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

BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine - - Contents -

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.

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

Septem­ber 2017 Helped by his ever-calm bee ex­pert Gareth, Monty checks on a hon­ey­comb in his top-bar hive gar­den­er­sworld.com

Monty har­vests honey from his two hives, but leaves plenty for the bees to feed on over win­ter

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