The beautiful Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera) isn’t the only important pollinator.
In the UK, there are 24 different species of bumblebees1, around 250 species of solitary bees2 and 9,000 species of wasp (with 2,400 of these being solitary wasps)3.
Why are bees disappearing?
There are three main reasons why bees are disappearing.
Pesticide and herbicide use
Lack of food
Above: Photo by solitary bee expert Roger Ruston, Monmouth, of his bee friendly garden.
Above: Honeybees can end up feeding their queen with nectar from a flower that was sprayed with weedkiller. Dandelions are a common victim.
Pesticides and herbicides were once praised for their ability to make quick work of difficult garden tasks.
Sadly, the use of chemicals disrupts the balance of nature and bio-accumulates in our soils and rivers, affecting more than their intended recipient.
A gardener might only use pesticides on greenfly, not knowing that this can stay on a plant for more than three years4 and so if used annually, quickly builds up and never “disappears”.
When the plant flowers, their pollen and nectar also contain the chemical and is passed on to the oblivious honey bee.
Pesticides can paralyze and disorientate bees5 and if she manages to make her way back to her hive, will feed her newborn sisters with this contaminated nectar. She may even feed the queen if it happens to be her turn and, if she has any nectar left, she will begin to make honey which the beekeeper then harvests and eats or sells to the public.
It is easy to see how chemical use in one garden, can easily affect a whole line of victims.
Habitat destruction can be anything from forests being cut down, to a neighbour concreting their driveway.
Thanks to mainstream TV gardening programmes and other media, the idea of a “tidy” garden has been detrimental to pollinators.
Lawns may offer habitats for ground-dwelling solitary bees (if undisturbed from infrequent mowing), but do not offer any food for pollinators.
Dandelions provide one of the earliest sources of nectar for bumblebees awaking from hibernation after Winter6, though keen lawn gardeners will quickly ensure they do not survive.
If you are lucky enough to find a colony of honey bees nesting in your chimney, it could mean there is a serious lack of nearby tree nesting sites.
Trunks from older trees are larger in diameter and provide the best nesting site for honey bees. Honey bees are particularly desperate for nesting sites and are very good at adapting to this, much to the annoyance of the general public.
Honey bees have been known to make nesting sites in anything from traffic cones7 to compost bins, though these can often be unsuitable nesting sites and eventually lead to the death of the colony.
Above: The start of my bee hotel in 2018. Here we used an old tree trunk and drilled holes for nesting solitary bees – 7 holes were nested in within 3 months! Food sources such as red campion has been left to grow for the offspring that hatches.
Above: Ragwort is often very unpopular with gardeners, but hugely beneficial to all kinds of pollinators.
Lack of food goes hand in hand with habitat destruction. Many pollinators live in or close to sites where they also feed from.
We can attempt to reverse this by encouraging gardeners (no matter how small their garden) to grow more pollinator-friendly plants.
The majority of these suitable plants lean strongly towards being native and non-hybridized as many hybrid plants are grown for their looks – not for their importance to pollinators.
Another issue is a lack of diversity of pollinator suitable plants, as many flowers have different sized openings which can prevent bumblebees from feeding if the entrance is too small.
In 2018, we planted gypsophila, or Baby’s-breath, and noticed it was only visited by very small black and yellow hoverflies, possibly the syritta pipiens, and we were advised by a knowledgeable colleague that this was because it contains more nectar as the flower’s entrance was far too small for other pollinators to access it.
Lastly, as flowers have differing flowering periods, it is pointless to plant one type of flower which will be finished in three months leaving pollinators with nothing else for the rest of the year.
A good diversity of native pollinator suitable plants will flower one after the other, providing a full year’s worth of nutrition for important insects and ensuring they have enough to feed themselves and their young before the winter.
What can you do?
You don’t have to become a beekeeper to help save the bees!
There are three very easy things you can do to help our pollinators.
Don’t use pesticides or herbicides
Grow more bee-friendly plants
Provide suitable nesting sites
So let your dandelions, ivy and bramble grow – the pollinators love them.
Above: We allowed our chives to flower and found it was well visited by bumblebees.