We’re very keen on bees here. In fact, one of us actually keeps honey bees and is a local honey bee swarm collector!

Today is World Honey Bee Day, and National Honey Week runs from 23-29 October, celebrating the honey crop and the honey bee’s vital role in the environment.

Hyacinth and honey bee. Store the bulbs. Bees

Hyacinth and honey bee. © Dinkum and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Keen on bees

Bees are beautiful creatures and are downright fascinating. And they and other pollinators like hoverflies and butterflies are essential to agriculture. No bees? No pollination of plants – and that means no food.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 75% of flowering plants rely on bees for pollination. In the UK, it would cost £1.8bn to pollinate crops without bees.

We really do need bees.

Bees are having a hard time

Quite simply, they’re under threat.

There’s loss of habitat. Changes in the way we use the land (soil, vegetation, flowers, hedges) mean that bees don’t have enough places to find food, shelter and somewhere to nest.

And there’s climate change. As seasons seem to be shifting and we have warmer and wetter winters, some wild bee species may end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And there are pesticides and herbicides. Pesticides (especially the class of systemic insecticides called neonicotinoids) can affect bees’ central nervous system and their feeding, homing, foraging and breeding. The use of herbicides in parks, streets and on roadside verges reduces the year-round availability of different food plants for pollinating insects.

Bees also have to contend with pests and diseases, and threatening invasive species.

The combined effects add up to a big onslaught on bees and other pollinating insects. Around 13 of the UK’s bee species are now extinct and 35 others are under threat of extinction.

But we can take action to help. And it’s not difficult.

Provide shelter to create a pollinators’ paradise

Small trees, hedges and flowering shrubs all provide windbreaks to protect nectar-producing plants and provide shelter for bees.

If you’ve got a lawn, let some grass grow longer so the insects can feed and shelter. Have you got clover or shamrock in your lawn? Allow some of it to flower.

shamrocks bees

White clover - a contender for the real shamrock. Geograph. Mike Pennington.

Make a small pile of untreated wood (logs, branches, twigs) at the back of a border where insects can rest, feed and nest.

Grow bee-friendly plants to create a pollinators’ paradise

Plant a good selection of flowering plants wherever you can - in the garden, in window boxes, and in containers on the balcony.

Lavender is a herb with relaxing properties, good for the exam period. Bees

Bee pollinating lavender. Copyright Booksworm, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Bees love flowers where they can feed easily, so choose single rather than double-flowered blooms. Plants with double or multi-petalled flowers often have no nectar or pollen, as well as being difficult for insects to get into.

Honey bees and a wide range of other pollinating insects much prefer native flowering plants. It’s easy to grow native wildflowers (yarrow, red campion, scabious) from a packet of seed. Don’t forget lovely hedgerow roses, mallows and cornflowers. And can you find a quiet spot for a few thistles, brambles and dandelions?

The RHS advice note on plants perfect for pollinators is a good shopping list for your next trip to a garden centre. As well as flowers (single open flowered dahlias, wallflowers, Limnanthes – the so-called poached egg plant, geums), think about:

  • trees - willow, oak, hawthorn, holly, hazel, pussy willow, goat willow
  • shrubs - gorse, ivy (don’t cut it back until after it’s flowered), flowering currant, Portugal laurel and Teucrium lucidrys (hedge germander - chosen by many gardeners to replace box in their gardens)
  • fruit and vegetables - peas, beans, raspberries …
  • herbs - borage, marjoram and lavender in my garden are always buzzing with bees.
spring blossom. bees

Bright blossom of flowering currants attract early bees, and cheer me up! Sarah Buchanan

Bees need access to flowering plants from early spring to late autumn / early winter.

In early spring, those insects emerging from hibernation early will like the nectar provided by aubretia and alyssum, bluebells, primroses and violets, grape hyacinths, lungwort (pulmonaria), winter aconite, snowdrops and wood anemone.

Aconites and snowdrops near King Edward, Aberdeenshire. next spring. bees

Aconites and snowdrops near King Edward, Aberdeenshire. © Anne Burgess and licensed for reuse under CC BY 2.0.

In summer, bees and other insects love buddleia, heather, sea holly and verbena.

As insects prepare for hibernation in late autumn they're very happy to feed on coneflower, ice plant (Sedum spectabile), Michaelmas daisies and valerian.

3 points about pesticides if you’re creating a pollinators’ paradise

  1. If you must use pesticides, avoid using them wherever and whenever possible.
  2. Never spray open flowers.
  3. Always read and follow label instructions

Any action you can take to help bees is worthwhile. And that includes eating local honey, of course!