutant troll-monsters. Or a Greece entirely populated by well-shaven underwear models. Or a Persian army that looked like backup dancers for Prince. You get the idea.

Top photo: Still from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, courtesy of the Royal Opera House. Bottom photo: still from the film 300. 


Saturday, 24 January 2015

Carpooling

Originally published August 2010. 

Across my native USA, I whenever neighbours or townspeople lobby for more bus and rail services, pundits and politicians usually sputter something like this:

Trains and buses are a waste of taxpayers’ money. There’s no reason for them to exist. Look at the ones we have now – they’re mostly empty.

Anyone who’s ridden a bus or train recently knows that’s not even remotely true. Buses and trains are often filled to capacity, here and in America – I’m writing this from a tight squeeze in a packed double-decker. Even if those critics were right, however, they never apply that same logic to cars, for they never say:

Asphalt is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and so are highway overpasses, parking garages, car parks, traffic signals, streetlights, traffic cops and auto company bailouts. Look at the cars we have now – they’re mostly empty.

Passengers might be the most under-appreciated factor in how much fuel and money you waste. As I write this, for example, a business headline boasts of Toyota’s multi-million-dollar plan to boost fuel efficiency by 25 percent, with the usual discussion of what this will mean for the economy and the climate. Any of us, however, can boost the efficiency of our cars by several hundred percent instantly, with no additional expense or technology, simply by getting more people in the car.

This fact is also forgotten when we judge car owners by the wastefulness of their vehicles. An SUV is a spectacularly inefficient machine compared to a Prius, for example, but pack that Dodge Durango full of people and suddenly it is greener than the electric hybrid driven alone.

To use another example, your bus could be less efficient than an SUV in kilometers-per-litre, yet all of you bus passengers are making one of the greenest transportation choices around, thanks to the fact that so many seats are filled.

One of the easiest ways of cutting your expenses, fuel and carbon footprint, then, is simply to share rides with other people. Since most of us travel similar routes from clusters of houses to clusters of offices, there is no reason why carpooling should not work for most of us.

According to the website carfinance.ie, the average car in Ireland, driven 10,000 kilometers a year, will cost 1,750 euros in petrol. Divide that by four people, however, and you each save 1,300 a year. Carpooling could even pay for itself, if you propose to friends and co-workers that they pay you slightly more than the cost of fuel, as compensation for driving a little out of your way.

Some people might think they want to listen to music or a podcast on the way rather than talk to other people, and there’s no reason you can’t do even if the car is crowded. Most people, however, could do with more company. A June 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of close friends people say they have fell by a third in the previous 20 years.

Most people don’t go to poker nights or Kiwanis meetings anymore, and the number of people who know their neighbours has also fallen, but the number of hours spent commuting has more than doubled in the last few decades. Most studies show us lonelier and more stressed than people of previous generations, probably because we spend less and less of our lives being the social animals we evolved to be, and more and more staring at glowing rectangles.

Perhaps this paranoia about human company is one reason so few of us have taken up carpooling, no matter how much money they would save. A brief internet search shows that while more web sites encourage people to carpool, many people seem fearful of meeting strangers. “How could I possibly trust that the people … I’d travel with are honest guys and not awful criminals?” asked one blogger – sentiments typical of many comments on the subject, even though criminals are unlikely to use a morning carpooling route as their cover for a nefarious plan.

Contrast this with the 1930s or 40s, when regular people carpooled, hitchhiked and picked up hitchhikers, and movies and other media showed this as normal. In wartime USA and Britain carpooling, like many other self-sufficient activities, was declared a patriotic duty – propaganda posters warned against people who selfishly took up a whole car to themselves, or who let the troops down by wasting energy. Hollywood movies showed stars carpooling, Dr. Seuss drew cartoons about how many people you could pack in a car, scoutmasters gave speeches about saving fuel and money.

Nor did the posters approach carpooling as a nice way to enjoy the morning or as a hip new part of eco-fashion; rather, they could be stern in a way that few advertisements are today. “Hitler rides in the empty seat,” said one typical poster. People need this. We are counting on you.

