Bees are in trouble
Once common in the countryside, they are being driven into town gardens by more intensive farming methods. And when the bees arrive in gardens, they are finding too many modern hybrids which are sterile and lack pollen and nectar for them to feed on.
Bumblebees are the biggest pollenators of most flowers and of plants such as tomatoes, strawberries, gooseberries, peppers and potatoes. Without bees, plants will set fewer seeds and vanish, food production will decline and many wild flowers will become extinct.
Please sign these bee related petitions
So what should you plant?
Bees go for flowers in blue, white, purple and yellow: Berberis, bluebell, bugle, flowering currant, lungwort, pussy willow, rosemary, dead-nettle, heathers, aquilegia, campanula, comfrey, everlasting pea, geranium, foxglove, honeysuckle, monkshood, stachys, thyme, cornflower, delphinium, fuchsia, lavender, rock-rose, scabious and sea holly.
What not to plant
Modern hybrids lacking in pollen and nectar such as: French marigold, African marigold, the large-petalled pansy, the christmas rose, heliotrope or ‘cherry pie’, sedum ‘autumn joy’, and verbena.
Visit www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk for more information and see George Pilkington’s bumblebee box
‘The Plight of the Bumblebee’ by Roger Deakin
(The Independent 21 June 2001)
I have fallen in love with a bumblebee. She is a queen, of course, and has a magnificent bright orange bum, seen to great advantage as she disappears inside the crimson of a foxglove. I met her as I was turning the compost heap the other day. It was nearly a disaster, because I came within an inch of demolishing her nest. She set up a muffled buzz like an aircraft inside a hangar, then shot out through a tiny cavern in the half-rotted grass and whirred about surveying the rearranged neighbourhood. Bumblebees are good-natured things and most reluctant to sting, so I wasn’t alarmed, except on her behalf. I had only just missed putting the fork straight through the little tennis-ball of torn-up newspapers, probably the gardening pages of the Independent, originally woven and collaged together last winter by a field mouse and now converted to a miniature beehive with all the improvising skill of an insect Andy Goldsworthy. The ferment of the compost had provided the warmth the field mouse needed to raise a family in her nest of words and now the bee had moved in to squat the place and found a colony.
Unlike honey bees, bumblebee colonies do not survive from year to year. They have to be established quite independently each spring by a new generation of queens reared the previous summer. The young queens hibernate through the winter underground, emerging when awakened by the first warm days of spring. These are the big bumblebees you see exploring your garden for nesting sites or exhausting themselves against the windowpane, harbingers of spring. I saw my first bumblebee on March 12th this year. As soon as she wakes up the famished queen must lose no time in finding a nourishing source of nectar. This is why it is so important to encourage early-flowering plants and trees like pussy willows, dead-nettles, flowering currant, and winter-flowering honeysuckle. If spring forage is scarce, the queens are easily weakened and may even die.
My compost bumblebee queen will have behaved very much like a hen bird, turning broody, searching out her nest, then laying eggs and incubating them snug inside the compost warmth. She feeds her brood, goes out to forage for nectar and pollen, and rears the first young workers of her colony. In Britain, wild bee colonies never reach anything like the size of honey bee colonies: no more than a few hundred and often a select club of just fifty or so. Bumblebees particularly favour the deserted nests of field mice or birds, sometimes moving into tit boxes or even the pocket of an old coat hung up in a garden shed.
When she leaves her nest, my compost queen takes her bearings, meticulously charting the position of a wooden post a foot to the right of her nest entrance, and a stack of old papers with a picture of the Pet Shop Boys on the top cover eighteen inches to the left. The cave entrance to the tunnel where she flies in must show up as a shadow in her bee vision and when I disturbed the nest, she spent the best part of an hour carefully re-orientating herself.
