Did you know that bees are amazing? While you might get a fright when one flies up close to you, these little guys are pollinating powerhouses that basically help the world go round. Bees have evolved alongside flowering plants for millions of years, leaving them uniquely adapted to be wonderful pollinators. Unlike other insects, nectar and pollen are bees’ only food source, with nectar giving adult bees energy and pollen being protein-rich baby food, so they are adapted to collect as much as possible. 84% of crops grown for human consumption (around 400 types of plants) depend on insect pollination, as well as crops grown to feed animals, and the ever important cotton. On top of food supply, bees are key to many global ecosystems. Seeds, fruits and berries eaten by birds and small mammals are all from plants that are pollinated by bees, making them guardians of both the food chain and worldwide biodiversity.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll probably also know that bees have had a rough time of it in recent years. The first cases of ‘colony collapse disorder’ started being reported in 2006, which saw huge numbers of bees disappearing with no explanation, leaving beekeepers, scientists and just about everyone else baffled (so much so that it was even a key plot line through an entire series of Doctor Who). While cases of CCD have become increasingly rare over the past five years, we’ve still been seeing overall losses of bees, and it’s important to do what we can to look out for our fuzzy flying friends.
What is harming bees?
It seems that no one can pin down one underlying cause, even eleven years after CCD began there are still a variety of theories about the reasons why. It seems instead that it’s a combination of factors together that contributes to hurting bees.
Pesticide and insecticide
Probably one of the most obvious, talked about issues. The fact is, it’s hard to protect from some sorts of insect whilst causing no harm to others. This can also be a problem where homeowners spray plants in their garden with commercial products. As I found in one report:
‘Chronic or sub-lethal exposure to agricultural- or beekeeper-applied pesticides can weaken the honey bee immune system, hampering the ability of bees to fight off infection.’
We can’t know for certain the extent of impact all chemicals have on bees because it’s very difficult to carry out studies on this but one particular pesticide, neonicotinoids, has been found to be incredibly harmful to bees, with the EU attempting to move forward with a total ban on these chemicals.
Some of bees biggest enemies are mites that attack them, transmitting pathogens and suppressing bees immune responses. Beekeepers often must use miticides to control mites, but some widely used products have been shown to have negative effects on bees, while others are losing their efficacy because the mites are developing resistance to them.
The rise of technology, monoculture-based farming practises, and demands on land has seen many natural landscapes change dramatically in the last century. In the UK alone it’s estimated that we’ve lost 97% of our flower rich grassland since the 1930s. With bees relying entirely on flowers for food, this can massively affect their survival rates, whilst being shuttled around the USA in vans due to the monoculture system leads to large amounts of bees dying en route.
So what can we do?
Don’t despair. This laboratory is evaluating mostly plant-based biopesticides to fight off the bees mite problem in a more long term, sustainable way (read more on that here). In the meantime, here are things you can do to help in the other areas.
Bees may be losing habitat all around the world, but simply planting flowers in your garden, yard, or in pots (if you don’t have a full garden but do have a balcony or windowsill I have information on growing plants in apartments here) can really help. If bees are in an area of the country without many agricultural crops they rely on garden flowers for a diverse diet, you can encourage them to your garden with single flowering plants and vegetables. Some good plants include lilacs, lavender, sage, wisteria, mint, tomatoes, sunflowers, oregano, rosemary, poppies, honeysuckle, fuschia, foxgloves, all beans except French beans, willow trees or lime trees. A quick google will tell you even more, or you can pick up a Bee Saver Kit here to help.
Go a little wild
We’re taught to hate weeds, but many wildflowers that are classed as weeds can be great sources of food for bees, for example clover and dandelions, so let your garden grow a little wild now and again. If you want to get rid of some of these weeds let them bloom for the bees and then pull them out or trim them back before they go to seed. If you have a lawn let some of it grow longer, mowing less often and less closely will help give pollinators places to feed and shelter among the grass. You can also provide habitat with a small wood pile in a corner where bugs can nest and feed. This micro-habitat will decay over time, and you can use logs, sawn off tree branches or twigs (just avoid treated wood) to give shelter. Leaving some ground alone in summer can also help bees who like to create nests in undisturbed compost heaps or hedgerows.
