Bee on blackberry flower

How to help save the bees

If you want to do more to help save the bees you need to turn your attention to your garden bees, says Jean Vernon.

It’s no secret that the bees are in trouble. Our precious pollinators are struggling with a range of challenges and really do need our help.

Gardeners are best placed to really make a difference. Our gardens, when joined together make up a massive area of virtual nature reserves where our pollinators can feed, breed and nest safely. If every gardener planted three extra plants for the bees each year then it would make an incredible difference to all our pollinators, not just the bees.

Crocus bee
Bumblebee in crocus flower. Image: Jean Vernon

Bees’ needs

It’s not rocket science that bees need food. Gardeners are well placed to plant and grow a huge variety of flowering plants that are rich in vital pollen and nectar. But to make the biggest difference it helps to understand a bit more about your garden bees and what they really need. First of all you might be very surprised to learn that there are hundreds of different species of bees in and around your garden. The honeybee is just one of those, it is the only UK bee that makes honey as we know it and it has a short tongue that can only feed from certain flowers.

Then there are around 25 different species of bumblebees; those round fluffy balls that buzz around the flowers. Of those about 8 of them are commonly seen in our gardens. You might have seen other bees or noticed other beelike insects in your garden, these could have been bee mimics, or possibly some of the 250 or so solitary bees that are also garden visitors. The diversity is huge and includes a fantastic array of amazing little bees feeding on flowers and making miniature homes around your garden that George Clarke (Of Amazing Spaces) would be proud. Look around your garden in February and March when the bee activity in your garden is starting to rise? What have you got in flower right now?

Flower Power

Early spring is a critical time for emerging Queen bumblebees and also the female solitary bees that first appear. Not only do you need to ensure there are plenty of flowers open, but you also need to make sure there is enough variety to suit the different tongue lengths of the bees. Longer tongued bumblebees like the common carder bees and the early bumblebee need tubular flowers like comfrey, flowering currant, primroses and lungwort.

Carder bee on dandelion. Image: Jean Vernon

The shorter tongued bumblebees can feed on dandelions, snowdrops, inside crocus and grape hyacinths. But one or two of the bumblebees, like the Buff-Tailed and the White Tailed actually cheat by chewing tiny holes above the nectar on long tubed flowers like penstemon, salvia and comfrey, poking in their tongues to soak up the nectar. This is called nectar robbing and also provides a short cut for secondary feeders like bumblebees.

Bee ‘nectar robbing’ from comfrey flowers. Image: Jean Vernon

When it comes to good nectar plants it helps to have some insider knowledge. New research from the University of Bristol shows that one hellebore flower offers the bees as much nectar as 157 snowdrops! Always choose single, open flowers where the bees can reach the nectar and pollen easily.

Researchers also discovered that a flowering currant bush (Ribes sanguineum), which bear hundreds of flowers in bunches, is an excellent nectar source for early bumblebees.

Honeybee on Hellebore
Honeybee on hellebore flower. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Pollen power

Bees also need pollen to ripen their ovaries and provision their nests to feed their babies. Willow, hazel and alder catkins are rich in pollen and important plants for pollinators even though the plants are actually wind-pollinated. These plants make copious amounts of pollen that the bees will collect.

The messy bees like the mason bees and the leaf cutter bees are actually better pollinators than the honeybees because they are often covered in pollen and then as they move from flower to flower feeding they deposit the pollen grains onto receptive flower stigmas. Most bees visit the same sort of flower in succession, it’s called floral constancy and this makes them good pollinators, taking the pollen to different plants of the same species and effecting the much sought after cross-pollination.

Willow catkins
Willow catkins are rich in pollen. Image: Jean Vernon

Fruit for you and food for the bees

Don’t forget that the products of pollination are fruit, pods, nuts, seeds and berries. If you choose to grow plants for bees think about growing things that will feed you too. In spring apple trees, pear trees, crab apples and cherries are important nectar and pollen sources for early emerging bees and once pollinated the resulting fruit set will mature into a generous crop. But beans, peas, courgettes, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries and other fruiting plants are also good for the bees and other pollinators. Grow a variety to provide a healthy mix of crops for the kitchen and lots of pollen and nectar for the bees.

Bees & other pollinators

You might be surprised to learn that behind the cute and fluffy persona of bees, there is a dark world of danger, subterfuge, murder and forced surrogacy. But it’s not all doom and gloom. These incredible creatures are busy in a garden near you making intricate preparations, woollen lined cribs, floral christening gowns and haute cuisine pollen balls for their babes. If you’d like to learn more about these enigmatic creatures then consider the bee book The Secret Lives of Garden Bees by our website Editor Jean Vernon.

Also available on our website is Jean’s NEW book, Attracting Garden Pollinators. This friendly, accessible, information packed guide explores the role that pollinators play and how gardeners and all people with gardens can do something to help attract and support them, and help with their survival.

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