Today many people, in many countries, are struggling again. It’s not exactly war, and not like any previous Depression. It does have a home front, though, and could benefit from some of the same solutions that were understood to be so sensible, for so long. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Away from it all

I was standing on the bank above my house, and Sean Seamais went by in his boat.

"Why are you hoisting sail for now, in God's name?" I asked.

"That's more than I can tell you," he called back, "Except I have the seven cares of the mountain on my shoulders, with no end of things to do, and I'm making a start on none of them."

"It is often before now that a man pitched away his last and his awls when he had too much to face," said I.

"I'm in the same case," Sean answered. "There are people gathering seaweed.* I need turf. I have sheep to dip. I need flour. I have a wall to repair. I have a shed to rebuild. I have a trawl-line to see to and a net to prepare. I left the house now to have a day away from it all, for I couldn't decide which should be tackled first."

-- from the journals of Tomas O'Crohan of Blasket Island, February 1920, as reprinted in Island Cross-Talk.

* Seaweed was spread over fields as fertiliser.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Tea

To be published next week in the Kildare Nationalist. 

When I and several others were helping build the cob house in County Clare a few years ago, some of us took a break for tea. As we walked back to the shelter across the wildflower fields, though, some of the other workers started picking various flowers along the way and piling them into baskets.  The containers were full by the time they arrived at the kettle, and the workers quickly rinsed the plants, dropped them into a pitcher and poured boiling water over them, and in a few minutes had instant herbal tea.

You can do this yourself at home with any number of local plants, but some are particularly well-suited and easy to identify:

 • Mint grows wild in forests and hedgerows, and is one of the easiest crops for amateurs – as the saying goes, you drop the seeds in soil and jump back. Its cooling tea is much used in warmer climates like Morocco, helping people without air conditioning stay as cool as possible.
• Clover: The white and purple flowers are ubiquitous across the summer fields of Europe and America, and the flowers and leaves can be gathered for a delicious tea.
• Dandelion makes a good, nutritious tea without the bitter flavor of dandelion leaves. It also acts as a diuretic, as you can tell from “piss-a-bed” and other folk names for the herb.
• Bramble: Our hedgerows and fences are covered in thorny brambles, and not only do they offer natural barbed-wire security all year long and blackberries in autumn, but the spring shoots make a blackberry-scented tea loaded with vitamin C.
 • Nettles: I have several plastic bins filled with nettle tea, which I make by picking nettle shoots and drying them – you can do it the old-fashioned way, over a stove or fire, or the modern lazy way with a microwave.
• Chamomile flowers create a famously relaxing tea, as does valerian. • Fennel, dill and anise – all liquorice-flavoured plants – make teas that help upset stomachs.
• Sage, oregano, thyme and many other herbs can all be made into strongly-flavoured teas, and we have used them a great deal lately for colds and coughs.
• Linden or lime leaves make great tea in spring, when they are shoots.

You don’t need to make just one kind of tea – take a variety of herbs and mix them together, perhaps with a bit of honey or fruit juice. Remember that you generally need a lot of leaves to give boiling water taste and colour – black tea comes from a particularly strong-tasting plant, further strengthened by being smoked, dried and powdered. With living leaves fresh off the vine or stalk, pack them into a jar or container almost to the rim before pouring boiling water over them.

Do be careful never to take plants from a field unless you know that it has never been sprayed with any pesticides. Most of these, of course, make a slightly green tea that tastes very different than black tea, and would not take milk. One exception is rooibos or redbush, which tastes and looks very like black tea, takes milk and is naturally caffeine-free. It’s available in most stores in tea bags, so try it if you feel like tea in the evenings.

You can make your own tea blends out of conventional black tea, of course. Earl Grey, for example, is black tea with a bit of bergamot oil. If you feel experimentitive, add different kinds of juice or plants to regular tea and see what you like. Whatever you make, it will probably be nearly free and better for you than soda or any of the varieties of fake juice on the market.

