There are twenty six different bumblebee species in the UK, and you can see perhaps ten of them in most suburban gardens if you have a few bee-friendly flowers and if you look hard enough. Honeybees are usually common enough too – these slim, brownish insects are of course the ones that give us honey, and that are kept in hives. But this is just the tip of the bee iceberg; there are also leafcutter bees, sweat bees, mason bees, mining bees, carpenter bees and many more, about 270 species in total in the UK!
Globally, there are an astonishing 20,000 known species of bee (and no doubt many more yet to be described by science). The large majority are solitary creatures in which a female makes her own small nest, rather than living in a colony with a queen and workers as do honeybees and bumblebee. Most people go their whole lives without ever even noticing these little creatures, yet they live all around us, they pollinate our garden flowers and vegetables, and they ensure that wildflowers set seed.
I’ve heard bees describes as tiny flying paint brushes; they are furry, and their fur helps them to collect pollen and hence spread it from flower to flower. When we humans resort to hand-pollinating a crop, for example if we want to ensure a specific cross takes place, we use a paint brush to mimic a bee. But the analogy with paint brushes can be viewed at another level, for without bees, our landscapes would have little colour. Back in the age of the dinosaurs there were no colourful flowers; plant relied on wind to carry their pollen, as grasses and pine trees do to this day, and hence they had no need of brightly coloured petals to attract pollinating insects such as bees. Eventually, plants evolved a much more efficient system to get their pollen moved from flower to flower; they co-opted bees and other pollinating insects, bribing them with sweet nectar, and vying with other plants to attract them via beautiful, scented flowers. The wonderful flowers that brighten our gardens, spring woodlands and hedgerows would not exist if it were not for bees and their kin.
Worryingly, these vital creatures are in trouble. The modern world poses many threats to them: our countryside has far fewer flowers than it once did, with almost all of our hay meadows and downland having been ploughed up in the twentieth century. Herbicides enable farmers to grow weed-free crops, and where wild flowers do persist in the field margins and hedgerows they are often contaminated with insecticides. On top of that we have accidentally introduced new parasites and diseases from abroad that attack both honeybees and our wild, native bees. As a result, many of our bees are less common than they used to be, and some such as the short-haired bumblebee have gone extinct in Britain.
Fortunately, we can all help to reverse these declines. Plant a few more bee-friendly flowers in your garden for a start; there are many to choose from. As a general rule, avoid annual bedding plants which tend to be the end result of years of intensive selection for huge blooms with extra petals, but which have often lost their nectar, pollen and scent, so that they are of no interest to bees. Instead, go for traditional cottage-garden favourites: lavender, thyme, aquilegia, alliums, marjoram, comfrey. Go for ‘single’ rather than ‘double’ varieties; for example single roses and dahlias are great for bees, while doubles are mostly hopeless. Try growing lovage and angelica, which are much loved by some of the smaller solitary bees. Squeeze in some native wildflowers – for example viper’s bugloss is a beautiful purple flower that sits well in a sunny herbaceous border and will attract a cloud of bees.
If you can, buy your plants from an organic nursery, grow them yourself from seed, or plant swap with a neighbour. Otherwise there is a serious risk that the plants you buy might have been soaked in pesticides and could do more harm than good, at least in the short term. Of course you should avoid using insecticides yourself; it is my view that there is absolutely no need for them in a garden setting, where you should have an abundance of natural enemies such as ladybirds and hoverflies ready to munch up pests as they appear. You might also try buying, or better still making, a ‘bee hotel’. These provide holes for solitary bees to nest in, and can be very successful; they are particularly popular with red mason bees, excellent pollinators of your apples and pears. Finally, consider taking part in a citizen science project to gather data on how our pollinators are faring over time.
Bees have been around for 120 million years or so, far, far longer than we humans have. They have been quietly pollinating our crops since we first started growing them, in the Middle East about ten thousand years ago. Now, after all this time, they are in trouble, and it is entirely down to us. We owe these little creatures. Together, if we all do our bit, we can ensure a future for all of our bees and other pollinators, and ensure that our grandchildren grow up in a world where the buzzing of bees is still a familiar, reassuring sound of summer.
If you would like to learn more about wild bees and other pollinators, read the bestselling books “A Sting in the Tale” or “A Buzz in the Meadow” by Dave Goulson which you can recieve signed copies of through supporting Dave Goulson research on Walacea. Prof Goulson plans to investigate whether neonics or other pesticides dangerous to bees are present in plants sold in garden centres, potentially labelled as bee friendly.