Keeping honeybees to save the bees just won’t cut it and here’s why, says Jean Vernon.
Bees, as we know, are in deep trouble. Dubbed the modern coalmine canary; their spiraling demise has scientists, naturalists and environmentalists running scared.
Become a beekeeper??
The knee jerk reaction by many well-meaning bee supporters has been to take up beekeeping. But it’s not the honeybees that are in trouble. These creatures have countless, powerful advocates supporting their existence, a club in practically every town and have been the subject of extensive scientific research. We probably know more about honeybees than anything other creature. It’s a passionate hobby with beekeepers utilizing every technique in their toolbox to keep honey yields high and these beautiful insects surviving from year to year. But the honeybee is just one of our 270 or so UK bees. Just one. It’s the only bee in the UK that makes honey. But we have hundreds of other native bees that need far more of our help and many of these are super pollinators, due to their messy pollen collecting techniques. One red mason bee can do the pollination work of 120 honeybees. Bumblebees utilise unique methods of pollination making them better pollinators of many plants including tomatoes and strawberries.
The humble bumbles
Soon the overwintering bumblebees will start to emerge from their winter torpor. These are the mated Queen bees that have endured a harder winter than normal. We have 25 species of bumblebees in the UK, with just seven or eight species common in our gardens.
These emerging Queens are run down and searching for sustenance. Look around your garden. What’s in flower? The early spring flowers are often set back and in some cases mushed by the snow. It’s a bit like our supermarket shelves after the cold weather, there’s not much left and demand is high. These Queen bumblebees not only need to feed and restore themselves, they are also searching for a nest site and collecting food for their first brood and making an emergency nectar pot to sustain them through bad weather. They need pollen and nectar fast. But not every type of flower is suitable for each species of bee; some bees have short tongues and cannot reach the nectaries inside longer tubular flowers.
Then there are the native solitary bees, the incredible, single mums of the bee world. These personify the ‘busy as a bee’ mantra. There are around 250 different species of solitary bees in the UK. The males emerge first looking for nectar rich flowers to sustain them until the females arrive. These are not social bees; they don’t live in colonies. Once mated, the hardworking females must make a nest, lay her eggs and provision every egg with food a source of pollen. Some of them are very specialist bees, feeding on a just handful of plant species. If the plant isn’t present, or is over foraged by other bees, they will not find enough food for their offspring.
Meanwhile back inside the honeybee hive, the colony is building up, having spent the winter hunkered down, feeding on its stores (honey is the bee’s winter food). The colony is raising new bees to forage on the spring flowers. Even now, there are thousands of honeybees in every hive. And once the weather is conducive, the newly hatched bees and some of the winter bees will emerge and forage en masse to replenish the honey stores and collect the protein rich pollen to feed their developing young. Honeybees can fly miles to find food, whereas solitary bees and bumblebees tend to forage closer to their nests to preserve energy. So the honeybees can encroach on areas where wild bees are struggling to survive and may put additional pressures on our wild bees.
So the food is the first concern. If you really want to help bees then plant more flowers. But choose plants free from pesticides and ones with open flowers where the pollen and nectar are accessible for all pollinators. Plant trees for bees; plant specialist bee plants (check out RosyBee plants, http://www.rosybee.com/ for plenty of organic, bee friendly plants). Grow from seed to plant en masse and be in control of any treatments. Wildflowers are great, but many garden plants are good too. Some of my favourite bee plants include Vipers Bugloss (Echium vulgare), Perennial oriental borage (Trachystemon orientalis), Birds Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculata), Agastache foeniculum and mountain cornflower (Centaurea montana).
The endless quest for pest control is a danger to all bees and other insects. The application of toxic nerve agents designed for insect ‘pests’ have been shown to have a variety of dangerous sub lethal effects. All insecticides are designed to kill insects and can kill bees. Even fungicides can affect the natural yeasts of the fermenting beebread that many bees make and store for their offspring.
But pests also affect bees. The dreaded varroa mite, which arrived on these shores in 1992 is now a major issue for honeybees, can spread diseases to bumblebees. Weirdly it is still possible to import honeybee packages and Queen bees into the UK and undoubtedly, despite health checks, these can and do bring hidden pests and diseases into the country, with the potential to have a detrimental effect on the wild bees.
How to help bees.
Fall in love with weeds. Dandelions, buttercups, brambles and daisies are all vital food resources for different species of bees. Our native bees have evolved with these native plants and without the right flowers at the critical point in their lifecycle they may not survive.
Provide nesting habitats – different bees nest in some weird and wonderful places. While putting up a ‘bee hotel’ could provide nesting sites for some of the aerial nesting solitary bees, your lawn and open soil is just as important for the mining bees. Soft mortar in an old wall, a bank of soil facing the sun and even a stash of old snail shells are potential nesting habitats for a variety of native solitary bees.
Join the bumblebee conservation trust, go to their events, do a bee walk and learn more about these precious creatures. https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/