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The buzz on bees

It is well documented how much trouble our bees are in. Their decline is extremely worrying and they really need our help. This week I have been talking to Louis Hodgkin of the Bath Beekeepers Association about this very serious situation. All bees are suffering for three main reasons, disease, the widespread use of pesticides and chemicals as well as the unpredictable weather.

Only a few decades ago a country walk would be punctuated by the evocative humming sounds of bees.  They would be searching for food from the hedgerows as well as from the crops growing in the fields.  Now bees are rapidly losing their habitat due to the increased use of pesticides and herbicides as well as the reduction in wild areas on farmland.  Wildflowers have also been in serious decline because of the use of herbicides and we have also lost many natural habitats such as grass chalk-land, hay meadows and hedgerows.  This has meant that honey bees have had fewer places for food and to also nest.  Bees are essential pollinators and therefore crucial to our survival.

Louis commented on the astounding fact that ‘there are more species of bee in the world than there are both animals and birds put together’. This makes it even more important for us to do what we can to provide a suitable habitat for them. He went on to say ‘I think that because they are so small and hard to see they have managed to slip off the radar, and it is only more recently that attention has been brought to their plight’.

The good news is that there is much that each of us can do to help these creatures to thrive.  Both honey bees and bumblebees can find much of what they need from your garden.  Gardeners and bees both share a love of flowers and a wide range of flowering plants can sustain them especially from March to November when they are at their most active.  These will provide them with essential sources of nectar and pollen. The pollen is their protein and the nectar is their carbohydrate.

Native wildflowers like foxgloves, meadow cranesbill and teasel are best as well as traditional cottage garden flowers and herbs. Louis was keen to point out ‘however, don’t overlook the value of plants introduced from other parts of the world as it’s these which often provide flowers at times of the year when other plants may not be flowering’

It is really important to cater to all the species of bees and offer a wide range of these plants. These thrive, look wonderful and are easy to grow, as they are generally hardy and more resistant to disease as well as slugs and snails.  Highly cultivated flowers are mainly unsuitable for bees as they either produce little pollen and nectar; therefore avoid very blousy or double flowers.  Most annual bedding plants such as Busy Lizzies and Begonia have very small amounts of nectar available for bees and other insects.  It is important to plant simple flowers, preferably blue, as bee’s infrared eyesight can pick up on these plants more easily. Therefore Borage and Pulmonaria and Rosemary are strong favourites.

In the spring when the queens emerge from hibernation they will seek out snowdrops, Mahonia, crocuses, primroses, aubrietia and heathers.  They will also gather pollen from willow catkins and hazels as well as early flowering fruit trees.  As the bumblebee queen gathers her energy it is estimated that a Bombus terrestris or Buff-tailed bee needs to visit around 6000 flowers a day just to get enough nectar to maintain the heat to brood her eggs! She needs to return regularly to her nest so her trips are short and this why it is important for her to nest near to the flowers.

During the summer months most cottage garden flowers come into use providing a wide range of food.  Fruits, herbs as well as perennials are all good sources of pollen.  Old-fashioned roses are a great place to get food and you can hear them buzzing loudly as they use their bodies to dislodge the pollen.  Foxgloves are used to hide in during rain showers as well as provide food for the longer tongued species such as the garden bee.  Honeysuckle is an excellent supplier of nectar, and bees also love many of the herbs used for culinary purposes.

Louis also commented on the fact that it is vital to not use any insecticide in the garden.  Insecticide is an indiscriminate killer and will wipe out all insects it comes into contact with including some very useful types that include ladybirds and lacewings, both of which will munch their way happily through piles of aphids.  Most gardeners do not know what the larva of these insects look like but it is the larva, which kill and eat the most.  They are not the prettiest insects in the garden but they certainly do a great job.  There are other methods, which you can use to remove aphids and these are well-documented, however, if you must use chemicals then spray when it almost dark so that you kill as few bees as possible and use an insecticide which is specific to the pest you wish to kill.

You can feed bumblebees and many other insects even if all you have is a window box or containers.  Including any of the suggested plants will help to increase the food supply for the bees.  Any so-called low-maintenance gardens can also have favoured flowering shrubs and other nectar and pollen-supplying plants in them so there is no excuse for not including them! Also encourage bees by leaving a patch of long grass or leave your compost bins undisturbed until the autumn. Bee nesting boxes are also available to buy which can either be used above or below ground. If your garden does not have either long grass or hiding places for nests try putting one of these in.  Also leave out water, either in the form of a pond, or a birdbath and this will also help them.

If you are interested in learning about bees, the Avon Beekeeping Website is worth a visit. The Bath Beekeepers can offer support to either new beekeepers or people returning to beekeeping, they are in the process of setting up a teaching facility at Bath Spa University, where hives are being put in place and a series of monthly meetings on a Sunday afternoon will be available to show potential beekeepers what the hives look like: