It’s no secret that bees are major pollinators of our produce, visiting the flowers of 90 per cent of leading crop types. Alongside other pollinators they help to produce over a third of the food we grow, from apples to aubergines to almonds. This free pollination service rakes in £651 million a year for UK farmers alone.
Yet bees have been poorly-rewarded for their benefits. Habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and introduced pests and diseases have taken their toll. The UK alone has lost 11 species of wild bee since 1900, with a further 35 officially under threat of national extinction.
However, the picture does not have to be so bleak. Growing our produce and managing our green spaces in sensitive ways can both have big benefits for bees. Many practices adopted in permaculture help bees to prosper, benefitting growers and the wider ecosystem.
Growing bee-friendly produce
Fruit tree blossoms, along with flowers of summer fruits and legumes, benefit bees. Letting some brassicas and carrots bolt will also provide for a variety of bee species.
Buffish mining bee (Andrena nigroaenea) ©Alison Woodward
Herbs produce some of the best flowers for bees. Marjoram has especially nectar-rich flowers. Rosemary has a long flowering season and deep flowers suitable for the long-tongued mason bees Osmia spp. and flower bees Anthophora spp., whilst the open flowers of fennel are useful for short-tongued mining bees Andrena spp.
Halting the use of bee-harming neonicotinoid insecticides is an obvious way to help bees. Some herbicides and fungicides can also harm them, including as mixed ‘chemical cocktails’. Leave the chemicals on the shelf.
Marigolds emit an aphid-repelling odour, with open flowers that give bees an easy feed. Nasturtiums draw egg-laying butterflies away from brassica crops, whilst the flowers are attractive to bumblebees and the leaves and seed pods are edible!
Growing green manures
Comfrey and lacy phacelia are great green manures, whilst their pollen and nectar-rich flowers make them excellent for bees. Red clover and vetches are nitrogen-fixers loved by bumblebees for their protein-rich pollen, particularly the long-tongued Carder bumblebees and Garden bumblebee.
Keep a lookout
Over 250 bee species call Britain home, including the honeybee, 26 bumblebees and over 220 solitary bees. From 17 May to 30 June we want you to spot and record the bees you see using the Great British Bee Count app, which includes more information on wild bees and how to help them. Here are some top pollinators to spot on your plot:
Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes – A major pollinator of spring-flowering peas and beans in Southern England and Wales. Will nest in cob walls.
Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) ©Rachel Carden
Early bumblebee Bombus pratorum – Britain’s smallest bumblebee and a key pollinator of raspberry flowers.
Common carder bee Bombus pascuorum – This bumblebee is the main visitor of broad bean and runner bean flowers. This species nests in grass tussocks, so it likes messy margins.
Red mason bee Osmia bicornis – A top pollinator of orchard fruits - 120 times more efficient on apple blossoms than honeybees! Encourage them to stay with bee hotels.
Red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) ©Rachel Norris
The Great British Bee Count takes place 17 May-30 June this year. Discover the incredible diversity of bees we have in the UK, the threats they face, and what you can do to help them. Register now at www.greatbritishbeecount.co.uk
By Rory Dimond, Scientific Advisor to the Great British Bee Count at Friends of the Earth