When beekeepers took to the streets late last year, it was clear something was up. Pushed to act by the collapse of bee colonies around the world, UK bee experts demanded something be done. The government has now committed itself to funding more research into why bees are dying, appreciating that the situation is serious. Bees are not just nice wildlife to have around and providers of honey for our toast, they are crucial to agriculture. In a time of financial gloom, it’s important to note that bees are worth £165million to British farming, relied upon to pollinate at least a third of the food we eat.
The global picture
The global bee picture is grim. The British Beekeepers’ Association says the UK population dropped by 30% between 2007 and 2008. Studies suggest that in Italy populations are down 40% and in France 60%. The situation in the United States is even worse. Experts paint a picture that varies in its degree of seriousness, but some talk of population declines as high as 90%.
One of the main problems is that it is very hard to monitor what’s going on, and there isn’t a standard way of doing it across the world. Another problem is uncertainty over why bees are dying. The varroa mite and ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ have been blamed in the US. Experts suspect that a multitude of causes, including pesticides, diseases, parasites, stress, climate change and malnutrition, are contributing to the dramatic decline in world bee populations. Seasonal food shortages lead to malnutrition in the bees, making them more susceptible to diseases.
Why bees are important
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man” say Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum in their book ‘A World Without Bees’. Without bees there would be very few flowering crops. Our food plants depend upon them, especially tree fruit, soft fruit, salad crops, beans, apples and pears. On a small scale, every kitchen gardener and allotment holder needs bees in order to be productive.
All about bees
Only four types of UK bee actually make honey, but all species have a vital role to play in the ecosystem, pollinating our food crops and flowers. Some species form small colonies of a few hundred individuals, while honey bees form huge colonies of as many as 20,000, all the offspring of a single queen bee. The queen bee lays all the eggs, while worker bees collect the pollen and nectar that keeps the colony supplied.
There are also over 200 species of solitary bees and wasps in the UK. Solitary bees lay their eggs in cells hidden away in soft sand, soil or mortar, providing each egg with its own food supply. Perhaps the best known solitary bee is the leaf-cutter, which is responsible for cutting neat little semi-circles from the leaves and flowers of roses. They are very distinctive because of the bright orange pollen brush on their back legs.
Bee friendly planting
As a general guide, bees love daisy and bell shaped flowers. Always choose single flower varieties, double flowers don’t provide nectar for insects. The flowers on many fruit and vegetable crops are firm favourites of bees – beans, peas and fragrant herbs are loved, as are apples, currants and raspberries. If you have space in or around your vegetable plot, include flowers like azaleas, bluebells, forget-me-nots, foxgloves, lupins and primroses.
Companion planting, a traditional method of growing different plants together for mutual benefits like extra nutrients, protection from harsh weather and pest control, can make your plot particularly good for bees that will in turn benefit your produce. For example, nasturtiums grown among your brassicas will protect them from caterpillars – caterpillars will choose to eat nasturtium leaves rather than your cabbages, while their flowers will attract bees. Chives or sage amongst your carrots will ward off aphids and again their flowers will be great for bees, which in turn are then on hand to pollinate your other crops.
Bee friendly all year round
It’s not just in spring and summer that bees need your help. Be bee friendly all year round by providing safe homes for them to shelter and hibernate in over winter – it’s easy to knock up a bug box with some old lengths of bamboo or construct a solitary bee hotel by drilling holes into an old fence post. Also, think about growing winter and early flowering plants. Bees need food the moment they emerge from hibernation and will really appreciate these sources of nectar. Hebe and lungwort are good choices. Just like feeding the birds and putting up nest boxes seems like second nature for many gardeners, think about always providing food and shelter for the bees in your life too.
Best bee fruit and veg crops
Fossils show bees have been around for 150 million years
Humans have been beekeeping for at least 6000 years
Out of over 2000 bee species, only four produce honey
Bees can fly at speeds of up to 20mph
Bees don’t sleep
A worker bee will fly 500 miles in its lifetime
Bee pollination is worth over £165million to the UK
Concerned? Here’s some suggested further reading:
‘A World Without Bees’ by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum (ISBN-10 0852650922)
www.britishbee.org.uk – British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA)
http://beebase.csl.gov.uk – home of the National Bee Unit (NBU)
www.ibra.org.uk – home of the International Bee Research Association (IBRA)
www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening – free wildlife friendly gardening advice for everyone
This article appears in March 2009 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine www.kitchengarden.co.uk