As we come into March, we should start to see the bees out and about and visiting our gardens. As wildlife lovers, we do a lot to support the birds in our gardens, and there is so much we can do in our gardens to support bees too.
There are hundreds of species of bee in the UK, and huge variations in their colouring, behaviours and food preferences. We associate bees with honey, but we only have one species of honeybee in the UK, and the vast majority live in domesticated colonies of up to 20,000. We have twenty-four species of bumblebee and they are also social insects, nesting in groups of several hundred and happily taking up residence in nestboxes. Solitary bees are the most effective pollinators we have in the UK and include mining bees (the ones responsible for excavating holes in your lawn). Not all bees are able to sting, and often it is only the females that do so when they perceive you to be a threat. If a bee stings a human, our thick skin grips onto the bee’s barbed stinger, pulling it from its abdomen – it is thought that when a bee stings another insect this does not happen. Bees are incredibly valuable to us and play a key role in food production. Our tomato, strawberry, pear and apple crops depend on bees and they keep our wildflowers going too. Bees save us £600 million every year through their pollination – if we were to do the same job ourselves it would cost upwards of £1.8 billion!
BEES IN THE UK
We all know that bees are a species in decline, with two species driven to extinction over the past century and one in ten species on the verge of extinction. The main reason for their decline is the largescale changes in farming – pressure from supermarkets and consumers for huge quantities of aesthetically attractive, cheap food has led to massive intensification of the way farmland is used and the mechanisation of agriculture has meant every square foot is utlisied to produce the yields expected. Density of flowering plants, use of pesticides and a reduction in shady nesting spots have all contributed to a lack of food and habitat for bees.
HOW CAN WE HELP
Bees are well represented by charities in the UK and there is so much we can do to make an impact. One thing to consider is that not all bees will travel far from their home for food, with a lot of species preferring to stay within 600m of where they live when they go out foraging. This means that we need lots of interlinked areas of bee friendly planting, which makes our gardens, window boxes, balconies and allotments the perfect way to create pollinator “corridors” in urban spaces. We all know that we should be leaving at least part of our garden or outdoor space a little wild and unmanicured, whether that may be a patch of lawn or a larger area of garden, and we can make bee-friendly planting choices too. Bees need flowers between March and October to keep them going throughout the lifecycle, and luckily plants that are great for bees also look beautiful in our outdoor spaces. Aim for single blooms as a lot of species of bee have short tongues and can’t feed from tightly packed petals and double flowers. In spring you can grow hellebores, forget-me-nots, wallflowers, sweet rocket, honesty and crocus – all perfect food for the bees and a beautiful sight in a spring garden. In summer, borage, wild strawberries, foxgloves, geranium, lavender and hebe are brilliant choices and will give you the most beautiful and productive garden – it will smell great too! Catmint, cosmos, dahlias, verbena and sunflowers will carry you through until autumn, and Michelmas daisies are a great option as the days begin to shorten. Small containers of thyme, sage, rosemary, mint and chives positioned around where you eat in the garden will give you a supply for cooking and the bees a helping hand at the same time. The Seedball tins we stock on the website have a perfect blend of flowers for bees and they are really easy to use – just place in a container or into the border, water well and wait. The seeds are protected by a layer of clay and laced with chilli powder to protect them from birds, slugs and snails. Sometimes, our gardening can be about the plants we leave as much as the plants we add, and spring is when this is really important. You might resent those dandelions pushing up in the borders and between patio stones, but for the bees they are a brilliant early source of food when not much else is in bloom. We can add a water supply with a shallow stepped entry (the Oasis bird bath on the website is perfect) and fill it with fresh water to give the bees something to drink. A bee hotel is a great way to provide a sheltered, shady nesting space (although a pile of logs and straw in a quiet corner of the garden is also a great choice), and one of the most vital things we can do in our gardens is to put away the pesticides, which can devastate bee (and bird) populations. If you want to make a difference on a larger scale there is a lot of support available from our brilliant British bee charities (and they will always be grateful for a donation). The Bee Friendly Trust (beefriendlytrust.org) is an inspiring group who add bee friendly flowering planters and fruit tree orchards to railway platforms to benefit the bees and liven up the space for commuters. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (bumblebeeconservation.org) offer membership and resources and lead the way with conservation projects, while The British Bee Charity (britishbeecharity.com) and the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA.org.uk) are the people to speak to for support if you want to get started with a hive of your own. Grow Wild (growwilduk.com) help communities to set up wildflower spaces in collaboration with Kew Gardens. You can petition your council to encourage them to reduce the frequency with which they mow grass verges, or even offer to take over disused council land to replant as a wildflower meadow. If you want to see a wildflower meadow in action, the Wildlife Trust have a handy tool to help you find a meadow near you.
I am motivated to add more bee friendly flowers to the garden and I would love to hear about how you plan to look after the bees in your garden this spring.