Breakfast!

Early bumblebee queen As you’d expect, we have lots of goodies around the garden for bees at this time of year. I’d already seen my honeybees on the crocuses and today – great excitement – two Bombus pratorum queens (the “Early bumblebee, well named) foraging on our generous helpings of hellebores.

We have plenty of other early season pollen and nectar available too. It’s particularly important for bumblebee queens to fatten up again after a winter spent hibernating, and for honeybees to find pollen for their young as their colonies start to expand again.Salix Myrobalan, cherry plum, is particularly valuable as it comes into blossom so early – what a great plant. Quick growing, tough as old boots, it was often used as a windbreak around orchards and lays very nicely in a hedge.

Less traditional are the wacky willows I’ve planted down by the pond, which flower exotically at odd times of year. These will be pollarded in traditional Somerset style. Good fun. The bees seem to like them too, covered as they are with masses of yellow pollen.

Tussilago farfaraI’ve been sad that our lungwort has failed to attract any hairy-footed flower bees this year. There were some around the old back garden, before we built out new house, and I planted their favourite plant in reasonable numbers. Oh well. I’ll divide them up and we’ll see if that improves things. I’ve been pleased to see a random Coltsfoot plant appear in the meadow, though. It’s an odd looking thing, but a lovely splash of yellow before the dandelions get going. Good native bee plant too.

Neonicotinoids again

I’m sure the various campaigns to ban neonicotinoids waged by people like Buglife, the Friends of the Earth and the BBCT are going to carry the day in the UK. I’m confident not least because they are backed by inceasingly persuasive science and, recently, Brussels. A number of retailers have started taking neonicotinoid based products like Bayer’s Provado off the shelves. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee is hearing evidence about them too.
Just as I thought neonicotinoids were about to get booted into touch in the UK, the agrichemical business is fighting a spirited rearguard action to save them. I wanted to pick up one point in particular from that, which I heard repeated again on the radio this morning by a man from Syngenta.

Foraging bumblebee
Stop!
Varroa has been a significant problem for honeybees. These are imported mites which attach themselves between the thoracic plates of honeybees and weaken the bees by sucking hemolymph. They also act as vectors for viral diseases. The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, has been defenceless against them. There are now treatments and ways of managing honeybee colonies which help the bees, and a lot of research is going on in this area.

The man from Syngenta said that bee losses were largely a consequence of varroa, not neonicotinoids. This is disingenuous. Recent research suggests the effects of neonicotinoids on honeybees are most marked when in combination with other problems, like the kind of viral diseases spread by Varroa destructor. The key point I wanted to make, though, is this. VARROA ONLY AFFECTS HONEYBEES. There is one honey bee in the UK. As I have blogged before, There are 26 Bumblebees and something over 240 species of solitary bees. Why are they declining? If it’s not varroa what is it? Some of the most persuasive recent research has looked at the impact of neonicotinoids on bumblebees. As for neonicotinoids’ effect on solitary bees (and butterflies, hoverflies, etc.), well… er… we don’t really know.

I did agree with the man from Syngenta when he said that banning neonicotinoids might not halt bee declines, and if it happens there’s a danger bees will disappear off the map of public awareness. There’s climate change, habitat loss, disease, new predators – all sorts of threats which still have to be dealt with.

Three Bees

There’s often general confusion between different types of bees, and I thought it might be helpful to clarify who’s who in a brief introduction. In the U.K. we have honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees, and each are quite distinct. They all collect pollen (for protein) and nectar (carbohydrates) from flowers, but live in different ways and have different problems.

Honeybees
Bee_plants_crocusThere’s one species of honeybee in the UK – the European or western honeybee Apis Mellifera (Apis = bee, mellifera = honey producing).They can look darker or yellower, though, as there are different strains around. They are social bees, living in highly organized colonies of up to 60,000 bees, where they store large amounts of honey to eat throughout the winter. They travel up to 12km to find the nectar and pollen they need, and they forage in groups. Each colony usually has a single queen, who typically survives for several years. These are the bees we keep, and are most commonly mistaken for wasps.

Bumblebees
White-tailed_bumbles_sedumThere are currently 25 different species of bumblebee in the UK, although only 7 are common (including a recent import from France). Different species have different length tongues, adapted to collect nectar from different sorts of flowers; longer tongued bumblebees can access flowers honeybees and solitary bees can’t. People notice the queen bumblebees in particular, as they look for nest sites in the spring after hibernating or when the new queens fatten themselves up in the autumn (as in the photo). They’re big bees! Most bumblebees nest underground, often in deserted mouseholes or in places like compost heaps, and colonies are very small – only a few hundred. They’re not as well organized as honeybees and produce no food stores to over-winter on; the queens only last a season and the colonies break up in the autumn. They’re not as mobile either, and forage on their own over much shorter distances. They’re visually easy to distinguish from honeybees; they’re much furrier.

Solitary Bees
solitary-bee-3Astonishingly there are over 240 species in the UK. Hardly noticed, they go busily about the garden, typically nesting in the ground (mining bees), in wall crevices (cavity nesters) or in decaying wood (carpenter bees), according to the species. They can do well in the solitary bee boxes you can buy or make. They have relatively simple and short lives, which are concentrated on producing and safeguarding their eggs. These are sometimes protected with physical barriers constructed by the bees, typically made of mud or leaves – cut in neat half circles from plants like roses. We know remarkably little about solitary bees, which are thought to be the major pollinators of flowers in the UK. Oh, and they’re stingless.

Mimics
Hoverfly_Helophilus_trivittatus_asterThere are lots of flies which mimic all three types of bees for their own sometimes nefarious purposes. Hoverflies are often mistaken for them, but once you’ve got your eye in you’ll be able to see they fly very differently; hoverflies…er… hover.

Bee Problems
Honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees have their own diseases and parasites, which are much more problemmatic when in combination with the issues below. The best known is probably the varroa mite, which has done terrible damage to European honeybee populations – to the extent that there are pretty much no wild colonies left in Britain. It is now treatable in the apiary, but colonies need careful monitoring.
There are a cocktail of other nasties which effect all bees more or less, depending on your point of view:
1. Habitat loss: there are fewer flowers around and fewer of the right sorts of flowers, particularly wildflowers. Bees also need a variety of pollen and nectar sources pretty much throughout the year, from early bulbs to winter flowering shrubs and trees. You can do your bit to help by planting some bee friendly plants, particularly those flowering outside the summer months. Different flowers are good for different bees; I’d recommend Plants for Bees as an invaluable guide.
2. Climate change: warmer winters mean bumblebee queens break hibernation and honey bees become active before spring – i.e. before there are flowers out. The queens use up their fat reserves too quickly and the honeybees their honey, so they starve to death. This can be the single biggest cause of honeybee deaths in a bad year.
3. Pesticides: This is the debate which currently causes the most heat and noise. We’re now using systemic pesticides, neonicotinoids, whose introduction in different countries seems to have coincided suspiciously with dramatic declines in bee numbers. As they’re systemic they effect any insect that feeds off treated plants, which unfortunately includes the insects feeding off the pollen and nectar these plants produce. There’s mounting evidence suggesting the damage to bees from them is significant.

Hampton Court Flower Show

The great and good admire our bumblarium
I’m just back from a busy but fun three days at Hampton Court with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and our bumblarium. The bees behaved beautifully, and the only hitch was the wet, which gave us some problems with condensation. We had gazillions of folk through the bee tent, which we shared with the Beekeepers’ Association and the RHS, who were promoting their Plants for Pollinators campaign. It was handy to have a bumblebee colony and honeybee observation hive next to each other so people could appreciate the differences between them, and to have the balance of the native flowers in the bumblarium together with the list of traditional garden plants the RHS recommend. The punters’ increasing awareness of gardens as habitats was really encouraging, as was their evident pleasure in seeing the bees.
All good stuff, and much of the show was very on message this year. I was particularly pleased to see Mat Byway’s Applebee garden, which we’d supplied some flowers to and which had been put together at breakneck speed. The Floral marquee had the usual stunning display from one of our suppliers, Downderry Nursery, from whom I’m buying lavender for the landscaping project here. I think we might feature lavender in the bumblarium next year.
I also had a chance to wander around the roses by way of planning my rose bed at Hookgate, which will include some real beauties. I’ve got a lot of favourites to squeeze in, but I also wanted to include some less familiar, bee friendly single roses like Sweet Pretty and Dainty Bess, which I found at the Pococks Roses stand.
My only regret about the show was missing Mark “Otter Farm” Diacono’s offer of free bucolic cocktails, but if he doesn’t run out I’m sure he’ll be delighted to serve you at his stand in the GYO section. Cheers!

