by Annette J Beveridge
There is a growing crisis, one we are simply not prepared for. Bee populations are struggling to weather the unpredictable seasonal changes but by being informed, we can make a difference.
Weather here in the UK is always unpredictable. However, this year, we have experienced heavy summer downfalls, and gardens have been saturated at times. While we moan about the inconvenience of too much rain, spare a thought for bees which are already struggling to survive against the loss of habitat, deadly chemical exposure, and now, the perils of climate change.
We have more than 250 species of bee in the UK but they behave differently. Solitary bees have an annual lifecycle in the main. The female collects pollen and nectar which they store with their eggs. The nest is sealed but the young bees have everything they need to develop fully. Some will overwinter in burrows. The focus of social bees (including honey bees and bumblebees) revolve around the queen and hive.
Honey bees stay alive in the cold winter months by living on honey and pollen collated during the summer. They huddle up together to generate warmth but their main aim is to protect their queen. For bumblebees, just the queen survives. She re-emerges as winter turns to spring, ready to start a new colony. Interestingly, some queens start new nests and do not hibernate and this may be if they have nearby winter-flowering plants. Mason bees die after laying eggs in the autumn months and overwinter as pupae.
Our bees have evolved to take advantage of the changing seasons in the UK but we all like consistency, especially when it comes to the fundamentals of life. Without sufficient available flowers for pollen and nectar, bees struggle and many do not survive. They start to forage early in the season but it is often difficult at this time. This is why early flowering plants are essential. Gradually, as they feed the queen, more eggs are laid and in time, these new worker bee numbers increase and these in turn, begin to forage for pollinator-friendly flowers as the season evolves. The cycle of life continues.
We have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows and this has impacted bees greatly
When there is a deluge of rain, this cycle of productivity halts, after all, any small insect would feel the force of raindrops coming down on them. This could easily knock them onto the ground or cause injury. Bees wings beat at approximately 12,000 beats per minute, so rain could impact the ability to fly. Navigational abilities would be reduced by dark rainclouds as they use the sun to find their way.
Garden flowers are often destroyed when rain is heavy and consistent heavy rains – as experienced this year, reduce the time available for bees to forage. This is known as the summer collapse. Rain impacts honey bees but bumblebees fare a little better although are still restricted by the reduction of flowers. Ultimately, this is disastrous for pollinators.
It is true that many people are doing more for nature, turning their gardens into safe havens for the wildlife around them. However, heavy rains can impact vital food resources greatly saturating pots of flowers and hanging baskets. When this happens at the height of the season where there is greater need for food, bees will struggle.
We know that the timing of flowering plants may change due to climate change and this will affect bees foraging for food.
What can we do?
It makes sense that we plan our gardens accordingly going forward. This doesn’t mean using harmful chemicals such as pesticides but planting wisely. Most, if not all, flowers should be made available with pollinators in mind. As an example, do not opt for double-flowers as they are often mainly sterile. Insects will still be drawn to them but this just wastes vital energy. Semi-double flowers are fine. If you are not sure which plants are best, opt for wallflowers, crocus, primrose, foxgloves and honeysuckle. These are fantastic for pollinators.
Bees are vital for humanity. Approximately, 3/4 of the food we eat relies on insect pollination.
We should also consider drainage. If pots become waterlogged, ensure holes in the bottom and add gravel, or pebbles or broken clay pots in the base so to stop the roots sitting in water.
There are many things we can do to help our pollinators. Try to leave even a section of grass uncut so that plants such as thistles, dandelions, and clovers can grow and flower. You can also buy a ready-made bee home- they are small and relatively, inexpensive. Mining bees simply need a flat patch of earth left bare. If you have a south or east-facing rockery, this would be perfect. Consider your planting area and prepare it and choose the best pollinating-friendly plants. It does not need to be an extensive patch. Plant for all seasons – ideally, so new plants come into flower as others die off. Winter-flowering plants will help bees during the difficult winter months such as snowdrops, mahonia, and winter honeysuckle.
A bee-friendly habitat is also useful. Make a log pile and hibernating bees will be very grateful. We are often too tidy in the garden so try to leave dead stems in the autumn and winter as they may have solitary bee nests within. Where possible opt to tidy up the garden in the spring.
We need bees to survive. It is that simple so it makes sense that we all play a role to help them through this time of crisis.
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