I talked in my last blog about the importance of bees, and how they desperately need our help.
But what can we do? Well the Wild About Gardens team have loads of ideas, so do check out their website.
In the meantime here is some inspiration from my own back garden!
This is my allotment; ‘The Cutty Garden’, photos taken summer 2016. I try to garden in a way that is as bee-friendly as possible, as well as making space for other wildlife. I grow a mix of vegetables & flowers, and avoid chemicals.
Who’s Who in the Bee World?
Broadly speaking, there are three main groups of bees that will visit UK gardens: honeybees, bumblebees, and solitary bees.
The most widely known fact about bees is that bees make honey. Well this is actually, and rather impressively, all down to just one species of bee – the domestic honey bee! Honey bees live in colonies, housed in hives, and a single colony can contain between 10,000 and 60,000 bees! There used to be a species of wild honeybee that could be found in the British countryside, but this has disappeared and is thought to be extinct. You do find ‘wild’ honeybee nests, in wall or tree cavities, but these will be feral bees; a swarm or the descendants of a swarm, that has left their hive and not been recollected by a bee keeper.
Bumblebees are perhaps the most distinctive type of bee – that round, fuzzy, stripy creature with the tiny wings we would draw as children. Bumblebee queens mate in the late summer, feed up on the nectar rich flowers in our gardens, then find a cosy, dry and safe place to see out the winter. They often hibernate underground in old mammal burrows, or may use a hole inside a wall or tree. It is an exciting sign of spring when the first queens emerge into the sunshine! They will be the only bumblebees to survive through the winter, but they are ready to lay enough eggs to kickstart a whole new colony. The first priority of these emerging queens is food – they are hungry after their long sleep and need lots of energy to search for a suitable nest site. An old mouse burrow is perfect, although the Tree Bumblebee prefers high rise living, such as an empty bird box. The nest will only be active for the one year, with a new queen bee leaving in late summer to start the cycle again.
Solitary bees are possibly the trickiest group to identify – being small and easy to miss. But out of the approximately 250 bee species found in the UK, over 220 are solitary bees! Unlike the honeybee and bumblebees, these little pollinators don’t have a communal nest, instead they live independent lives. A female solitary bee will lay her eggs, provide a store of food for the larvae to feed on when it hatches, then move on and have no more involvement with the nest. Although they don’t live in a social colony, lots of solitary bees will often nest close together.
The solitary bees you are most likely to find in gardens are Red Mason Bees, Tawny Mining Bees, Leaf Cutter Bees and Wool Carder Bees. Check out the ivy flowers in a local park or sunny roadside in September and you might find the dainty Ivy Bee too!
For more information on identifying the bees visiting your garden, take a look at these links:
The Wildlife Trusts – Solitary Bees
Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Downloadable Bee Identification Guide: BBCT_Bumblebee_ID_sheet_(big_8) (1)
Opening a Bee Buffet…
When you are a bee, life is all about flower power! The nectar and pollen that flowers produce are the two vital food groups that bees require. The pollen is rich in protein and required by the growing larvae and young bees. When bees collect the pollen to eat and to take back to their nests, lots more pollen is disturbed by the vibrations of their buzzing, and sticks to their hairs and body. This pollen is then transferred to other flowers as the bees buzz from bloom to bloom, helping the plants cross pollinate to produce seed and fruit. In exchange for this pollination assistance, and to attract the bees, flowers produce a sweet sugar rich substance called nectar that is the perfect fuel to provide the bees with energy to go about their busy lives. (Did you know, that in some countries it is tiny, beautiful hummingbirds or even small mammals and bats that perform these pollination duties?)
Interestingly, bees do see in colour, like us. However, they cannot see the colour red, instead they can see ultraviolet, a hue invisible to our eyes. Many flowers have ultraviolet pigments in their petals, or ultraviolet markings that guide the bees to the centre of the flower where the pollen and nectar can be found!
The easiest way to help bees, is to plant a few flowers. Even on a balcony or a window-box, there will be something you can grow that the bees will adore and visit time and time again! Look at there examples of just a few bee friendly flowers above and below… from herbs to trees, native wildflowers to more exotic looking garden plants, there will be something to suit every space, conditions and green fingered expertise!
Not all our garden plants are suitable for our garden bees. Many of the more exotic flowers evolved shapes that require their native companions of hummingbirds, moths, or even bats and small mammals to pollinate them. Others, gardeners have developed through selective breeding over many years, specifically for shows and displays, focussing on impact and appearance, rather than pollen and nectar production or accessibility for bees.
The golden rules when choosing which plants to grow for bees are:
- Think about the flower shape – flowers with lots of layers of petals can be very hard for bees to get into, so choose instead more open flowers where the centre is easily visible.
- Look closely! You will see that some flowers have a single bloom, others have lots of tiny flower centres clustered together in one flowering head. These plants, such as buddleia and sedum, are great for bees as it maximises the food they can access without flying long distances between flowers!
- Think about time of flowering – bees need food all year round, and flowers can be hard to find in early spring and autumn, so try to choose a mixture of flowers that will bloom in different months.
