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How can we help bees survive?

Bees are an essential part of a British summer and vital to the production of fruit and other crops. But like so much of our native wildlife, bees are under threat from the use of pesticides, habitat loss and climate change. How can you help?

Bees are endearing little things. Honey bees look so busy in my flower borders and I love the big bumble bees weaving between the tulip cups.

But our pollinating friends may be in trouble. That’s why, in 2018, Friends of the Earth (FoE) encouraged us to monitor the health of the population of bees in our garden in the Great British Bee Count.

You may have participated in the Big Garden Birdwatch or the Big Butterfly Count, but you’ll find the bee count an eye-opener.

I’ve been looking at which flowers are the best for supporting the bumble bees that emerge early in the spring, when only a few brave primroses and hellebores are battling the last of the frosts. But it’s not been an easy project at all.

Bee diversity

You may wonder how hard it can be to identify the bees as they come in ‘fat and stripy’ and ‘honey bee’. Actually there are 270 species of bee in Britain. Some early-emerging bumble bees are in fact, ‘early bumblebees’. Others are banded white-tailed bumble bees.

Later in the spring there are masonry bees, solitary bees, red-tailed black bumblebees, hairy-footed flower bees, tree bees, hover flies that look like bees, cuckoo bees that look like another species of bee, tiny sweat bees, and moths that fly in the daylight that look like hummingbirds – at least they’re not bees!

And not all of them are slow moving; flower bees are frustratingly fast and tricky to identify as they hover near trumpet-shaped flowers rather than settling to sip the nectar.


But it is so wonderful when you see bees you never knew existed. I was lucky enough to see a leafcutter bee last summer, clutching a slice of leaf to carry back to its nest.

Rather brilliantly you can get an app from FoE to help you identify and record which bees you see in your garden for the bee count. If you’ve got some plants in your garden that bees love then it will make much easier to see them, as they’ll come to you.

It’s not too late to take a trip to the garden centre to get some lavender, snap dragons (antirrhinum), echinops or cirsium – which both have thistle-like flowers so popular with bumblebees.

Herbs, such as thyme, rosemary and sage are great for pollinators too. Or let any clover in your lawn flower. The bees with thank you for it!

Are you tempted to count the bees in your border? Have you been fascinated by these lovable insects? What plants have you found that are brilliant for bees?


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If I was a bee, I probably wouldn’t come to your garden. Do you have lots of double red roses, holy hocks, etc? bees only visit the flowers then can feed from. Did you ever see a honeybee on buddleia? No- because its tongue is the wrong shape, You will see bumble bees and butterflys because they are suited to it. Honey bees dont like double flowers, -they rarely have nectar. Bees cant see dark red, the
it eyesight is tuned into white and yellow. Did you know that many flowers only give nectar in the morning?
Dont boom off about the chemical companies. They have spent millions developing these chemicals and many more testing them. Millions have been spent in independent research by universities around the world. No-one has yet proven that modern pesticides are killing bees. That’s why the BBKA has never supported a ban. We think these chemicals may have an effect on the bees memory, so they cannot find their way home. But that is just a hypothesis.

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Presumably Colin has direct experience to offer as a beekeeper, something I wholeheartedly welcome in Convos. I think it is inappropriate to suggests he works in the chemical industry simply because he expresses a different point of view. Let’s encourage new people to contribute; we want to expand the commenter base, particularly with knowledgeable contributors. I have been accused of working for a bank when I’ve made positive comments about some topic involving them. Putting points of view and information forward is what Convos are about, whether we agree with them or not.

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No, duncan. I was not commenting in the validity or otherwise of the information. I was wanting to encourage new contributors particularly those with knowledge of the particular topic. It all helps us see the bigger picture. It was interesting what he said about the British Beekeepers Association. I would have thought they would have very strong views on the topic.

Thanks for the links, Duncan. I have had a look through the article in the Journal of Chromatography, which is a highly respected journal that reports analytical methods. It describes techniques for measuring pesticide residues and also other chemicals formed by breakdown of pesticides. Unlike the other article it does not report any studies that would be useful to find out whether the pesticides are harmful to bees or other forms of life.

I think you will find that neo nicitinoids have been proven to affect bees and the EU is banning their use. Insecticides kill insects because that’s what they are designed to do.

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Chris Slade says:
20 May 2018

Bees love Buddleia globosa which produces balls of florets looking like small oranges. The nectar tubes are shorter so bees’ tongues can reach the nectar.

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This reminds me that I want to try growing lavender in a pot. I have tried various locations in my garden and it struggles on before giving up and dying.

Years ago I learned that honey contains pollen grains that can be seen under a microscope after staining. They are quite large and it does not require a good microscope. The different types are fascinating and show what the bees have been feeding on. It might not be what it says on the jar.

Worth a look at this. https://www.buzzaboutbees.net/if-bees-disappear-will-we-starve.html
Perhaps farmers should be encouraged to keep bees on their land, and commercial beekeeping promoted.
An extended ban on controversial neonicotinoid pesticides will be supported by the UK, Environment Secretary Michael Gove says.” 9/11/17.

Buzzfeed 🐝 don’t seem to have caught up yet…… Last post I can find is 2013.

Discussing this today brought out quite a few puns – can’t believe no one here thought of Buzzfeed.

I hope you are keen on puns and humour George. I used to like Patrick’s pathetic puns, which are still there in the early Convos. Maybe someone did not like them. This bee off-topic I realise.

I’ve shamelessly written many Patrick-esque ‘pathetic’ puns in the past, definitely a fan 😉 but you’re right, we must beehave ourselves and stick to the topic.