Create a bee hotel
A bundle of hollow canes can make a lovely home for solitary bees. This youtube video shows you how easy it can be to make them. Some bee species will also happily live in bird boxes, or upturned plant pots (with holes) provisioned with bedding, and located in a secure, shady area. You can also dig a hole, put a ball of dry grass at the bottom and cover it with a slab to leave a small entrance to create a nice underground nest site for bees too.
If you have a lot of bees visiting your new garden put a little water basin out (a bird bath with some stones in it for them to land on is best) to help keep your new bees hydrated and healthy.
It’s the obvious choice for the environment and our bodies anyway, but going organic also helps bees out. As well as food, remember that buying clothes made from GOTS certified cotton, hemp or other organic materials is much better than high street options. As sustainable fashion continues to grow more popular so does the availability and affordability of organic materials. Hooray!
If you are going to buy honey, buy local honey from a beekeeper in your area. Most farmers markets will have real beekeepers selling their own products. Chat to them and learn about how they care for their bees. If they are thoughtful, respectful beekeepers who keep their bees in a sustainable, natural way, then make a new friend and support them. If you can, try and buy most of your food locally. In a wider sense also means eating seasonally, which stops you buying food from monocultures whilst also massively reducing your carbon footprint.
Remove jars of foreign honey from outside the back door
Foreign honey can contain bacteria and spores that are very harmful to bees. If you leave a honey jar outside in recycling it encourages bees to feed on the remaining honey; this can infect the bee, in turn infecting the rest of the colony resulting in the death of the whole colony. Always wash out honey jars thoroughly and dispose of them carefully.
Talk to local authorities and representatives
Often a country’s best gardens, open and green spaces are managed by local authorities. Encourage your authority to attract bees in your area with adventurous planting schemes – planning gardens, roundabouts and other areas with flowers bees love. Also, if you can, contact your local representatives about the ban on neonicotinoids, in the UK certain conservative MPs are trying to block this ban, contact your local MP and ask them what they are doing to protect bees, urge them that the banning of these pesticides is better for the planet and the people on it.
Considering a hobby? Take up beekeeping
Every year local beekeeping associations run courses to help new people to take up beekeeping and even help them find the equipment they need and a colony of bees, which means any enthusiast can learn to become a master beekeeper. For information on courses visit the British Beekeepers’ Association.
Or donate your space
Many who are keen beekeepers, especially in urban areas or cities, can’t find a safe space for their colony of bees. If you have some space you can contact your local beekeeping association and they could find a beekeeper in need of a site.
Learn to love bees
Remember that bees don’t want to hurt you. They want to find pollen and nectar from flowers and bring that food back for themselves and their hive (if they’re not a solitary bee of course). If a bee is around you or lands on you stay still and calm, they’ll often be trying to sniff you out and the smell of fear or anger pheromones may trigger them to sting you. Remember, they’re probably just trying to figure out what you are and whether you have any nectar, and will likely fly off pretty fast. Don’t stand in front of a hive opening, or a pathway to a concentration of flowers, as bees may be running back and forth from their hive; if you don’t get in their way, they won’t be in yours. Learn to tell the difference between bees and wasps. Bees die after they sting humans (but not after they sting other bees), wasps don’t. Wasps are carnivores, bees are vegetarians, do a little research in order to keep your cool, as bees will only ever sting you as a last resort.
And if you see a bee that looks like it’s struggling, it may not be dying, it’s probably tired.
And you can help! Mix two tablespoons of white, granulated sugar with one tablespoon of water, and place it on a plate or spoon. (Don’t add any more water or the bee could drown). Place the bee on the plate or spoon, where it will have a little drink, hopefully helping it to gather the energy to fly back to it’s hive. You can also add the same quantity of water and sugar to a small container, such as an egg cup, and leave it amongst a patch of flowers in your garden or window box, so that bees can have a drink on the go before they get to the exhaustion stage.
Remember, bees are amazing, and if we all do a little to help them in whatever ways we can, we can see them continue to live happy and healthy lives whilst guarding our eco-systems, habitats and food chains. Lovely jubbly.
t-shirt – Sancho’s Dress
jeans – secondhand
sunglasses – secondhand
Photos by Gianna Scavo