What is Going on Out There?

When I was slogging through Physical Science O Level (Grade C, which shows there is a God) I think I assumed that the Victorians had done all the hard work in our back gardens, dissecting, pinning and establishing elaborate taxonomies. Perhaps that’s why we gave up doing it, so that books like Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden, containing 30 years of acute observation, are now so startling.
I’m often reminded about how little we know about what is happening outside our back doors when people start discussing bees, which you might think we know a great deal about. Last weekend I pootled off to enjoy a pint and the carvery at the Somerset Beekeepers’ annual bash and catch up with a few folk. Francis Ratnieks, he of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at Sussex, was the key speaker. Francis is the only professor of apiculture in the country, which gives you a sense of the scale of research done here as well as how over-worked his lab must be. Power to him for flogging down to Somerset, completely unpaid, on a Saturday.
Whenever I listen to Francis I come away with the same feelings – how sensible and practical the approach of his group is and how little we know about honeybees. Take flowers, for example. There are endless lists of good bee plants available on websites, in books, and through lectures. I’m aware of academic work that has been done on various seed mixes and agricultural schemes as well, but it turns out not much has been done on garden plants. The Lab in Sussex now have a PhD student measuring the popularity of 30 perennials with honeybees – just the sort of thing your Victorian rector would have done.
Francis reckons the important thing is to help honeybees through the July/August gap, when, counter-intuitively, there are now few flowers in the countryside. Lavender and Borage are his top tips. I’m sure this is true, but I’m not so confident it should be a gardener’s sole priority. In Somerset a major source of colony loss over the last few years has been starvation; warm winter days mean bees fly and use their honey stores too quickly, as there is no forage to be had. By the spring they’ve starved to death. Queen bumblebees use up their reserves too quickly too. It makes sense to me and others – although of course we can’t prove it – for gardeners to concentrate on providing all year round nectar and pollen as much as filling any other gaps there might be in forage locally.
The same lack of certainty fuels the fire of impassioned debate about bees in other areas, most notably the effects of the new generation of systemic pesticides. How pernicious neonicotinoids are no-one really knows – which is a very good reason why they should be banned. We are as far from being well informed about honeybees as I was from getting an A in my Physical Science – and this is an insect we know relatively lots about. Keep up the good work, LASI!