Homeschool Garden Club – What We Have Learnt About Bees in Our Gardens
Last year, after a chance question by one of our Garden Club members about why I didn’t have any flowers in my own garden in the later part of the year, we have been focused on bees and their needs.
We made contact with the lovely people at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and this year as soon as we can arrange it we will be visiting them for a school trip to learn more.
We have already learnt that commercially bees play a key role in pollinating many crops and are estimated to be worth millions of pounds to the UK economy. Some 35% of our diet depends on pollination of crops by bees and it is often said that if bees died out, humans would follow just four years later, a view sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein.
Bees also play a key role in our gardens, particularly in the vegetable plot, and in pollinating flowers which would be unable to produce seed without pollination.
With the charts that the Bumblebee Conservation Trust we found out there are two main types of bee; the Bumblebee and the Honeybee. Populations of both have suffered huge declines in recent years for a number of different reasons so it is worth knowing the difference.
There are 24 species of Bumblebee living wild in the UK. They are easily recognised by their characteristic fluffy bodies. Different species of Bumblebee have different length tongues because they feed from different shaped flowers. Our wild Bumblebees have suffered declines due to bad weather, the use of insecticides and a reduction in wildflower rich grassland for feeding and nesting.
There is only 1 species of Honeybee in Europe and these bees live in hives that are cultivated and tended by beekeepers in order to produce honey. Britain's cultivated honeybee population has been largely affected by the varroa mite, which has spread rapidly through bee hives since arriving in Britain in 1992. Honeybees are slimmer and smaller than Bumblebees, having a closer appearance to a wasp. They all have short tongues which are best suited to feeding from open flower shapes.
Encouraging Bumblebees in the Garden
Although Honeybees are often found in gardens, it is our wild Bumblebees that are of greatest interest to the gardener. Given that collectively gardens equate to over a million acres in the UK, there is much that we can do as gardeners to help save Bumblebees from decline. If every garden contained a bee house and a range of bee friendly flowers, trees and shrubs then this would significantly increase both food and shelter for our native Bumblebees, and help to reverse their decline.
If you are encouraging bees into your garden then it is important to avoid using insecticides as these will kill helpful pollinating insects (including bees) as well as the target insects.
Make a Bee House
Remember that different species require different habitats. Mason Bees enjoy nesting holes in wood or thick stems. You can make your own simple bee house or you can buy a commercially made bee house. Use hollow bamboo canes, dried Japanese knotweed stems or even thick bramble stems. Fix bee boxes in a south-facing spot but not in direct sunlight. Also make sure the entrance points downwards so that rain does not get in.
Many other species of bumblebee will prefer a wood pile in your garden. Simply create a pile of logs, stems and branches and leave it be - the untidier, the better! Other species will enjoy a grassy bank to nest in - let the grass grow tall and plant pollen rich plants along the edge of the bank.
Planting Flowers for Bees
It is best to aim for a good variety of pollen rich flowers that have different flower shapes and a range of flowering periods from early spring to late summer. Try to ensure at least two different plant species in flower at any time throughout this period to prevent your bees from going hungry. Most double flower forms are lacking in pollen or nectar and likely to be inaccessible to bees so these are best avoided.
As a result of our work last year many of our gardens are far more bee friendly. But just in case you have just joined us, we (the learners who grow with us last year) have put together our favourite bee-friendly plants.
Borage, Californian poppies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, heliotropes, nigella and sunflowers (look out for our sunflower competition).
Campanula, single flower dahlias (so far everybody’s favourites), gypsophila, hellebores, sedum, Japanese anemone, Lambs ears, Michaelmas daisies, oriental poppy, salvia and verbena.
Bulbs and Corms
Any alliums, autumn crocus and spring crocus, fritillaries, muscari, hyacinths and snowdrops
Vegetables and Culinary Herbs
Broad Beans, Marjoram, Cucumbers and Courgettes, mint, rosemary, runner beans, sage and thyme.