Bees are so small and seemingly insignificant it is easy to forget, or simply not realise their importance. We all know bees pollinate our flowers, but what does that mean in the big picture?
Pollination happens when pollen is carried from one flower to another flower of the same species. Many insects perform this task, but the highest pollination rate award goes to the bees. Once pollination happens, the fertilized flower can produce it’s seeds or fruit. If flowers are not pollinated, they cannot reproduce and no fruit will grow.
If bees disappear, and if little or no pollination occurs, all the plants that rely on them will also disappear. Plants support a vast amount of food chains; losing them could eventually mean losing all the creatures that rely on them, perhaps even us!
The bees we think of most are honeybees, but in our garden we are most likely to see bumblebees and maybe some solitary bees.
Bumblebees have an interesting life cycle. In spring the queen wakes up after hibernating all winter underground. She seeks out nectar rich flowers to fuel up before searching for a suitable nest site. Bumblebees nest in holes, bird boxes or similar spaces in the countryside or in gardens.
The queen makes a store of pollen and wax for her future larvae to eat and a store of nectar for herself. She is then ready to lay her first eggs; when they hatch, after incubation, the larvae will eat their fill before spinning a cocoon and developing in to adult bees.
The first of the offspring are always female worker bees. These bees work guarding and cleaning the nest and searching for nectar and pollen. Most of the pollen is taken back to the nest to feed the colony and new offspring. The queen does not leave the nest and instead gives orders to the other bees and lays more and more eggs.
In the late summer new queens and male bees are produced. The new queens leave the nest, mate and fill up on nectar and pollen ready to hibernate and start the cycle again. The males also leave; they concentrate on feeding themselves and mating.
As you have no doubt heard on the news, our bees are in decline. If you wish to help the easiest option is to grow flowers but it is now possible to buy a bee nest for your garden with bees ready to get the nest up and running.
To plant for bees you need to look for plants that produce lots of nectar and/or pollen. Like me you can follow the bees around the garden centre or just look for the ‘perfect for pollinators’ logos.
Try to get a nice mix of species and make sure you choose plants with different flowering seasons so you end up with something flowering all year round (some bees are active in winter such as the Buff-tailed bumblebee). Bees use a lot of energy flying so plant in clumps and consider flower shape too – petals that make small tubes may mean a bee can’t get in and flowers that are tightly packed can be a problem.
Information and advice about bees and gardening for them can be found on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website: http://bumblebeeconservation.org
Written summer 2014
Plants shown in order: Raspberry, Foxglove, Red Campion, Phacelia tanacetifolia, Sea Holly