The Biggest Bumblarium in the World

Here is the biggest bumblarium in the world, shown at its inaugural outing at the Gardener’s World Show at the NEC. I borrowed the idea from those nice folk at Wildflower Turf, whose lovely product (sold by us!) the bumblarium features. They put me in touch with Robin Dean of Red Beehive who had made a version for them which was hugely successful at the Ecobuild Show. Robin knocked up this one for us, and it was brilliant in attracting people to the stand we shared with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The bumblarium is like a vivarium for bumblebees, with a little colony of Bombus terrestris spp. audax (Buff-tailed bumblebees) and a wildflower meadow floor for them to play in. It excited a fair amount of interest and the cost and palaver of putting it up was further justified by getting a “Highly Commended” for it. The wildflower turf looked brilliant. The diversity of species in it – over 25 – meant we could have a competition asking people to name five of them. So what did we learn?

Oldies know their wildflowers much better than the young, but that’s not saying much! One lady asked me to identify the plant taking over her front garden as she hadn’t seen it before and she wondered if it was something so rare she should leave it. She’d even brought a cutting along to show me. Creeping Buttercup.

Many gardeners have a “wild section” in their garden which they leave untended. All well and dandy, but I did wonder how much more helpful a regime of relaxed management might be for bees. Dock and nettle aren’t renowned for their qualities as bee plants.

Another oddity which keeps coming up is the way people buy wildflower seeds and sow them. Even careful gardeners, who might spend hours at a horticultural show finding exactly the cultivar they wanted, cheerfully buy an unidentified packet of wildflower seed and just fling it on the lawn. They’re then disappointed when it doesn’t work – perhaps it’s just as well! I kept on suggesting people look at our how to make a wildflower meadow area video.

My longer term worry about wildflowers is the way they are becoming exclusively identified with a particular look – i.e. hay meadow – and that people aren’t using them in combination with cultivars in more formal schemes. If I had a small urban garden I’m not sure I’d have a meadow area myself, to be honest.

Most people are profoundly in the dark about different types of bees. We spent ages explaining the differences between bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees.

The Tree Bee, a recent arrival from France, is turning into something of a nuisance. A lot of people had problems with them taking over nestboxes, and their behaviour and predilection for raised nest sites means they’re not just obvious but also more likely to be annoying.

I was saddened to meet people who had bought bumblebees off the internet to put in their gardens. There’s a lively trade in bumblebee colonies to pollinate fruit in greenhouses – it’s how we got our bumblarium bees – but to buy them at vast expense for your own garden seems very peculiar, quite apart from any bio-hazard they may bring. Plant the right plants and they will come.

Wild Bees and Honeybees

It’s been an eventful week on the bee front chez Mann. I’m without my honeybees as we’re still house sitting, so a friend is looking after them. I did bring a spare box with us though, which I used as a bait hive last year. I filled it with old comb and even sprayed it with a (French made!) pheromone aerosol to attract any passing swarm. It didn’t work then but it did this week, although it might have been more convenient if I hadn’t left it just outside the kitchen door! A local beekeeping friend was delighted to come and pick up the hived swarm, which seemed very well mannered. Hurrah!
Next to the bait hive my broad beans were being pollinated not by the honeybees, but by some friendly carder bees. It turns out that wild bees like this bumblebee are more important pollinators than many had thought. I’d been puzzled by this; you hear a lot about honeybee declines at the same time as the volume of crops grown in the UK requiring insect pollination is actually rising, as are yields. According to a study just released by the University of Reading (Pollination Services in the UK: How important are Honeybees? ) it’s wild bees wot done it:

The findings indicate that insect pollinated crops have become increasingly important in UK crop agriculture and, as of 2007, accounted for 20% of UK cropland and 19% of total farmgate crop value. Analysis of honeybee hive numbers indicates that current UK populations are only capable of supplying 34% of pollination service demands even under favourable assumptions, falling from 70% in 1984. Inspite of this decline, insect pollinated crop yields have risen by an average of 54% since 1984, casting doubt on long held beliefs that honeybees provide the majority of pollination services. Future land use and crop production patterns may further increase the role of pollination services to UK agriculture, highlighting the importance of measures aimed at maintaining both wild and managed species.

