To lose any animal through extinction is heart-breaking. To lose a wild creature which promotes and supports the health and bounty of so many trees and plants is almost unthinkable. The consequences are almost too disastrous to contemplate but contemplate them we must if we are to act in a positive fashion before it is too late.
There is world-wide concern about the health of bees. Every few weeks I am contacted to sign up to the latest petition about banning harmful insecticides or putting pressure on political figures to act positively to protect those bees we have left. The idea that we can all play out part to nurture the bees living and working around us is something less well understood and practiced, yet it is the simple things which can help.
Bees require nectar and pollen from flowers in order to produce what is needed in the hive for their colony. Those of us who are able to grow plants need to be aware which plants are richer and more accessible food sources than others so we can offer what we can to the hives.
Bees need a continuous flow of flowers from February when the first bumblebees emerge from the holes in the ground to the warm dog days of autumn in late October/November. It is worth making a yearlong audit of your garden/park/open space/field to discover what flowers when. Is there a period where no flowers bloom? Can you discover something to grow which will fill that gap?
It has been found that bees in large, urban areas are often better served by access to flowers than those in certain parts of the country where single-crop agriculture and grubbing out of hedgerows has decimated the growth of wild flowers and trees with a corresponding drop in bird life and insects. When I’ve visited Lincolnshire and Norfolk in recent years, the lack of variety of plant life in certain areas has been very evident.
The colour of a flower determines its attractiveness to bees. Having said that, it must be remembered bees have a very different colour spectrum from our own. They see colours from yellow to ultra violet and will be guided towards the richest source of nectar by coloured tramlines. The pollen from a field poppy will be seen as blue, whilst that from the buttercup will be deep purple. It was interesting watching honey bees in my garden during a warm spell a few weeks ago. They ignored the snowdrops and visited every purple crocus instead.
The shape of the flower also affects how easy it is for the bee to access a flower. The bumblebee has a longer proboscis than the honey bee, so they prefer red clover while honey bees prefer white. The honey bee will often sip nectar through the back of a pea or broad bean flower through a hole made by another insect.
It is worth remembering if you are buying new roses that modern hybrid flowers are useless to bees because they cannot get to the nectar source in the centre of the flower as it is completely enclosed by whorls of petals. If you are not sure whether your roses are nectar bearing, do they produce hips? If they do, then they have been pollinated.
Nectar from different flowers contains different levels of sugar concentrations. For example the richest concentration of sugar comes from marjoram (80%) compared with 40% in lavender and 25% in borage.
Below is a list of plant families which are useful to bees.
Laniums: lavender, sage, mints, bergamot, marjoram etc.
Asteraceae – calendula, daises, chamomile, dandelions, conrflower, sunflower, lettuce
Rosacea – dog rose, apple, blackberry, raspberry, cherries, blackcurrants, nuts
Fabacae – peas, beans, clover, vetch, acacia, melilot.
If your favourite plants are umbellifers such as fennel, dill, cow parsley, hemlock etc. then please think of adding other plants. Bees cannot feed from any of them!
Don’t forget to provide your bee visitors with water. They need a shallow bowl with lots of places to perch so they don’t get their body wet.
If you grow herbs and a selection of wild flowers the bees will prosper. I feel very blessed to share my herb gardens with a wide variety of honey and different bumblebees. Long may this continue!