It’s hard to fathom how such a small creature could have such a huge global impact on our economy, livelihoods, environment and food supply. But bees (and other pollinators) are crucial to helping us maintain or even improve the world as we know it.
Why are bees (and pollinators) so important?
Pollinators (not just bees, but also moth, butterfly, hoverfly, fly and beetle) play a vital role in helping plants reproduce. Flying flower to flower, unwittingly transferring pollen, they pollinate £690 million worth of crops annually. Doing the job ourselves would cost nearly £2billion.
Some plants self-pollinate and others rely on the wind to assist. However, nearly 90% of the world’s wild flowering plant species depend on animal pollination for reproduction, along with more than 75% of the world’s food crops. Plants need to be pollinated to produce fruit, vegetables and seeds. Pollinators thereby contribute directly to food security, and they are key to conserving biodiversity.
Many tasty and nutritious foods like fruits, some vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils, would disappear without pollinators. Strawberries, apples, blueberries, cherries, almonds, cocoa and coffee, amongst others, depend on bees and other insects to not only pollinate them but also increase their yield and quality. For example, a fully-developed strawberry needs multiple visits from a bee. The more visits, the bigger and tastier the fruit.
Without pollinators, we’d become more reliant on staple crops like rice, corn and potatoes, meaning we’d miss out on variety and valuable nutrients.
What’s the buzz?
Bees and butterflies are increasingly under threat from human activities (such as intensive farming, habitat destruction, pesticide use and climate change). Nearly 35% of invertebrate pollinators face extinction globally.
There are over 250 species of bees in the UK. There’s only one type of honey bee in the UK, but numerous varieties of bumble bees, mining bees and mason bees.
Our honeybees have been domesticated, so now they mostly live in managed hives of up to 20,000 individuals. Truly wild colonies are rare. They have short tongues, so prefer open flowers where the pollen is easy to reach.
A single honeybee will typically visit around 7000 flowers a day, gathering as much pollen as possible, while at the same time pollinating many plant species. They really are busy bees.
What can we do to help our bees?
Plant a variety of native plants which flower at different times of the year
If you don’t have much space, plant some flowers in pots on your patio or balcony;
Now they’re fed, don’t forget the water too. You could leave a shallow bowl of water out for them (put a few stones or sticks in the bowl so the bee doesn’t drown);
Bees love wildflowers such as cornflower, Common toadflax, corn marigold, common poppy, meadow cranesbill, cowslip, oxeye daisy, musk mallow, chamomile, red campion, which are easy to grow and maintain;
Winter and early spring flowering trees such as apple, wild cherry, willow and hazel are also a good choice for bees;
If you can, let your lawn (or a patch of it) grow to give dandelions, white clover and red clover a chance to grow. Honeybees and bumblebees love these lawn weeds. If you can’t let it grow, mow less frequently or less closely. The bees will be able to shelter in the longer grass;
Buy raw honey from local farmers or bee keepers (yum);
Buy products grown using sustainable agricultural practices (and locally if possible);
Avoid using pesticides, fungicides or herbicides in your gardens;
If you spot a tired bee on the ground, it might be in need of an energy boost (this is most likely if you are somewhere without sources of pollen and nectar nearby). You could provide that in the form of sugar solution. Mix two tablespoons of tap water with one tablespoon of granulated white sugar until largely dissolved, then place it on a spoon near to the weary bee. If it’s interested, it can use its proboscis to drink the sugary liquid.
If you know someone who enjoys planting for wildlife, they might like our Wildflower Wishes (nearly as much as the bees and butterflies). Find out more in our shop.