Ecosystem-in-a-box

A report in Which? Gardening magazine, covered by the Daily Telegraph, tells us what we already secretly knew; that many “wildlife shelters” bought in shops don’t really work. An honourable exception in the report is the solitary bee box which, like ours on the left, is often better home-made anyway (many commercial boxes have only one or two sizes of hole and typically aren’t deep enough).

The report talks about bumblebee nesters as a typical example. We’ve always said to people that we’d prefer them not to buy them, and that they should rather concentrate on recreating bumblebees’ natural habitats. I could understand their apparent reluctance to do this if bumblebees, like other pollinators, needed unattractive plants. I could understand it if it were difficult or expensive to establish and manage these flowers. They are in fact lovely, they’re relatively cheap to buy and they’re easy to manage. Perhaps folk buy the nesters as part of an accessorization of their garden. Perhaps they buy them as a gift, or as a nod to “wildlife gardening”. From the retailer’s point of view it’s excellent news if they do, as they are easy to ship and carry a much better margin than plants. Good luck to them, but as a symptom of a broader problem it’s depressing. People are going to help and attract bumblebees if they plant the right flowers for them, regardless of how many nesters they have or don’t have. And it’s important they understand this; the Bumblebee Conservation Trust describes gardens as “a stronghold for some bumblebee species”.

How can we persuade folk that they can’t buy a brand new ecosystem-in-a-box at B&Q, take it home and unroll it in the back garden? The key to helping their favourite animals is to mend the broken one they have out there already.

Lavender

Bees in lavenderIf there is a better plant for bees at this time of year I have yet to see it. I took a rather wobbly video of the 8 metres of lavender hedge outside our kitchen this afternoon, which partly shows the concentration of bees on it. There must have been several hundred there. I could see some of my honeybees, four different species of bumblebee – Garden (Bombus hortorum), White-tailed (B. lucorum), Carder (B. pascuorum) and Red-tailed (B. lapidarius) – and two types of cuckoo bee, the Gypsy cuckoo bee (B. bohemicus) and the Field cuckoo bee (B. campestris). There were probably lots more I didn’t spot, in addition to various hoverflies.
It’s a particularly great garden plant though because it works so well for us humans; it’s a good hardy hedging plant, looks good, smells good, and has all sorts of medicinal and cosmetic uses. I have been digging around for a specialist supplier as we currently only sell a limited selection, albeit of really well priced and nice sized plants, and what better nursery to sign up than Downderry Nurseries in Sussex, Gold Medal winners at the Hampton Court Show. We will be launching our new range of specially selected cultivars next spring. Hurrah.

