Why are bees important?
Although many animals and insects such as birds, bats, butterflies, hover flies etc are pollinators, bees are by far the most important of these. Bees travel from flower to flower, to feed on the nectar and as this happens they transfer grains of pollen to other plants. There are currently more than 270 species of bee in Great Britain:
- 1 species of honey bee
- 25 species of bumble bee
- 250+ species of solitary bee
They play a major role in maintaining the planet, in that they pollinate food producing plants, that we need to survive. Many of the trees, flowers and plants that are essential for the survival of different forms of wildlife are also pollinated by bees. A world without bees is a scary thought, but could eventually become a reality, as these important pollinators are becoming fewer and fewer in number.
If the bee population were to decline and eventually disappear we could have serious problems, as they are such an essential part to many ecosystems.
What is pollination?
Pollination is the process of transferring pollen from the anther (the male part of the flower) to the stigma (the female part of the flower). As with all living organisms things, the goal of plants is to reproduce for the next generation. Once pollination has occurred the plant is able to produce seeds. Seed can only be produced when a plant from the same species has been pollinated.
Since plants are unable to move they have to rely on outside agencies, for pollen to be transferred. While some plants rely on the elements, like wind and water, the vast majority require birds & insects to complete this essential task.
Plants can be either:
- Self pollinating – the plant is able to pollinate and fertilise itself.
- Cross-pollinating – the plant requires an outside agency, such as the wind, bird, insect etc. to transfer the pollen to another plant of the same species.
Why are bees disappearing
There is little doubt that in recent years the bee population has been in decline. Midway through the last century, there were known to be over 50 species of native bees, nowadays that number has almost halved. As the native bees have become extinct, the number of non-native bees has grown in number.
There are thought to be several contributing factors for their demise:
- Farming and agricultural management practices – The use of toxic pesticides are used to control pests in crops, however they also have an adverse effect on beneficial pollinating insects, bees included. When these pesticides are sprayed on the plants, bees naturally land on them and ingest the chemical, which seriously damages their health.
- Loss of habitat – As the human population continues to grow, the demand for housing, urban areas and agricultural land grow with it. Areas of woodland and wildflower meadows, essential for the survival of bees are being destroyed, hence the decline in bee numbers.
- Climate change – In recent years much has been written about the effects climate change. It is also a factor in the decline of bees, as flowers bloom at different times of the year, due to change in seasonal patterns.
- Disease carrying parasites – Varroa mites are parasites that attack bees. They attach themselves to the bees back sucking fat bodies and passing disease, which shorten the bees lifespan. Emerging bees are often deformed.
- Invasive species – Another threat to the bee population, is from non-native species. The biggest culprit is the Asian hornet which is bad news for pollinating bees. These hornets feed on bees and are capable of killing and eating up to 50 bees a day.
The above video shows how cheap and easy it is to build a bee house or hotel. A quick search on YouTube will return numerous videos on on this subject.
How to encourage bees into your garden
We have talked about the importance of bees and why they are decreasing in number, but what can we do to encourage them? Well, there are a few things you can do, in and around the garden to help them.
- Growing wildflowers – One of the best ways to encourage bees into the garden is by growing native wildflowers. All it takes is a small area of the garden, ideally exposed to sunlight to grow wildflowers. Wildflowers provide a rich source of pollen and nectar, which the bees feed on.
- Plant bee friendly flowers – Many plants, flowers and shrubs found in garden borders are not great for bees, therefore, consider replacing them with bee friendly plants. Bees prefer single flowers as they have easy access to the pollen, with double flowers the stamens are transformed into petals, resulting in a lack of pollen. Suitable bee loving plants are lavender, foxglove, verbena, crab apple, honeysuckle, abelia & buddleia. However, there are so many more that are suitable.
- Avoid the use of chemicals & pesticides – Try and keep pesticide use to a minimum or avoid using them altogether, as they can have an adverse effect on the health of bees and other pollinating insects. The most harmful are Neonicotinoids, which are insecticides, most commonly used to control aphids and root-feeding grubs. They are absorbed by the plant and can be present in the pollen and nectar and is toxic to bees and other pollinating insects.
- Build or buy a bee house or hotel – Solitary bees create underground nests and in holes & cracks in aging brick walls, however in newer buildings there will be fewer opportunity’s for them. You could always give them a helping hand by installing a bee house or hotel. Much of the bees habitat is being lost through the demand for housing and intensive farming practices. By creating small areas where bees can live and breed, we can help restore some of this habitat. They can be purchased relatively cheap or you can even have a go at making you own. A quick search on youtube will return many results on building a bee houses, so there is no excuse to have a go.
- Keep them hydrated – As the end of the summer draws ever nearer you may witness lethargic bees crawling along the ground, they might look as if they’re dying. In fact they are just dehydrated and in need of a drink. You can help them out by placing a shallow bowl or saucer of water, with a few pebbles in the bottom, for the bees to drink.