Despite a surge in the number of city beehives, bee populations are still dramatically declining in the UK. Two bee and wildlife experts explain what practical things you can do to support all the different bee species around you and why it’s so important.
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Bees are one of the most important animals in our ecosystem. Buzzing from plant to plant, bees perform an essential role for society by pollinating our crops and ensuring the world produces enough food to sustain the population as well as contributing to the planet’s wider biodiversity.
But, the world’s bee population is on a knife-edge. A recent study found that a third of British wild bees and hoverflies are in decline and that if these trends persist, some species could be lost from Britain altogether.
In the UK, an amalgamation of factors including loss of natural habitat, intensive farming and climate change have all contributed to huge declines in bee populations. Since the 1930s, 97% of UK wildflower meadows have disappeared, taking much of the food available to bees with them.
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But despite a surge in people creating beehives – the number of beehives in London has tripled in the last decade – putting up more hives, especially in cities, is actually creating more and more competition between different species of bees.
The problem is when we think of bees, we usually think of honey bees. But, honey bees are only one of more than 250 species of bee in the UK and they’re not the most effective pollinators.
The much furrier and messier red mason bees are far more efficient at transferring pollen from flower to flower and they tend to make nests in natural hollow spaces, rather than hives.
Diversity is key
“The best way of promoting wild bees is plant diversity,” says Dr Koch, who is a researcher in pollinator health at Kew Gardens and explores how chemicals in different plants affect pollinators. “You want good diversity throughout the seasons and in the morphology [shape] of the flowers too.”
It’s also important to have flowers in various shapes that will fit all the different types of pollinators.
Helen, who is a senior horticultural advisor at the Royal Horticultural Society focusing on gardening for wildlife, says: “When you look for plants with different flower shapes, this could include tubular ones with trumpets, like foxgloves or snapdragons, and some that are open, like daisies or sunflowers.”
“Aim to have some plants flowering at all times in the year,” she adds. “This is quite easy in summer but in the winter it can take a bit more imagination. There are lots of plants like crocuses that flower later.”
Got a lawn? Go wild
“Prioritising plants or weeds that already pop up in your garden is good for bees because native plants tend to be just right for native bees,” says Dr Koch. “For example, there are several dozen solitary bees that like to collect pollen from dandelions, including mining bees. They come naturally on your lawn, so let them grow.”
If you want to let nature take hold of your garden while keeping it neat and tidy, Helen has some tips to make the wild look work for you. “If you’re happy to experiment with your lawn, I would try a three to four-week cycle of mowing,” she says. “That way you’ll get a lot of different flowers while still having a neat looking lawn.”
“If you leave your lawn for the whole of summer, you’ll find many more flowers coming through. If you’re worried it looks too messy, try creating patterns with it. I like to mow circles, but you could do it in squares or have two wild strips with a mowed path in the middle. There are lots of fun ways to make a wild, bee-friendly garden look more formal or designed.”
Choosing your plants
“The way you take care of your garden or balcony plants is also very important,” says Dr Koch. “The main tip is to avoid pesticides. Planting from seeds rather than re-bedding plants is an important part of this.”
“A lot of plants that are produced from horticulture - like bedding plants or annuals that you can buy and put out – might have been grown with neonicotinoids to kill pests,” adds Dr Koch. “But when bees eat nectar from them they get poisoned.”
Helen recommends buying ‘single’ over ‘double’ variety flowers. These are flowers with obvious stamens. Double varieties are bred to have an extra layer of petals where the stamen should be – it’s much more difficult for the bees to find nectar on these.
Bees and balconies
It’s also worth adding some wind protection, you can do this by planting taller plants.
Putting up a bee hotel is also a great way to support bee species from a balcony. Make sure the one you buy has a back to it and that you replace or clean the tubes at the end of the summer when the baby bees have left the nest. You can put this up at any time of year, but you should expect to see activity around it from early spring.
“Bee hotels also mean you can get quite close to nature and see the activity”, says Helen. “Solitary bees are also very calm and docile so you don’t need to worry about being stung.”
Helen’s top five plants for bee-friendly balconies and small spaces
These are annual, pastel-coloured flowers. You can get tall or dwarf types. The dwarf varieties are great for small or windy spots like balconies. Make sure you buy single varieties to keep them bee-friendly.
These flowers are perennial and come in all shapes and sizes. They flower right up to the frosts so they’re a good source of pollen later in the season. Make sure to buy varieties with a visible yellow stamen in the centre (Helen recommends a range called Happy Singles).
Chives are really simple to grow and great for putting into containers. It has great pollinator-friendly flowers, which bloom earlier in the season.
Plants with lovely rich reddy-orange flowers. They grow really fast and start to trail, which makes them good to grow in hanging baskets. Bumblebees love them. They’re also edible – you can use the leaves and flowers as an alternative to rocket in salads.
If you want to know more about what kinds of plants are great for pollinators, take a look at the RHS’s long list. Remember to aim for diversity when picking your favourites.
Don’t forget about water
“Bees usually get enough water from the rain,” says Helen. “But, if it has been especially dry, we can forget that bees need a lot of water too.”
The best way to provide liquids for bees is to make a ‘bee drinker’. “Put out a tray or saucer and fill it with a layer of pebbles or gravel before topping it up with water,” explains Helen. “Make sure some of the pebbles are left uncovered so the bees have dry spots to land on and keep topping it up across the summer.”
If you do see a bee that looks like it’s in distress, Helen says the best thing you can do is pick some flowers and drop them next to them, “to give them the nectar that they need.”
If you don’t have any flowers around, a drop of sugar water will also do the trick. Just make sure you avoid honey as this can be bad for the bees.
No Space? No problem
If planting isn’t for you, or you don’t have the space, there are plenty of other ways to help support bees.
Try volunteering, donating, or supporting bee-friendly initiatives like Praise Bee, which supports Red Mason Bees, Sussex University’s Bee Research, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, or broader biodiversity organisations like Kew Gardens.
There are lots of other organisations out there too, just make sure the initiative focuses on wild bees rather than honey bees.
“There is no one solution that fits every bee species,” says Dr Koch. “So, if you really want to support bees, you need to learn about the wild bee species in your area and find out what they need.”
You can find out more about which bees live around you by reading field guides or by searching what bees are in your county online. Then look up what flowers are best for each type of bee.
Alternatively, you can find out what plants and flowers are native to your area and plant more of them.
Dr Koch recommends Stephen Falk’s Field Guide To The Bees Of Great Britain And Ireland, if you want information on the different species.
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Images: Getty, courtesy Dr Hauke Koch/Kew Gardens, Helen Bostock/RHS