Too many bees, or too few flowers?

Bumblebee on borage flower

Can there be too many bees? Especially when we are regularly reading about declining pollinator populations in the papers. But an article published last week by researchers from Cambridge University, suggests that efforts to reverse these declines may have become too focused on a single species. The honey bee has received a lot of attention in recent years, with beekeepers reporting large losses in hives. Given the importance of managed honey bees in pollinating food crops, this is maybe not surprising. But the Cambridge scientists point out that there should at least be more distinction between managed honey bees and wild pollinators when it comes to conservation efforts. Their review of current literature found evidence that, in areas where beekeeping resulted in large populations of honey bees, there can be competition for food and the potential of diseases spreading to wild bees. They suggest that role of managed honey bees in food production, means that concerns over hive losses should be viewed as an agricultural issue, not an environmental concern.

Wild bees

In the UK we have about 270 species of bee. The honey bee is one, then there are 24 bumblebee species (25 if the reintroduction of the Short-haired bumblebee is successful), and over 200 species of, often forgotten, solitary bees. Across Europe as a whole, half of all bee species are threatened with extinction. A combination of habitat loss, diseases, and the effects of widespread pesticide use has been cited as the reason we are seeing such dramatic population declines. The need to take action is obvious. But, as with many environmental issues, political and financial interests can slow down or divert necessary large scale conservation steps. However, this is one conservation project we can all get involved with.

Anyone with some outside space, whether it’s a garden, backyard or window box, can grow flowers and provide nesting sites for our wild pollinators. By planting more flowers, we can ensure that there is more food available for bees, from early spring right through to the end of autumn (and maybe through the winter too if you live in one of the areas of the country where bees are now active all year round).

Which flowers to grow for bees

Choosing the right flowers to plant is important – not all flowers are equal when it comes to their value as a food source for bees. There are lots of really good online resources, listing nectar and pollen rich plants for bees and other pollinators. The Gardening for Bumblebees leaflet produced by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is a good place to start, and the Goulson Lab at the University of Sussex has some suggestions for beautiful garden plants to grow for bees. The general rule is that simple, single flowers are better than the fancy, doubles that are popular as bedding plants for summer displays. And growing a diverse range of flowers to provide food over a long flowering season is good too. One really crucial thing – whatever you choose, try to make sure that the plants have been grown without pesticides. A recent study at University of Sussex found traces of pesticides in plants labelled as ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ in some garden centres and DIY stores. This was a surprise to many gardeners, who realised that they were effectively providing food laced with poisons for the local bee populations – definitely not what they were meaning to do.

Other bee-friendly gardening ideas

Beyond growing more flowers, if your garden is big enough there are a few more simple ways to help bees. Providing nesting habitat is easy. There are lots of ‘bee houses’ available to buy. These are usually wooden boxes filled with tubes for solitary bees to make their nests in. They work amazingly well. Fix them in a sheltered, warm position and watch the bees flying to and fro as they provision the nesting tubes with pollen and nectar and lay their eggs. You don’t even need a garden – just a wall. Other bees prefer different nesting sites. Many bumblebee species make their nests in small holes in the ground, often in the rough grassy area at the base of a hedge, sometimes in a compost heap. Having a bumblebee nest in the garden is a fantastic opportunity to watch these fascinating insects, and in no way dangerous. Bumblebees are generally very docile and will only sting if they really feel threatened. Tawny mining bees are also ground nesters, but they prefer areas where the grass is short. These beautiful, rust coloured insects are active in spring and early summer, and are good pollinators to have around if there are fruit trees in your garden. They are completely harmless, and a good excuse for keeping the lawn neat and tidy.

A garden with a range of habitats and lots of flowers can be idea for both wild pollinators and honey bees. After all, the sight of bees buzzing among the flowers is a part of summer we don’t want to lose.

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