The Buzz about Bees

Originally written for the Vegan Organic Network’s “Growing Green International” magazine issue 43. With thanks to Tony Martin for encouraging me to put fingers to keyboard, this piece contains many things I’d wanted to write about for a long time.

Honey bees and other pollinators are key to our food chain: without them our diets, countryside and cities would be very boring.

How many types of bees are there?

There are around 250 species of bees in the UK; of these, 24 are bumblebees with only 7 or 8 being common.  There’s just the one species of honey beeApis mellifera, the European Honey Bee: mellifera is Latin for honey bearer (other honey-making bees exist elsewhere in the world but not in the UK).  The rest are solitary bees. Not included in the 250 are the bee mimics who have evolved to look like bees so predators think twice about taking on a potentially stinging insect; they’re usually a type of fly.

The three type of bees basically differ in their lifecycle. Bumblebee (and wasp) nests die out towards the end of the summer with only the mated queens hibernating to emerge and start the new colony the next spring. That’s why the earliest bumblebees and wasps look huge: it’s the queens looking for a home and a meal. Solitary bees aren’t social so don’t form a big colony like bumblebees or honey bees. Lots may nest in the same place but it’s one bee per nest: a bit like us, if it’s a good place to live lots will want to move in. Honey bees are social and are the only ones whose colonies survive over winter, though with far fewer bees than when there’s a nectar flow on. It’s this characteristic that has led to the development of beekeeping.

Basically, there’s quite a few but the key thing to remember is that bees are not the only pollinators: wasps, flies and other species can also pollinate. A healthy ecosystem is a balance of different pollinators.

What sort of fruit and vegetables do they pollinate?

At the simplest level, anything with a colourful flower; flowers and pollinating insects co-evolved. Insect pollinated flowers tend to be brightly coloured, often scented and have a sugary nectar to attract pollinators. But they also hide another secret: many pollinators can see UV so flowers have markings a bit like a landing strip pointing the way to the sweet reward, we just can’t see them. Interestingly these pollinators often can’t see the colour red but the UV markings on the flowers come to the rescue of both plant and insect.

Conversely, wind pollinated plants tend to have really plain or small flowers without nectar or scent and can also release loads of pollen in the hope it’ll reach a partner of the right species. This can lead to so much pollen being released that, for example, we can end up with hay fever during grass pollen season.

What an individual insect species pollinates usually depends on the length of their tongues and how deep the nectaries are within the flowers: some pollinators are specific to one plant species, others are generalists like honey bees. Others, like certain bumblebees, are a bit cheeky and nip round the back to bite a hole in the flower to nick the nectar while avoiding the tedious business of pollination. Honey bees, who are always up for a free lunch, will then use this hole to feed. You’ll often see this on foxgloves.

How can we help them by planting flowers?

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There are loads of lists of plants for pollinators online, including the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Friends of the Earth. Instead of suggesting plants I’m going to give you some key things to think about.  While I know more about honey bees, I’d urge you to plant to support as wide a range of pollinators as possible as they all have their place.

Your local conditions

Think about your soil type, sun/shade, how dry it is etc.: there’s no point planting something that’s not going to make it. For example, lavender won’t survive more than a year or two in my clay soil so I grow it in a small raised bed (actually an upcycled elderly bee hive box that was destined for the bonfire) where I can create the right soil conditions for the plant. Websites like the RHS can give you advice on finding out about your growing conditions.

Time of year

I know about honey bees so this section is mainly for them, but there are three key times of year for all pollinators and an internet search should tell you more for any specific species you’d like to help. As with all things bee this very much depends on the weather, so the following is a guide.

Late winter/ early spring

A critical time of year: bumblebee queens establish their nests and honey bees start to fly as the weather warms up. They need to find nectar as well as pollen which is their protein source and key to raising their larvae. Any plants providing one or both at this time of year are invaluable, with the added bonus to humans that they can be highly scented and brightly coloured to advertise their presence to pollinators. These food sources are particularly important in a year such as the one we’ve just had where an unseasonal warm spell encouraged honey bees to fly but they can’t find enough food to replace what they’re using so the colony is at risk of starvation.

The June Gap

Just as we have the vegetable Hungry Gap in spring, pollinators can experience the June Gap where the spring flowers have finished before the summer flowers have bloomed. As with all things bee everything depends on the weather so it doesn’t happen everywhere every year. Anything that provides food during this period is valuable.