I have had a lifelong crush on bumblebees ever since, as a child, I would watch them for hours ventriloquising the antirrhinums in our flowerbed, or swaying the delpiniums with their considerable bulk. Later on, I learnt to distinguish the variety of rugby-shirts worn by the different species, and at that time, there were plenty of them, all scrumming down, bums aloft, into the flowers of the red clover that abounded in every field. Their love for white dead-nettle flowers poses a mild dilemma for any gardener sensible enough to be a bee-lover, but I don’t find it much of a sacrifice to tolerate, or even encourage, a few weeds for the sake of the rich hum of bees about the garden all summer. No disrespect to hive bees, but wild bees are superior pollinators. They work far longer hours in all weather, and their french-kissing tongues can reach the parts of flowers honey bees can only dream of. If you want to see a bumblebee’s tongue, try feeding one dilute honey on a teaspoon (especially if she’s exhausted in spring or failed to find a foxglove flower to shelter in during a storm). You’ll see the amazing proboscis unfurl like a paper bazooka at a party.
I love to watch the bumblebees at work amongst the tiny ruby jasmine flowers outside my kitchen door. There are rarely less than a dozen of them and by the end of a good day’s work, the pannier-bags on their thighs bulge with garnered pollen. They are mostly workers, each driven instinctively to a passionate labour of love for their adored alma mater. A worker’s oedipal feelings for its queen are memorably described by Loudon Wainwright in his love-son ‘B-side’: “She may not have such great legs But you should see that girl lay eggs”. Wild bees are consummate pollinators of fruit trees and all garden plants. There is nothing quite like watching one busy salivating over a salvia or purring in a pussy-willow for getting you down to work yourself, shamed by an insect into knuckling down.
Bumblebees, you won’t be surprised to hear, have taken a nosedive in both number and variety over the past thirty years. Out of our 18 native species, only six are now at all widespread, one is extinct and the rest are very scarce and locally extinct in all but a few particular places. In Suffolk, where I live, few are left except in little pockets of anachchronistic untidiness which have somehow escaped the psychotic obsession with spraying, strimming and generally spring-cleaning that rules so much of our countryside, and many a garden.
Describing the English countryside of the 1880s in The Story of my Heart, it was natural to Richard Jefferies to evoke its atmosphere in terms of sound: “Bees buzzed over me, sometimes a butterfly passed, there was a hum in the air…the bees hummed by to the thyme and the heathbells”. To paint a picture largely in sound was quite natural, as natural as the grass waving in the wind, the bees’ humming and the larks’ songs. Today, that universal hum has all but disappeared from our unnaturally silent and empty fields.
Most of the bee people seem to agree that the main problem for the modern bumblebee is a dearth of the right flowers. Red clover, a staple feature of the bee diet once common in every hay meadow, has now all but disappeared from most fields. Before chemical fertilisers, its roots used to be an essential for putting nitrogen back into the ground. Overstocking, especially with sheep, also diminishes flowers on grazing land and the fashion for cutting silage before the meadows have even come into flower is another disaster for the bees. Restore clover and wild flowers to farmland and, as practical experiments have demonstrated, bumblebees will soon begin returning too.
The best places to find a variety of bumblebees today are the Army’s firing ranges on places like Salisbury Plain, which have always been blissfully free of modern farming methods and still support a rich natural flora. The nation’s gardens, too, are much favoured by bumblebees.
Manfred Ingenthron, a retired greengrocer and fruiterer in Kidderminster, has been passionate about bumblebees all his life and has spent years demonstrating the rich possibilities of the suburban garden as a haven for wild bees at his semi-detached house down a quiet avenue. By constructing bee nesting boxes out of anything from old paint tins to flowerpots and furnishing them with just the right nesting materials (a mix of dried moss, the fluff from old mattresses, and snipped-up dried grass), Mr Ingenthron regularly welcomes a remarkable 25 to 30 colonies of different bumblebees to his modest garden. Crucially, he cultivatesplenty of their favourite food plants, from dead-nettles to the vetches, pulmonaria and honeysuckle.
So if you want wild bees to nest in your garden, provide them with flowers all through the season, and don’t make it too tidy. I find bees love the big blue globes of echinops, I’m experimenting with an old teapot as a bee-box, and I’m quite certain that the hedges of goat willow I planted have helped nurture a humming bumblebee population here by providing an early spring feast of catkin pollen. I have left the compost heap unturned and Her Majesty has settled back in quite happily. A trickle of young workers flies in and out, using my row of lettuces as landing lights. The roses may be coming into bloom, but in this garden, Bombus lapidarius is the real buzz.
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