“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live”.
This quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein, although whether or not he ever said it is debatable at best. What is certain is that bees are both essential and in danger, and they need help from all of us.
There are upwards of 16,000 species of bee worldwide, with multiple species found on every continent except Antarctica. In the UK alone there are around 260 species, many of which most of us have almost certainly never heard of: yellow-faced bees, scissor bees, blood bees, sweat bees…
With that many bees buzzing around, it’s hard to bee-lieve (sorry) that they could be at any kind of risk, but in fact numbers are declining everywhere. The UK has lost at least 13 species of bee to extinction and 35 more are at immediate risk, and many of the species which aren’t endangered are declining in number.
The reasons for the rapid disappearance of so many bees are varied – a combination of habitat loss, the effects of pesticides, competition from invasive species, parasites and illnesses have all seen bee numbers steadily declining. And this matters, not just because biodiversity is important, but on the very human level that so much of the food we eat relies on the pollination powers of bees.
It is estimated that bees pollinate around 400 different agricultural plants around the world, 70 in the UK, and without the bees’ busy, buzzy efforts growing food becomes a lot harder. While it is possible for humans to pollinate plants without bees, we’re much less efficient at it: it’s estimated that it would cost £1.8 billion every year to pollinate UK crops manually.
Of course, it’s not just bees…
Other insects work equally hard to pollinate our food and flowers (and of course feed themselves in the process) – butterflies, moths, hoverflies and even mosquitoes feed on flowers and transfer pollen from plant to plant, pollinating in the process. Luckily, most of the things that support and encourage bees are also good for these other pollinators.
So, what can I do?
– Plant bee-friendly flowers: you don’t need to create your own wildflower meadow – although if you can, why not? – anything with single, open flowers will encourage bees to visit (double flowers with all their petals are harder for bees and other insects to access). Purple flowers are particularly attractive to bees as it’s the colour they can see most clearly.
– Avoid using pesticides, particularly those that contain neonicotinoids: these substances are absorbed by the plant and turn its pollen and nectar toxic to any visiting pollinators. It’s best not to use pesticides at all, of course, but if you really need to then organic pesticides based on plant extracts which are much less harmful to bees are widely available.
– Provide a bee-friendly source of water. Bees need to drink but can easily drown if the water is too deep. Fill a clean, shallow tray (like a plant or paint tray) with stones and water, making sure some of the stones stay above the surface of the water. Leave it somewhere safe and remember to top it up regularly.
– Install a bee hotel to provide a home for solitary bees, which include the vast majority of the UK’s bee species. If you’re feeling crafty, you can build your own.
– If you find a bee that seems to be struggling, perhaps from getting trapped inside or falling in water, you can help it by putting it somewhere safe and preferably sunny and giving it some sugar or honey solution – about 30% sugar / honey to 70% water – to try and get it back on its feet.
Between May and the end of July, honeybees swarm to find a new nest. The process is triggered when a new queen bee grows up and the old queen takes some of the bees to find a new place to build a hive: they will usually fly around for a while before settling somewhere to wait until the scout bees find a new location. Swarms involve thousands of bees and being in the middle of one is a truly memorable experience (and yes, I speak from personal experience there!).
If you find a bee swarm in your garden, the British Beekeepers Association website can help you find someone to come and collect the bees and take them to a nice new home. While you’re waiting, shut your doors and windows, keep children and pets inside, and, needless to say, don’t use pesticides against them – there are few enough bees left already!
Find out more
– Pollinator Park (europa.eu) – an online virtual reality game set in 2050, in a world where pollinating insects have all but vanished. You can walk through the park, try your hand at hand pollination, go grocery shopping in a pollinator-deprived world, and admire the beauty of the recreated natural world. (Be warned, by the way, it is unsurprisingly very graphics-heavy and takes a while to load on older computers!).
By Cat Palmer
RYA Environmental & Sustainability Administrator