Our Meadow in July

Greater Knapweed clumpMeadow BrownOur meadow is lovely at the moment; although the most obvious flowers are Greater Knapweed, Yarrow and Meadow Vetchling, the Self-heal and Lady’s Bedstraw are also out. The meadow is alive with insects; it is buzzing and clicking, chirping and rustling. Fantastic. I thought I’d stand in a clump of flowering Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) for ten minutes in the morning and in the afternoon and see what came along. I’m no entomologist, so please excuse the identification, but how gratifying to see so many friendly pollinators. Nothing out of the ordinary, but a good crowd.There were, of course, many more, either too small or too fast for this useless photographer, Six Spot Burnetbut at least this gives an idea of what you might help with a small meadow area…
Greater Knapweed is one of the best nectar plants, and it seems to attract all sorts of pollinators. Most obvious were the butterflies (and day flying moths). We’ve once again been swamped with Meadow Browns this year, but in my half an hour I also saw a Six Spot Burnet moth and a Small Tortoisehell. I’m sure we’ll have Gatekeepers later on too. Although Greater Knapweed seems to be just the ticket for butterflies, it is more of a struggle for our honey bees with their much shorter tongues. Perhaps surprisingly they’re not dissuaded, Small TortoisehellHoney beeand in the afternoon sun were the most numerous insect about, with two or three simultaneously working the same patch. They were very specific in their taste, as were the Hoverflies; not for them Meadow Vetchling or Lady’s Bedstraw. The solitary bees I saw were the same. Much quicker and more agile than bumblebees, there must have been at least 6 different species at work, although I only managed to photograph three. I’m still hopeless with my identification;Large Solitary Bee and KnapweedSolitary Bee and Knapweed I think there were Mason Bees of various types and Leaf-cutter bees too. Since we made our solitary bee box I have become more aware of these chaps and, consequently, see many more of them about, but still struggle to work out who is who. There are, after all, over 250 species to get to grips with and they all move fast. More work required. I am marginally more at home with bumblebees. Solitary Bee and KnapweedOur garden and meadow areas have become Bumblebee Central, thanks to judicious planting and management. Although we have plenty of Common Carder Bees (below top left), I’m still disappointed not to have seen the Shrill Carder Bee, but I live in hope! I think I have also seen Brown-banded carder bees (Bombus humilis) about, but I couldn’t be certain. The other unmistakable bumblebee around at this time of year is the Red Tailed Bumblebee, B. lapidarius. There’s a nest under the orchard wall around 50 metres away, and it wasn’t surprising to see a few workers of this very smart Common Carder BeeRed Tailed Bumblebeeand relatively short tongued species around the nectar rich area where I was snapping. My identification skills start to go awry at this point, however. Apparently the key difference between B. hortorum, the Garden Bumblebee, and B. lucorum, the White-tailed bumblebee, is the yellow band at the bottom of the thorax. Tricky. I hope I’ve got this right. I think this is a White-tailed Bumblebee – i.e. without yellow band on thorax. White-tailed Bumblebee Common but endearing. This next lady, then, could well be B.hortorum, or a Garden Bumblebee worker. She is rather moth-eaten, but she does have a yellow band at the bottom of her thorax and, apparently, a very long tongue. If I’m lucky I can sex bumblebees, which you can do by looking at the antenna; long, round antenna mean a male. I might have some idea on bumblebee identification, but I know next to nothing about different hoverflies. I think I can only confidently name one of these. Like solitary bees I am astonished to find the vast number of native species – around 270 – Garden BumblebeeHoverfly 1and they are strong enough flyers that, like butterflies, we also entertain migrants. I’ve always been told their larvae have an insatiable appetite for greenfly, but it turns out that only about a third of them eat aphids. They’re interesting and attractive insects, though, and – surprise surprise – many are in decline as a result of habitat loss. I thought I’d add some to my gallery, as they frequented the Knapweed too. Hoverfly 2Hoverfly 4The meadow will start to look tired in a little while, and once some of the Knapweed goes to seed I’ll cut it. I don’t need the hay, so it doesn’t matter if it’s all stalky. The sheep are already running through some sections of it where there’s nothing left to flower to save me the effort of cutting it. In the meantime I’m looking forward to more coffee breaks out there in the sun, and enjoying it as much as the birds seem to be. Hoverfly 3I haven’t even begun to describe the Flycatchers, finches, martins and swallows… I’m just amazed by how much there is going on in such a small area, and equally amazed at how easy it has been to establish such a rich habitat. Immensely satisfying – go on, give it a go!

Hellebores

Honeybee and HelleboreAnother bee on a flower picture – sorry. Hellebores do really well on our heavy soil, and we’ve got all sorts of varieties now. They seem easy to grow and actually need some shade. I still most love the simplicity of H. niger, the Christmas Rose, or the white H. orientalis, which the bees seem to prefer too. I’ve never seen anyone selling them as bee plants – sigh – but their white pollen is really helpful for honeybees and emerging queen bumbles on an early Spring day like today; apart from the crocuses and Goat Willow there’s nothing much else around for them. I’m kicking myself for not getting over to Cleeve Nursery for their Hellebore and Primrose week to get properly up to speed on them – oh well, there’s always next year.
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