Photo: The Girl flying a kite in a field of tea. 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Haymaking

"Haymaking started when the meadows were ripe, and the men used scythes. They would help each other, in a co-operative effort called a meitheal (mee-hall) and were given porter and potatoes, bacon and cabbage and bread or boxty for tea.

The oats were ripe around this time and ready for cutting. Oats were important – like potatoes, the main food of the people. When the corn (oats) was ripe the men cut it with hooks and tied it into sheaves, long enough to handle.

It was then stoked, six to eight sheaves standing on end, supporting each other. The stooks were left in the field for a time before they were brought into the haggard and stores in stacks and covered.

 Threshing was an unbelievable feat of endurance. The barn was cleared and the flagged floor scrubbed clean. Neighbours who knew the art of wielding a flail commenced. The flail was made of two strong sticks tied together at one end with leather. The sheaves were put into the centre of the floor in bundles of five or six. Each man wielded the flail in turn until the oats were separated from the straw.

The oats went into sacks and the straw for thatching. It was the work of a few nights. Next came the winnowing – getting rid of the chaff. It would have to be a special sort of day for this work with the wind blowing."

-- Memories of Kathleen Sheehan, growing up in County Cavan circa 1920. Recorded in the book No Shoes in Summer.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Not even Christy Moore

The pub nearest our house has a map on the wall of the Bog of Allen, with all landmarks being the local pubs. Every village has a pub -- in a way, a pub and a church are what make a village. These days, as Ireland slowly changes, more and more pubs are simply playing a television all the time, a place where people can drink when they get tired of watching television at home.

Some old pubs, though, maintain their traditions, and each retains its own long-standing rules. A few still feature the traditional Irish music of local singers like Christy Moore, and some have bands that play in the evenings while all the locals sing along. This pub, on the other hand, bans all music, so the patrons can hear each other.

Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones used to live nearby, and one night, I'm told, he came into the pub with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and their instruments. The elderly publican scowls at them and tells them not to start playing the instruments, or they’ll be kicked out.

One by one, though, people in the pub work up the courage to come over to the Stones and ask them for a tune. Finally Keith Richards relents and strums a few chords on his guitar, and the old pub owner orders them out of the establishment.

“But don’t you know who this is?” the people ask the pub owner. “This is Keith Richards!”

“I don’t know who that is," the owner said, "but I don’t care if it’s Christy Moore, he’s not playing in my pub!”

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Grace of Invertebrates


Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper, August 2011. 

We live by the grace of invertebrates. They work around the clock, collect and dispose of our waste, replenish the soil, feed animals above them on the food chain and allow plants to return each spring. Most importantly, perhaps, bees, butterflies and other insects deliver valentines between plants, which must procreate but cannot move, and so rely on couriers. Flowers grow for the benefit of these pollinators, not us, and bloom in more colours than we can see – only insects’ superior eyes can see all their shades and patterns.

Now, of course, humans have changed the face of the world; we have levelled forests, eliminated thousands of species in a field in favour of a single crop, and sprayed those crops with a cocktail of exotic poisons never before seen on Earth. After several decades of this, bee populations are collapsing around the world, and while we do not know the specific causes, we know that areas that have been heavily hit with pesticides have also seen serious collapses. In a few areas of China, farmers have begun laboriously pollinating cash crops like pears by hand, taking brushes from flower to flower – a method that would not be feasible for most survival crops should the problem spread.

This time of year, as those of us in the northern hemisphere plan our gardens and sow our first seeds, we must remember to invest part of our garden to reimburse the armies that work for us. What sorts of armies you have, and what payment they accept, will vary depending on where you live: our forest here has bluebells and my Missouri hometown had mimosas, but the principles should remain the same.

You could bring pollinators in by the box-load if you keep bees, and you get honey and wax from the arrangement. Bee hives can be kept easily on a small plot of land, a backyard, a balcony or even a rooftop, so long as the bees’ flight path to and from their headquarters is located away from humans’ personal space. They tend to like simple flowers with an easy landing pad, like poached-egg flower, daisies or dandelions, and our local beekeepers recommend putting out water for them as well.

