JENNY STEEL  Looking after the Bees in your Garden

 

           

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LOOKING AFTER THE BEES IN YOUR GARDEN

Over the last few years there has been a tremendous amount of concern about the plight of pollinators in our countryside, and indeed around the world.  Bees especially have come in for some scrutiny from scientists and gardeners alike, and there is grave concern about the plight of these insects which are vital to life on earth.  There are around 250 different species of bee in the UK alone and many of these are in serious decline, mainly due to an increasing lack of flowers in meadowland and hedgerows which should be providing them with the nectar and pollen they require.  Bumblebees, solitary bees, and of course honey bees all need a good supply of these plant foods, for themselves and their larvae, and the all important pollination occurs as they move from flower to flower.

Any gardener can help to redress this serious problem just a little by making their garden a bee friendly place, and as a result both you and the bees will benefit.  Many attractive scented plants will encourage different species into your garden, especially some of the herbs such as mint, hyssop, marjoram, borage or lavender.  The pretty annual plant Phacelia, otherwise known as Californian Bluebell, is a bee magnet and of course soft fruit including raspberries and gooseberries will also bring them buzzing in.  

As well as including a selection of good bee plants in the garden you could make some species of these useful insects feel really at home with a specially designed nesting box. The smaller solitary bees, especially the Red Mason Bee which is an excellent pollinator of garden fruit and vegetable crops, take readily to artificial nests and they are not affected by the honey bee disease Varroa which has contributed to the decline of traditional beekeeping.  To encourage some of the solitary bee species, in particular the Red Mason, desirable bee homes can be made with a variety of materials, ranging from offcuts of softwood to empty baked bean tins.

To make a simple bee home, completely remove the lid of a tin can and wash the tin thoroughly.  After drying, paint the inside end with a waterproof adhesive. The tin then needs to be tightly packed with large diameter paper (not plastic) straws, often called art straws, all about a centimetre shorter than the tin, packed in tightly.  The completed home should be painted on the outside to prevent rusting and then attached with string or tape to a sunny, bee friendly spot such as under the eaves of a wooden garden shed.  A woodpile in the garden is also the sort of place that female bees may be house hunting but the bee home should be at chest height or above.  The bees lay their eggs inside the paper straws, sealing each egg into a separate chamber with a thin wall of mud between the cells.  An alternative home can be made by drilling a series of holes in a 5cm square piece of softwood, about 15cm in length.  Use as long a drill bit as you can find, and make the holes between 7 and 10mm in diameter.  Again this can be placed in a pile of logs or attached to a fence or shed and could attract a range of solitary bee species.

If you would rather buy a superior bee home these are now easily found online and in garden centres.  In particular these ready made homes are especially attractive to the Red Mason Bee Osmia rufa.  These little bees are the queens of pollination and have lots of advantages over the honeybee - for a start they don’t sting! They are gentle creatures and will only deliver their very mild sting if rubbed between the fingers.  They also fly at much lower temperatures than the honeybee, and pollinate at a rate of 15 to 20 flowers per minute, almost twice the honeybee’s rate.  Occupied nests complete with bee larvae can sometimes be found online complete with their pollen food, sealed deep inside the nests.  These occupied nest tubes are usually available in the winter and the larvae wil hatch in the spring to begin the job of pollinating your garden fruit, flowers and vegetables with great efficiency.

Once you have your own bee population working in the garden, do not be tempted to use insecticides of any kind on pests such as aphids, as the bees will also be affected.  If the ladybirds and hoverflies are not dealing naturally with these pests, try a very mild soap based spray, but best of all leave well alone for natural predators to deal with or simply rub off the aphids between thumb and finger – messy but effective!

So spare a thought for these productive and industrious insects and make a bee-line for the garden shed.  A few minutes making them a home could encourage them to stay around in your garden, and you may well notice an increase in your fruit and vegetable crops as a result.

© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017