- Consider wildflowers – some of our native wildflowers are disappearing from our hedgerows and fields, and this is a big cause of the decline in the numbers of bees. Many wildflowers are very pretty, and rather than being weeds, actually make good garden plants.
For a list of the top bee-friendly flowers have a look at this link from the RHS:
I avoid all chemicals on my allotment garden, and I urge you to do the same. Bees are insects, and as such are very susceptible to the same chemicals that kill ‘pest’ insects. It is thought that many weedkillers also harm bees, and at very least they kill many of the wildflowers that bees would visit for food. Instead of using chemicals, I encourage the garden to develop a natural balance: I provide suitable homes and conditions for predatory insects and birds which help to control the unwanted pests such as aphids and caterpillars. Toads and frogs are a good friend to the gardener as they will munch on slugs. And of course there is the famous hedgehog. Most slug pellets widely available on the retail market contain poisons that are dangerous to hedgehogs, and also can be dangerous to pets and children too, so I avoid these and seek out natural alternatives.
Because different types of bees live in different ways (honeybees in hives, bumblebees in small annual nests, solitary bees in clusters of individual tunnels) not every garden will automatically have suitable homes for every type of bee.
Many people keep honeybees in back gardens, some even on urban rooftops. If you are considering keeping honeybees, it is best to find out as much information as possible and think about whether beekeeping is something that is right for you and your space. Search online for your local beekeeping organisation and have a chat to the members, many beekeepers are often happy to show you their bees and answer any questions you may have. There are also lots of courses across the country teaching people about keeping honeybees.
If life as a beekeeper isn’t for you, then you can still provide a cosy home for bumblebees or solitary bees, even if you don’t have a garden!
Solitary bees such as the Red Mason Bee nest in tunnels. In old properties, the mortar between brickwork used to be soft or porous, and small holes would develop which the bees would use. This is how they came to be called ‘Mason bees’. New buildings often don’t offer these nest sites any more, but you can easily buy or make your own.
- The Log Method – find a piece of log and using various sized drill bits, drill long tunnels into the flat end of the log. Hang the log somewhere sheltered and warm in the garden or on a wall.
- Straws and tubes – a container such as a plastic water bottle with the top cut off, or a scrap of drain pipe, filled with straws or pieces of hollow bamboo (you can either recycle from around the garden/home, or buy bee tubes online), is as simple DIY project that even young children can help with. Like the Log method, hang your bee nester somewhere secure, sheltered and warm – perfect for balconies!
- Retail therapy – there are a vast array of ‘bee hotels’ available to buy in garden centres, at nature reserves and online. Why not check out the shop of one of the wildlife conservation charities – they really need our support and not only will you be helping your garden bees, but the money you spend will support wildlife elsewhere too!
Bumblebees can be encouraged to nest in your garden too. All you need is an upturned terracotta flowerpot partly buried in the soil, with the top covered to keep out the rain and a length of hosepipe to form a tunnel entrance… and a bit of luck!
Download this guide from The Bumblebee Conservation Trust for easy to follow instructions to build your own bumblebee nest!
All this pollinating is thirsty work! Bees need to drink water every day to stay hydrated. In hot weather, gardens can be quite dry, so bees will seek out any water they can find. Including a bird bath or a pond in your garden is a great idea. Just be careful to make sure there is a place for bees to sit safely, without falling into deep water and drowning. This can be done by adding a rock to a bird bath for example. Have a look at the photo to the right. This is my small wildlife pond (only about 40cm across), can you see the upturned flower pot in the centre and the rocks at the edge? Both of these are at the same level as the waters surface, and damp, providing lots of safe drinking places for bees. If you only have a small space, a saucer filled with pebbles or marbles, and kept topped up with water to the point where the top of the pebbles are just above the surface, makes a special bee-waterer!
Here is a link to a ‘How to’ if you want to make a wildlife pond in your own back garden:
Watch: How to build a wildlife pond (via Sussex Wildlife Trust Youtube Channel)
Bees sting!… don’t they?
Most bees can sting, but they really don’t want to! Unless you squash them, violently shake them, or disturb their nest, most bees are unlikely to sting you and are very docile. The best advice is watch but don’t touch, or if you must (for example to rescue a trapped bee) be very gentle. If you are worried, try wearing gloves or lifting the bee with a piece of paper or plastic pot that might be nearby.
I have a bee swarm in my garden, what do I do?
Don’t panic! Swarming is a natural part of a honey bee colonies life cycle. When swarming, the bees are focused on the queen bee, who will be at the centre of the swarm, not you. Don’t disturb them and definitely do not spray them with chemicals or soap/water to disperse them as this will harm or even kill the bees! They are just looking for a new home. Call your local beekeeping association (numbers can be found here) and a volunteer swarm collector will come out to take the bees away.
Wildflowers vs garden cultivars, which are best for bees?
Why not plant both?! Many of our wildflowers are in decline, so by planting them you are helping to save both the bees, and our native flora. However some wildflowers can be boisterous plants and quite invasive in the garden, so you might want to choose varieties carefully. Garden plants can be very good for bees and they often flower for longer then their native cousins, just follow the golden rules I suggested earlier in this blog to choose the best varieties!