While most of us loathe wasps, we have a soft spot for bees and their soporific hum, which fills the garden as they meander from flower to flower gathering nectar and pollen.
Sadly this beloved creature is struggling worldwide; most countries lost about 30 per cent of their bees last winter according to the International Bee Research Assocation. The cause is thought to be a complex combination of climate change, pests, disease and a decline in wildflowers due to intensive agricultural practices.
There are thousands of species of bee but the honey bee is the most important because, as well as producing honey, its pollination is a vital part of the production of a third of our diet, including tomatoes, coffee, apples and grapes (and therefore wine).
As gardeners, we can help the honey bees by providing them with the nectar and pollen they need to be strong enough to cope with pests, disease and wet winters.
“Gardeners are important to bees,” says Robin Dartington, founder and director of Buzzworks, a new community centre dedicated to beekeeping and bee gardening in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, east England. “Think how huge the urban landscape is, and how richly it could be planted with pollen- and nectar-rich plants.”
Bees forage from early spring until the frosts, so ideally a garden would feed them throughout that time. The first food could come from pockets of snowdrops or primroses, which are beautiful planted under trees. Later in spring, the bees will appreciate the violet flowerheads of aubretia, a low-spreading plant that looks wonderful flowing over a wall.
Scout bees fly through gardens all day, searching for a nectar- and pollen-rich spot. Once found, they report back to the hive and waggle their abdomens to communicate where their find is. This is known as the bee dance. The other bees then head off to forage on that particular plant.
It is therefore helpful to plant a lot of one species bees love. In summer, for example, they will flock to lavender or cornflowers, so if you have the space, plant these en masse. The worker bees will hum around it all day, making trips back to the hive when they cannot carry any more pollen.
At the pretty new Bee Borders at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, various pollen- and nectar-rich flowers flourish, including our native viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare). This wildflower is such a bright cobalt blue that it is most effective planted in a group alongside a lot of green foliage.
British bees love many other natives, such as ivy and heather, and new research suggests that bees all over the world may favour native plants. Earlier this month at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in New Mexico, ecologist Dr Kevin Matteson of Fordham University presented research on the preferred food plants of bees in New York City.
“There are a lot of ornamental cultivars in the urban landscape of New York,” he said. “While some of these varieties are visited by bees, others have limited bee visitation relative to native species. Therefore I recommend that gardeners who want to help bees first observe and retain those plants that are already being visited by bees in their garden (including cultivars) and then fill in garden gaps using native species when possible, for example oakleaf hydrangea instead of cultivated mophead hydrangea.”
The time of year when the countryside most lacks food for bees is the end of summer and early autumn, so if you only plant one thing make it a late-flowering plant such as ice plant (sedum). In the Buzzworks bee garden, sedum, aster, autumn crocus and echinops will flower in September to fatten the bees with goodness before they retreat into their hives for winter. Asters are beautiful plants and easy to grow. Try Aster x frikartii Wunder von Stäfa, a brilliant border plant with violet-blue daisy flowers, or plant a flock of naked ladies (autumn crocus, colchicum autumnale) under a tree. These pink flowers look like huge versions of spring crocuses.
As well as planting our own gardens with bee flowers, Dartington is also keen for us to encourage local councils to do the same. “Trees produce more food for bees than anything else. People can make a big difference by encouraging local councillors to plant our parks and streets with pollen- and nectar-rich trees, such as limes.”
The UK government has agreed to fund £10m of research into insect pollinators, but the honey bee is just one of about 2,000 types of pollinators. “The money won’t be issued until 2010 and we don’t know who will get it,” says Professor Francis Ratnieks, the UK’s only professor of apiculture, who is based at the University of Sussex in Brighton. “It may not go to honey bee research.”
Instead of twiddling his thumbs until 2010, Ratnieks has relied on donations to pursue vital research. His current project, the Sussex Plan for Honeybee Health and Wellbeing, aims to breed disease-resistant bees, find ways to control the varroa mite (a pest that can kill a whole bee colony) and find out exactly what bees are foraging on. The project has so far received a quarter of the £2m needed to fund it.
Meanwhile, we can help the honey bees by supporting scientists and campaigners and by planting drifts of favoured flowers. They will repay us, not only with pollination and with honey for breakfast, but via that gentle hum that no garden would be the same without.
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