Bees play a crucial role in our gardens – and in our lives. Discover how you can help them buzz better this winter and spring…
Fancy a pizza without a rich tomato sauce, or a ratatouille without glossy bell peppers or aubergine? No, thought not. But a monochrome world bereft of our brightest and most beautiful vegetables might not be as far-fetched as we think.
Bees, whether the humble bumble, the honey or the solitary bee, are essential for the pollination of many of our most colourful vegetable and fruit crops, and no other single animal species plays a more important role in food production.
Without bees there would be no squash, cucumbers or courgettes; no apples, plums or pears; or the 90 other fruit and vegetables that reply on these winged friends for their fruitfulness. The supermarket shelves would look very different without bees.
“Without pollinating insects the balance of the ecological system, and ultimately the future of mankind, is doomed,” says professional gardener Maureen Little, author of The Bee Garden. “They are vital to our existence.”
Despite this, the continued loss of habitat brought about by the monoculture of modern agriculture and excessive use of pesticides, has seen bee numbers continue to decline with more than 20 of the 250 species becoming extinct.
The solution? It might lie closer to home than we think.
As crucial habitats have become scare in the countryside, our gardens have become a refuge for bees, offering year-round flowers and forage. Even a pot plant can make a difference.
“Each and every one of us who is able can plant a window box or other container with bee-friendly plants,” says Maureen. “Imagine the locally instigated, world-wide resource that would provide!”
While we might more commonly associate bees with the spring and summer months, many species don’t hibernate over winter, and with our increasingly warm winters, will venture out on warm days – so the plans and plants we establish in our gardens now can be a lifeline.
In particular, bumblebees, of which there are 24 species in Britain including the familiar Buff Tailed bumble, will fly at low temperatures and are among the first to leave their nests to forage.
Unlike honeybees, which overwinter in colonies and feed on honey stores, female bumblebees, called queens, will go underground over winter.
“They like to nest in borders and cavities in loose paving slabs or sheds,” says Anthony McCluskey, from The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT). “As the queens cannot dig, a pre-prepared hole such as a vacated rodent hole is usually their preference, but they also like compost heaps, so be very careful if you’re turning them this winter and put them back gently so they can return to their hibernation.”
Of course, you could make a bumblebee hideaway yourself (see our Bee&Bee below) – they like a quite corner of the garden where they can be secretive – and the tree bumblebee and Ginger-Tufted bee might also take up residence in old bird boxes, so take care when moving or cleaning them out too.
Ripe for pollination
“If bumblebees come out of hibernation, they don’t normally go back in so it’s crucial there’s plenty for them to feed on early in the year,” says Anthony. “Think about planting bulbs such as muscari (grape hyacinth), snowdrop, bluebell, hyacinth and crocus (you can buy them pot-ready in January too) or plants such as mahonia and heather, which provide the earliest sources of nectar.”
And if you’re planning a bumper harvest of your own home grown fruit and veg this year, bumbleees will be key to your success too.
“Tomatoes and peppers can only be pollinated by bumblebees using buzz pollination,” says Anthony. “They vibrate at a certain frequency to releases the pollen, and in countries where bumblebees don’t exist, such as Australia, they have to use paintbrushes and pollinate by hand.”
Because of their furry bodies and messy habits, bumblebees have also been shown to increase yields of fruit crops, such as cherries and apples, because they transfer lots of pollen from one flower to another as they travel.
Solitary bees, such as the Tawny Mining Bee or Red Mason Bee, which are the first to emerge in spring – and so called because they do not live in colonies – are also excellent pollinators, some 200 times more efficient than a honey bee, and like bumblebees, don’t have pollen baskets on their legs so they scatter the pollen as they buzz around.
Many solitary bees like to nest in tubes, hollow stems or canes – so ensure you leave this kind of material around the garden, or leave a south-facing embankment free of dense vegetation to provide opportunities for nesting.
“Variety is the key when it comes to gardening for bees,” says Tim Lovett from the British Beekeepers Association. “Unlike farmland, gardens can provide year-round flowers – and if you manage to attract honey bees they will fly back to the hive, do a ‘waggle dance’ to tell the rest of the colony there’s a great place to eat out, and even which direction it is in.”
Each of the 24 species of bumblebee like different flowers too – and often, at different times of year – so it pays to have something they’re attracted to in your garden at all times.
To shake the January bee blues, and give them plenty of energy for collecting pollen in late spring, plant winter aconites, hellebores, evergreen clematis, lungwort, primrose and honey suckle. Try to avoid double flower heads as the bees cannot get to the stamens easily and go for daisy or bell shapes in a range of bright colours. Unlike humans, bees can see in the UV spectrum, which means stripes, spots and concentric circles on flower heads (which we can’t see) look like landing strips.
“Trees can also be among the most important flowering plants for bees, though they’re often overlooked,” adds Tim. “Plant winter flowering cherries that blossom very early in the year, or lime trees. They might have a fairly small footprint but in that one canopy is layer upon layer of flowers, and in an urban setting this can be a banquet.”
Recent research suggests that bees can adjust the frequency of their buzz to change what they want to do, or communicate different things to each other – so, perhaps, if we could understand their language, we might discover their buzzwords are: “Help us to help you”.
For bumblebee factsheets, help with identification, or bee events and activities go to bumblebeeconservation.org. Maureen Little’s ‘The Bee Garden’ (£16.99) is available from all good booksellers or on-line at www.thebeegarden.co.uk