Why do bees matter?
Bees of all types are in decline, but these tiny insects play a vital role in our global food chain. Monty Don shares his views on how to turn our gardens into havens for bees
Monty explains the bee population crisis and how gardeners can help
ntil recently, most gardeners had a simple if remote relat ionship wi th bees. Bees made honey, so were considered a ‘good thing’, but they also occasionally stung, so were best kept at a safe distance. Certainly, the average gardener did not feel that bees needed tending in any way, unless you wanted to cultivate your own supply of honey, in which case you took up beekeeping. But during the early 1990s, the varroa mite arrived in the UK from Asia and its disast rous impact on honeybee populations began to make headlines. Bees, it seemed, could no longer effortlessly do their buzzing thing but needed help. At the same time, it became apparent to any organic grower that modern agriculture – aided and abetted by the chemical industry – was damaging bee populations. The widespread use of pesticides and fungicides was not just affecting the perceived ‘pests’ (at best a lazy, blunt term to describe something we don’t know much about) but also the ‘good guys’. Bees, it seemed, were being affected in particular by neonicotinoids. These are a class of systemic insecticides that were widely introduced in the 1990s and used by non-organic farmers on a broad range of grain, vegetable and fruit crops. They work by blocking neural pathways in insects’ central nervous system. And so, as shown in recent studies, bees that foraged on treated crops, such as oilseed rape, had lower life expectancy and reproductive success. No one is suggesting that farmers deliberately set out to kill bees, but this collateral damage only began to gain polit ical attention when it became apparent that the world population of bees was falling to levels that were dangerously low if they were to continue acting as pollinators for our crops. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that approximately 75 per cent of f lowering plants, including fruits, nuts and vegetables, are dependent on bees for pollination, whether wild species or honeybees. The message is stark: no bees, no pol l ination, no food and, ultimately, no more mankind. This might seem a long way from your back garden, but it highl ights the complexity and delicacy of the
The message is stark: no bees, no pollination, no food, no more mankind
interwoven relationship between plants, insects and man. It also shows that gardeners are in pole position to do something to preserve and build up our bee stocks. By planting a good selection of pollen- and nectar-rich flowers, such as thistles of all kinds, scabious, cornflowers, mallows, brambles and roses that are easily accessible to bees, we gardeners can help to halt their decline and mitigate the depredations of agriculture.
A native preference
It used to be thought that it didn’t matter where a plant came from, as long as it offered honeybees pollen and/or nectar, and was sufficiently accessible to their rather short tongues. However, research is underway at the National Botanic Garden of Wales invest igat ing honeybees’ preferred flowers, and the evidence so far is showing that they have a strong preference for native, even local, species, including gorse, willow, hawthorn, oak and dandelion. It seems that gardeners may need to provide and manage less glamorous nat ive plants for bees as well as plants from around the world. I have sent the researchers a sample of honey from my own bees to see what they are eating and as soon as I get the results I will share them in these pages. But what is certain is that honeybees like sequential monocultures and are gorgers rather than grazers, so when they find a good supply of nectar and pollen they return to it repeatedly until it is gone, and then move on to the next source. This ‘flower fidelity’ is what makes bees such successful and valuable pollinators, as it minimises wasteful cross-pollination between incompatible plant species. And it’s what gives some honey distinctive f lavours or properties, according to the flower source. It is also why bees are prone to the effects of neonicotinoids, because they will return to field crops such as oilseed rape exclusively for as long as the flowers last. All bees take nectar, which is their basic source of energy. In honeybees it gets passed from bee to bee and the residue is deposited as honey, which is essentially a stored food supply. Pollen provides proteins and fats, and is used by honeybees to produce royal jelly, which they feed to their larvae, in particular those destined to become the new queens. Of course, honeybees are not the only bees around. There are more than 250 species of solitary bees in the UK and these pollinate a range of native plants,
including early spring f lowers such as heathers, as well as Prunus (cherries and their relatives), daisies, dandelions, peas, currants and rosemary, to name but a few. The most common bees nesting in the garden are solitary mining bees, which make holes in the ground, and mason bees, which either make little holes in mortar or use existing cavities. There are also 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, although only eight are common and widespread, and they all have a benign, almost cuddly quality – although they can sting and, unlike honeybees, do not kill themselves in the process. Most bumblebees have long tongues, so can access funnel-shaped flowers such as foxgloves more easily than honeybees. They are also less temperature sensitive, so can start foraging much earlier in the year – spring-flowering plants such as hellebores rely on them for pollination. Despite their ungainly size, bumblebees are powerful f liers, travelling up to 2km between the nest and a prime foraging site. But pollen must be available to them throughout their breeding cycle because, unlike honeybees, bumblebees don’t store much food in their nests.
Springing into action
The queen bumblebee hibernates from the first frosts, and is the big bee you see bumbling around hel lebores and dandelions in March and April. They produce a small colony of workers, drones and young queens, all of whom, save the mated new queens, die in autumn. Gardens should be a rich source of food and habitats for all kinds of bee, and with a little care can be made even better for them without any loss of pleasure to the gardener. Plant a wide range of flowering plants, including natives such as hawthorn and willow – and give a place to dandelions and other easily accessible
flowers. Do your best to provide a good sequential supply from early spring to late autumn. Include as many f lowering shrubs, hedges or small trees as you can to provide windbreaks and shelter. Leave sunny sites as open as possible, and ensure these are filled with nectar-rich flowers for as much of the year as possible. Finally, you should not, in my opinion, use any pesticides. Ever. Create a garden that is rich in plants, allow a little gentle disorder, and enjoy the privilege of hosting a vibrant and diverse bee population.
September 2017 Helped by his ever-calm bee expert Gareth, Monty checks on a honeycomb in his top-bar hive gardenersworld.com
In flower from July to October, field scabious is a long-lasting nectar source gardenersworld.com The bowl-shaped blooms of native musk mallow offer honeybees easily accessible nectar September 2017
Monty harvests honey from his two hives, but leaves plenty for the bees to feed on over winter