Following World Bee Day, columnist Peter Gudde explains why we nee to look after these special friends
It was World Bee Day last week. Although, every day should be about celebrating and supporting our pollinators. Without these insects there is in all reality no Plan Bee (sorry!) since we rely on them not only throughout our food chain but probably nearly all areas of our life in some way.
Bees feature in folklore across cultures and time. Many cultures and societies have both revered and feared bees. Telling the bees is a tradition across some societies, where they are treated as part of the family. Imparting news of a death or a major event in the family to each of the hives is said to stop them leaving and it is thought to be extremely bad luck not to share the news with your bees. There are stories of bee hive colonies not thriving if someone had paid for the swarm. Some say that bees leave a family hive if the family argue too much – well, we would never have bees coming to our house, then.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans considered bees to be servants and messengers of the gods. The Roman god Jupiter is said to have given bees their sting but was told by his wife, Juno, to make bees pay for this weapon by having to die if it is used.
Bees can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They can read the Earth’s magnetic field and use it to navigate. Bees can carry more than their own body weight when in flight. They have also been shown to be able to count to four!
It’s weird but if you watch a single bee in a swarm, they appear to move randomly but as a whole population they can act as one, moving to a new location to set up home. Each bee has a role, whether that is scouting or finding food, guarding the hive, using their wings to keep the hive cool or serving the queen and her offspring.
When bees find a new food source, they tell others in the colony how to find it by moving in a strict pattern like a dance. If the food source is good, they dance more so the message is better communicated. When I dance most people turn away and laugh. Bees even have the edge on Dad dancing.
Around one third of our global food supply is dependent on the humble bumble and its invertebrate cousins. They pollinate around seventy different crops including fruit, vegetables and cereals like wheat and barley which go into bread, beer and animal feed. It is estimated that bees contribute £400 million to the UK economy, that’s around six pounds per person each year.
So, what can we do to help these industrious workers continue to do their job? First, stop using synthetic pesticides in the garden. Their indiscriminate and widespread use in agriculture and at home, alongside loss of habitat, have contributed to the decline in the bee population in the UK. Using alternatives to harmful pesticides in the garden will help.
Leaving a bit of the garden alone for wild flowers can help not only bees but other insects. Better still, create a pollinator garden with plants and flowers that give insects, like bees, nectar and pollen stations. Try and choose flowering plants that are native. Choose varieties for their insect pulling-power throughout the year, with succession flowering so there is always food available.
Installing a bee hotel can be another way to support pollinating insects, giving them a place to lay eggs which are protected over the winter months. These are made up of a bundle of tubes, usually bamboo cane around six inches, or 15cm, long and of varying size openings so different bee species can then find accommodation to suit them. Ideally, set up several hotels and spread them around your garden rather than have one massive Hilton or Ritz. This reduces the risk of predators enjoying a sit-down meal on the residents. Place them in full sun while the bees are around then in the winter put the hotels into a cool sheltered spot. Take them outside again when the weather starts to warm up so the bees can come out. Every year, give the hotel a spring clean or replace the canes to prevent pests and diseases which can harm future residents.
Finally, sit down for five minutes and watch the bees. You could even tell them the good news that you, for one, are watching out for them.
-- Peter Gudde is an energy adviser and environmental researcher