You’ve no doubt read or heard about the plight of the honey bee. Declining populations, entire hives wiped out due to colony collapse disorder, confusion over whether the problem lies with habitat loss, disease, pesticide use, pests, all of the above…
And then there’s the often quoted line attributed to Albert Einstein – “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live” (there’s apparently no evidence that Einstein said this, but let’s not spoil a good story). Doom and gloom. If we lose our honey bees, pollination will cease, many fruit and vegetables will become scarce and food prices will soar.
Or maybe not, because successful pollination isn’t down to just honey bees. There’s one species of honeybee in the UK, but 24 species of bumblebees and over 200 different solitary bees. And research has found that wild bees are probably even more important in pollinating many crops than the honey bees. But wild bee populations are in decline, and introducing hives into agricultural areas doesn’t make up for the loss of these native pollinators. The managed bees might supplement the pollination services provided by the wild bees, but doesn’t replace them. More doom and gloom.
Well, not all doom and gloom. This is one environmental crisis we can all do something about. Not only that, it’s a great excuse to add more colour to the garden by growing lots of nectar rich plants to help replace the wild flowers of the meadows and woodland margins that have been lost from the countryside. Choose a flower (or flowers…) you love from the RHS list of plants that are perfect for pollinators. And no excuses, you don’t even need a garden because many of the plants on the list will be happy in a pot on the patio.
It’s easy to provide a home for solitary bees too. Whether you make one or buy one, bee houses are really just a collection of tubes providing somewhere for mason bees to nest. Solitary bees don’t live in social communities like honeybees or bumblebees. Instead each female chooses a nest for their eggs, stocking it with pollen and nectar to feed the young bees as they develop. In the short time they spend as adult bees, they will lay six or more eggs in each nest tube, sealing it off with mud. In the course of collecting all that nectar and pollen, they will pollinate fruit trees and lots of other plants flowering in spring and early summer.
Solitary bees are harmless and not aggressive – they will rarely sting. This makes them ideal to encourage into the yard or garden even if you have young children – in fact most kids love to watch the bees. You may even already have mason bees flying in and out of holes in a sunny wall of the house or garage. So let’s not leave it all to the beekeepers and their hives… there’s more to bees than just honey.