The importance of bees in the garden

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Every time I turn on the news it seems that bad news is all there is. From global warming and terrorism, there is just no respite from the negativity. Grim tidings spew their way over the airwaves and there is no hiding from them. Even in the garden, when we listen to the radio, it still intrudes upon our consciousness.

And in my role as a landscape gardener, I prioritise the news that affects me. In recent years there has been alarming reports of the fall in the number of bees in the UK. The usual suspects have been named: global warming and climate change, nicotine-based insecticides, changes in habitats due to farming methods. The truth is, all of these no doubt play a part, and their cumulative effect is that we are seeing a devastating drop in the number of bees.

This is even being reflected in popular culture. In the last few years an episode of Dr. Who featured the decline of bees as a sub-plot, and Radio 4 had a sci-fi drama, The Bee Maker (based ominously in the year 2020), where most of the bees in the world had died out, leaving a robotics engineer to manufacture micro-drones to pollinate the world’s plants. If this part of the sci-fi ever comes to pass, where drone pollinators are many times more efficient than bees, then it will be a great failure of mankind to live within nature’s bounty – and could even have the undesired outcome of making bees a pest, rather than a useful partner to the world’s farmers.

It is this aspect of pollination that is where the humble bee comes most into play with human civilisation. In the UK, over 70 species of crops benefit from insect pollinators, and many flowers depend on them for their survival and reproduction – flowers that in no small part go into the food chain of farmyard animals. In the UK, the British Beekeepers Association believes that bees and their pollinating activities are worth around £200 million per annum to the economy. In the USA, figures in 2009 put this figure at nearly $30 billion! (There are even scientists who are training bees to smell explosives!)

In the UK, we have hundreds of different bee species. These can be broken down into solitary bees and social bees. The latter includes the lovely Honeybee, as well as the Bumblebee. Other species that most of us would have come into contact with is the white-tailed bumblebee and the carder bee. In my neighbour’s house, in the red brick of the barn, there are many mason bees that, whilst solitary, tend to live as close neighbours. On a summer’s evening, as the westward sun sheds its last warmth against the walls, it’s a delight to hear and see these industrious insects appearing from their small caves in the mortar to gather their resources.

But what can UK gardeners do to help with the plight of the bees? One reason for the decline is that the UK is estimated to have a lost a stomach-shrinking 97% of our flower-rich grass and meadowland since the 1930s. Not only has this vanished, leading to loss of habitat and food, but it has, in many instances, become actively detrimental to the bees that survive in neighbouring areas as they have become intensively farmed (with the associated use of pesticides and insecticides). In an anecdotal example of this, one of my friends lives on a house that backs onto a wildflower meadow and then has an apple orchard directly beyond. He has often remarked on how the swallows will swoop over the wildflower meadow, but turn back as soon as they near the hedge separating the field from the orchard. The birds know that the farmed orchard has far fewer insects in them than the wildflower meadow, so they plan their flights accordingly.

But we don’t need huge fields to make a difference. We cannot hide, as small gardeners in our humble plots, behind the excuse of ‘there’s nothing I can do about it anyway.’ We can make a difference.

First, we need to plant the right plants in sunny areas of the garden. I have never come across any garden in which there isn’t some room to be made available for this purpose. Buddleja and lavender are obvious choices, and they look attractive to be viable in most gardens. Foxgloves and Honeysuckle are also very popular with the insects. (Gardeners World has an extensive list on their website). Planting different species is also a good idea, as flowering times vary and this will give more consistency to your garden as a place where bees can feed.

Secondly, if you live in an urban area but might just have space for a hive, then contact your local beekeeper via the Beekeeping Association to tell them. A big problem is that they don’t have the areas to provide space for the hives – so if you think you know somewhere, then share it!

The third thing to do is a very simple thing indeed. If you ever consume imported honey then you must make sure that any you throw away is done so responsibly. Spores and viruses from foreign hives can survive in the honey, and if a native bee takes them back to their hives then the disease can spread. Oh, how we all love globalisation!

And now is the time to put pressure on the political front to make sure this problem is escalated so the issue can start to be seriously addressed. Write to your MP, sign petitions, and sign up to the Beekeepers Association newsletter to keep yourself informed. The more you find out about these beautiful creatures, the more you’ll be interested – that’s a promise. And you never know. You could do the ultimate to encourage them. You could become a beekeeper yourself, with a hive in your back garden. What a lovely thought that is. It is, in fact, on my bucket list too.

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