Bees, these small yet mighty creatures, are not just buzzing around aimlessly. They are the unsung heroes of our ecosystem and agriculture, their industriousness and impact extending far beyond their size. They are the reason for the food we eat, the flowers we admire, and the overall health of our environment. However, their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. Let’s delve into why bees are so vital, why they’re fascinating, and how we can help them thrive.

As Monday (20th May) was World Bee Day, we’ve decided to learn more about bees and tell you how they are the environmental and agricultural wonders of the insect world!

The Importance of Bees in Agriculture

Bee on Flower 01

A Bumblebee sat on a small flower

Bees are integral to pollination, which is essential for the reproduction of many plants, including numerous crops. Almost 90% of wild plants and 75% of leading global crops depend on animal pollination. Bees contribute to every third mouthful of food we consume, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. In the UK alone, wild pollinators, including bees, are responsible for pollinating £690 million worth of crops annually.

Without bees, our agricultural productivity would plummet, leading to a significant increase in food prices and a decrease in food variety. In fact, replacing the pollination services of bees with human labour would cost an estimated £1.8 billion each year in the UK.

The Decline of Bee Populations

It’s truly distressing to learn about the challenges faced by bees. In the UK, three bumblebee species have become extinct in recent decades, and almost one in ten wild bee species is at risk of extinction, according to the European Red List for Bees. The 2013 State of Nature Report revealed that half of the bee, butterfly, and moth species studied have declined over the past 50 years.

The main factors contributing to these declines include habitat loss due to intensive farming practices, urbanisation, pesticide and herbicide use, climate change, and disease. But here’s the good news-we can make a difference. The destruction of habitats has left bees with fewer places to forage and nest, making it difficult for them to survive and thrive. By creating bee-friendly habitats and avoiding pesticide use, we can help these vital creatures thrive.

Fascinating Facts About Bees

Did you know… There are 250 different types of bees in the UK. They all have unique parts to play in the big and amazing family they are a part of. We categorise some bees as Bumblebees, mason bees, mining bees, and even Honey Bees!

Honeybees (Apis mellifera)

The UK hosts just one species of honeybee, primarily kept in managed hives. These bees are easily recognised by their slim, sandy thorax and black abdomen with golden-amber bands. They live in colonies of up to 20,000 individuals. They are known for their incredible ability to communicate via the ‘waggle dance,’ which informs their hive mates about the best food sources.

A resting Honeybee

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)
Bumblebee

A resting Bumblebee

Easily identified by their ginger thorax, black abdomen, and white tail, tree bumblebees are one of the UK’s most common species. They are adaptable and often colonise nest boxes, thriving in urban and rural settings since their arrival in the UK in 2001.

How You Can Help Bees

The Bee Hotel

Creating a bee hotel provides solitary bees with a safe place to nest. You can make one using simple materials like hollow stems, bamboo canes, and wooden blocks. The Wildlife Trust and WWF have the perfect guide to building your own Bee Hotel! You could make them with recycled materials, as shown in the two examples!

Wildlife Trust – How to make a Bee Hotel

WWF – Bee Hotel Activity Sheet

Bee Hotel

Example Bee Hotel Appearance

The Autumn and Winter Queen Bee Home

Here’s a fun idea for the autumn and winter – you can make a cosy hibernation spot for the Queen bees! All you need is a terracotta pot, some moss, and hay.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Take your terracotta pot and cover the drainage hole with the moss.
  • Fill the pot with hay, leaving it loose so the moss can easily drop when the pot is turned over, giving the bee easy access to climb inside.
  • Find a warm, sheltered spot, like near the foot of a hedge.
  • Clear away some soil – enough to bury half of the pot.
  • Place the pot upside down on the hole and move the soil around the edge of the pot.

By doing this, you might just find that you’ll be hosting some special guests over the cooler months as Queen Bees seek refuge in these cosy locations.

Tailor Your Garden for Bees
Wild Flower Field for bees

Wild Flower Farm

Transform your garden into a bee-friendly haven by making some of the following changes:

  • Plant pollen-rich flowers to bloom in Spring and Summer. Then get Winter flowers to support them during the more difficult months.
  • Avoid plants with double or multi-petalled flowers; these are difficult for bees to access and often lack nectar and pollen.
  • Choose native plants, especially wildflowers. These tend to be easy to grow and maintain because they are strong against pests and are used to the UK weather and environment.
  • DON’T USE PESTICIDES—These contain harmful chemicals such as thiacloprid and acetamiprid, which kill bees! If you need to buy any for other pests, read the label to avoid harming our little fluff balls!
  • Retain some weeds—Yes, we all hate those little things, but dandelions are excellent bee plants. They provide vital pollen in the earlier seasons! White clover also attracts a swarm of honeybees. You could maybe leave a small patch of grass where your weeds grow to aid the bees.
Revive a Tired Bee – The Elixir of Bee Life!

If you find a bee resting on the ground for more than 45 minutes, it may need some help. Mix two tablespoons of white granulated sugar with one tablespoon of water to make a simple sugar solution. This can give the bee the energy boost it needs to fly again.

Here are some ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’ when helping our fluffy friends.

Sugar Water Bee

A Bumblebee drinking sugar water

DO…

  • Cover the bee with something to protect it from birds and other wildlife while it rests.

DON’T…

  • Give the bee brown or demerara sugar; it cannot be processed in the same way.
  • Give any extra than recommended.
  • Use any alternatives like honey – this is due to the honey being from a different colony and can affect the bee’s overall health.
  • Leave the sugar water out for bees to drink at their leisure – again, this can affect their health.
  • Bring the bees indoors and leave them outside to drink their water.

Want to learn a little bit more?

Home, Sweet Home!

Social bees, like honeybees and bumblebees, typically reside in hives or nests located either above ground or underground. On the other hand, most solitary bees tend to build their nests in the ground. Bees can be found in a wide variety of locations, some of which may come as a surprise. These include marshes, sand dunes, soft cliffs, heathlands, wetlands, chalk grasslands, quarries, gravel pits, sea walls, and even post-industrial land.

B-Lines: A Transport Network for Bees
Bee on Flower 02

A bee on a wild flower

B-Lines are an imaginative solution to habitat fragmentation. These ‘insect pathways’ link existing wildlife areas across the UK, creating a network of flower-rich corridors that provide bees with routes to travel and forage. This initiative helps to connect fragmented habitats, ensuring bees and other pollinators can move freely and find the resources they need to survive.

Log onto the Bug Life website to take a look at the known B-Lines and see if you’re on one of their invisible motorways!

The Waggle Dance

One of the most remarkable behaviours of honeybees is the ‘waggle dance.’ This dance is a sophisticated method of communication, where a bee waggles its body to indicate the direction and distance of food sources to its hive mates, any potential threats around them and what the safest route is to return home. Researchers at Sussex University spent two years decoding this dance, highlighting honeybees’ incredible intelligence and social structure.

Overall, Bees are indispensable to our environment and agriculture. By understanding their importance and taking steps to support their populations, we can help ensure their survival and, consequently, our own. From building bee hotels to planting bee-friendly gardens, every little action counts. Let’s work together to protect these tiny yet mighty pollinators to benefit our ecosystems and future generations.