Autumn

Honey bees are preparing for winter by filling the hive with as much honey as possible to get them through the cold weather. Any plants that can support them at this time are really important, particularly with as long a flowering time as possible, so that food is available on our varying weather.

A varied diet

Just as if we eat nothing but fast food we won’t thrive, honey bees and most pollinators need a mix of food sources. Take advantage of this and grow a wide range of plants, not forgetting things like fruit trees and bushes, vegetables and green manures. It’ll be nicer for you too.

Were the plants/seed treated with pesticide?

There’s little point in trying to help pollinators by planting things that could potentially harm them: some plants and seeds are treated with pesticides. The RHS’s Plants for Pollinators logo does exactly what it says, it doesn’t tell you how it was grown. Organic nurseries won’t use pesticides and other nurseries specialise in pesticide-free plants for pollinators. Look for plants grown in peat-free compost to further reduce environmental damage. Suppliers are available online but please buy from the UK to reduce the risk of importing plant diseases.

Double blooms don’t help

As a general rule highly bred cultivars, especially double bloomed varieties, are no good for pollinators: either the nectaries have been bred out of the flower or they’re buried so deeply within the petals pollinators can’t get to them. They might be pretty but they’re not useful.

What can I do to help a stranded bee?

Please don’t leave out sugar water to help pollinators: it doesn’t. They’re perfectly capable of finding their own food, sugar water can attract wasps (depending on the time of year) as well as ants, and it’s not a good food source for them. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has some excellent advice on rescuing tired bees; it applies to honey bees too but please remember that like humans, a bee’s time will come too so don’t be upset if you can’t revive them, you did your best:

1. Is the bumblebee in a place where it may be trodden on or ran over?

Yes – When safe, move it to a sheltered place.

No – Question 2

  1. Has the bee been in the same place for a long time (over 45min)?

Yes – Question 3

No – Give the bee time to recuperate, check back in 30-45 minutes

  1. Are there any bee-friendly flowers around?

Yes – Gently move the bee on to a flower and give it time to recuperate

No – Mix up 50/50 sugar solution and offer a couple of drops to the bee in a sheltered place

Please note – providing bees with sugar water is only ever a temporary fix and should never become their main diet (that would be like a human swapping three meals a day for three cans of fizzy juice). Nectar and pollen from flowers contain the nutrients bees need to thrive, as well as the energy they require to survive. It is also important for bumblebees to be outside to complete their life-cycle so don’t be tempted to take them inside.

Will becoming a beekeeper help bees?

No, if it’s not the right thing for you. There’s a phrase “Keeping honey bees to helps bees is like keeping chickens to save wild birds.” Beekeeping is time consuming and can be expensive; we don’t get summer holidays as that’s when you have to be checking them every week; there’s no bee sitters. Some people choose to leave a hive in their garden and ignore the bees. Personally I don’t understand this: you wouldn’t leave pigs, dogs or chickens to fend for themselves, so why would you not care for bees? A lot of a beekeeper’s job is around honey bee health, there are some serious diseases out there that can spread quickly. Be a bee grower, not a beekeeper — by growing a variety of food sources you’ll get to enjoy a wide range of pollinators visiting your plants from spring to winter without any of the responsibility of looking after honey bees.

If beekeeping is the right thing for you please find a practical course or teacher, either through a beekeeping association, a beekeeper or someone else reputable. Beekeeping is hard work and like chickens, children and vegetables, bees don’t read the books. Someone who can show you is invaluable.

 

How else can we help?

  • Provide homes for bumblebees and solitary bees including carpenter and mason bees. There are plans on the internet so you can make your own as well as sites that will supply you with pre-built residences.
  • During droughts provide some drinking water. Pollinators are really good at finding water but when there’s been little rainfall you can leave out a bowl with some marbles or sticks in it so if any pollinator falls in they can haul themselves out again.
  • Look out for some citizen science opportunities involving pollinators such as The Buzz Club. The more we know, the more we can help.
  • Join charities supporting pollinators such as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
  • The climate crisis is the biggest challenge pollinators, as well as our entire planet, face. Look at ways to reduce your carbon footprint and resource use.
  • Buy organic food to support farmers and growers who don’t use pesticides and are more likely to be held to higher environmental standards.
  • This one doesn’t cost anything: talk about pollinators — learn about them and tell others. Check any facts with expert websites if you’re not sure about the source, the last thing pollinators need is more fake news. Have a stall or do a talk at work or in a community group, you could raise money to develop a patch of planting or for a pollinator charity.

 

Both photos are mine. Use them if you wish with a credit, but to be honest there are better ones out there.

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