Honeybees, however, are only one of 20,000 species of bee in the world, and we can encourage the rest of them as well. They don’t give us honey or wax but they do pollinate our gardens – sometimes more effectively, according to some experts – and many are stingless. Dozens of species are bumblebees, which live in small colonies, but most are solitary, often named according to where they make their hole – miners, carpenters, masons and plasterers.

Depending on the type of bees in your area, you might want to leave a rim of unmown weeds around your property, or plant or maintain a hedgerow that can give ground bees a place to shelter. Some gardeners give bees a pre-made home --boring holes in wood or stacking reeds or bamboo for carpenter or orchard bees, stacking adobe bricks for mason bees or building a small, cotton-lined box with a large entrance hole for bumblebees.

If you want to plant for bees and other pollinators, you need to plant foods that bloom in early spring and late autumn, the off-season months when bees struggle to find enough food. Snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils are emerging now in our gardens, giving bees their first taste of nectar for the year as honey stores run low. Ling heather, the plant used to make thick heather honey, does the opposite, blooming after everything else has gone. Ivy, similarly, grows up every tree and building here, and blooms as late as Halloween.

One of the champion bee flowers, in our experience, is borrage – our bees go nuts for it. It also makes a great herb to add to salad, with a tangy melony flavour. We find that verbena draws legions of bees and butterflies--- my wife and mother-in-law bought some from a garden store after seeing one covered with them last spring. Almost all herbs, in fact, make great bee fodder – thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage and mint.

Hedgerows, the ubiquitous borders here, often provide the best source of bee flowers. Blackberry brambles, in hundreds of varieties, grow widely here and make another flower beloved of bees, and of course they grow in the margins where their thorns and the bees are out of your way. Sally or pussy willows seem to be a particular favourite of bumblebees in our observation – at times we have seen dozens of bumblebees on a single tree near our house. They also love hawthorn, which grows rampant here and usually starts flowering in May – it’s sometimes called the May bush.

Come summer, whole fields here erupt with red and white clover, which have many uses -- bees love them, we and animals can eat them, and they actually put nitrogen back into the soil. They like moist earth and warm days, and beekeepers say that, once the flowers emerge, their beehives start filling up with honey. Oilseed Rape, which Americans call canola, has been widely introduced as a biofuel crop here, and turns some fields a brilliant yellow every spring.

Bees and other bugs use many other flowers common to our area, and which our local beekeeping society recommends – poppies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, zinnias, wallflowers, bellflowers, dahlias, hellebores and roses. In exchange they service many vegetables, including artichokes, lamb’s ears, asparagus, brassicas, broad beans, cucumbers, cherries, apples, currants, gooseberries and courgettes.

You can draw insects other than bees to your garden, of course, but you want to be choosy about which ones. We all love butterflies, but they spend most of their lives as the caterpillars that we spend picking off our crops, so you want to encourage only those species that eat the plants you don’t want anyway.

Few words sound less appealing than “parasite” and “wasp,” yet parasitic wasps can be very useful in the garden, preying on the bugs that would eat your plants and doing no harm to humans. Sally Jean Cunningham, author of Great Garden Companions, cite herbs like caraway, anise, mint, chamomile, dill, fennel, yarrow and cicely for drawing wasps, along with wildflowers like cornspurrey, lamb’s quarters, wild mustards, oxeyes, red sorrel and clover. Similarly, some gardeners buy ladybirds (ladybugs to Americans) to unleash on their aphids, or even recommend planting nettles to attract aphids to attract ladybirds.

Finally, you can plant species designed to repel certain insects you don’t want – many gardeners recommend hyssop and thyme for cabbage moths, or marigolds for nematodes. Such recommendations often carry a high folklore-to-evidence ratio, though, so experiment in your own garden and take notes on what seems to work.

As David Attenborough once pointed out, if we and other large animals were to disappear, the vast majority of the world that remained would get along just fine. But if they were to disappear, the soil would become sterile, the lands desert, and almost all life would perish. As you walk through your garden, thousands of them are labouring like elves around your feet, unthanked and occasionally swatted. As you plant your garden this year, make sure to give something back.