If you have any water containers in your garden, make sure bees are able to get out.

If the container does not have sloping sides so bees can crawl out, float something in the water that bees can climb on to. Bits of straw or thin pieces of wood will do, otherwise they drown.

I rescued one from my boat recently. After buzzing around for a bit, it obligingly climbed onto the end of my toothbrush and stayed there until I was able to get to the open air. My lavender, too, has a short life. I replace it regularly each season. Bees enjoy the heather hedge when the lavender is struggling.

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A friend frequents garden centres and I asked her to pick up one for me at her next visit. She says she has a surplus in her garden and will let me have one or more plants. I’m going to try planting in pots. I have tried what you have suggested, Duncan, and that’s where the last lavender died. I take your point about not overwatering but in the garden I don’t have much control of the rain. I might attract some bees yet.

As a beekeeper, I can tell you that we are loosing far more honey bee colonies from spring weather than we are from all your repeated favourite things, pesticides etc.
We lost colonies again this year because the bees starved. We had some stunning early warm weather, so the queens laid eggs like crazy (1000/day) then the weather clammed down again, cold and wet So much so, that even when we added feed, they couldn’t reach it. Its horrible when we open a hive and find all the bees wedged in the cells looking for food.
We don’t need to enter your surveys, – we do enough via the British Bee Keepers Association. I don’t know of one bee keeper who complained that pesticides etc was the cause of colony loss.
If you want to help, get the VAT removed from bee feeding and varroa treatment products so we can afford to give better treatment to our bees.
Throughout the summer, you could visit one of the local shows where many associations will have a honey tent. Go to that and support your local beekeeps.

My brother keeps an eye on all the bees in his garden. He’s noticed that there all off to a very slow start this year. He suspect it was most likely due to our strange spring weather.

After all the comments on insecticides it is interesting to get the view of someone with direct knowledge.

I have a farmer pal who’s an apiarist and, since I used to do bee keeping many years ago, lets me help out. I certainly agree that our bizarre spring weather has caused issues; poor little things don’t know whether to get out and start collecting or stay home, snuggled up and cosy.

I enjoy working with bees; its a very peaceful hobby as long as you avoid the Bee line and don’t move rapidly or threateningly. But we also know from local apiarists that CCD is a problem and has been for sometime, and that the bees seem to thrive in urban areas where, of course, neonicotinoids are not routinely used.
But I believe Colin is right; the brief mini-heat wave sent all the wrong signals, and, since it was followed by frosty nights, has done a lot of damage.

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Duncan, do you have any hands-on experience of bee keeping?

If you don’t, then speaking as someone who does (albeit a limited exposure a long while ago), I think you should give more careful consideration to what Colin has actually posted. I don’t think Colin suggested that our British weather was the sole cause of worldwide declines in the bee population.

That said, I think your challenge to his views failed to show the sort of respect that we should all give to someone with relevant hands-on experience. (You certainly seem to expect the latter when topics such as electronics are discussed on here.)

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duncan, links are important to back up comments and allow others to explore the “evidence”. But they may not actually support claims made. If I’ve read wavechange’s response above correctly, one you cited does not show such support. They do form the basis for further discussion though.

That’s right Malcolm. It’s a paper describing a method that others could use to establish which pesticides have been in use. (Sadly its not in an open access journal otherwise you would be able to read the full paper.) I forgot to acknowledge the other article that Duncan has cited. The paper in the Bulletin of Insectology does provide evidence of the impact of neonicotinoids on bees, and that is freely available for us all to read.

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Duncan earlier today you posted “Derek…You seem to think its okay for Colin to make a Sarcastic remark”

I don’t believe I posted words to that effect, I did not intend to, and if you thought I did, then I apologize for having done so.

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The decline in the bee population is a highly emotive subject because it is something that the general public can relate to and at present there is no evidence of any single cause. As with many problems there is likely to be various contributory factors.

From the BBKA website: “In the meantime, the results of the study do nothing to change the BBKA policy which remains ‘ That, until there is convincing independent scientific evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides are not harmful to honey bees, the BBKA will support the continuation of the EU moratorium on their use ’” https://www.bbka.org.uk/News/bbka-position-on-neonicotinoids

Most chemicals that are harmful to one species are to a greater or lesser extent harmful to other species. There are some exceptions. For example some antibiotics kill bacteria by interfering with their cell wall synthesis. Animal cells don’t have cell walls so these antibiotics can be used in humans and other animals. Common sense would therefore suggest that the best approach is to ban neonicotinoids, and the current ban has been extended. BBKA points out: “We need convincing evidence that the position of pollinators will not be worsened if alternative older classes of insecticides are used.” Neonicotinoids were introduced as safer alternatives to organophosphates. With chemical insecticides we are attempting to look for the least bad alternative.

The only really safe pesticides avoid chemicals and use natural predators. Ladybirds killing aphids and hedgehogs eating slugs are familiar examples. This technique of using natural predators is described as biological control and is used very successfully in glasshouses, where the predator is very specific and does not harm beneficial insects etc. We are still a long way from developing safe biological control methods for agricultural use.

At least in our gardens we have the option to avoid pesticides if we can and one way of doing this is to grow plants that are little affected. It’s the same with plant diseases, where varieties less subject to disease can be grown.

On an allied note it appears that a country or countries among Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan are either knowingly or unknowingly emitting the banned CFC-11, responsible for depleting the ozone layer which protects us from harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet-B radiation, including skin cancer, cataracts and a compromised immune system.

This is a example of the difficulty faced by those who think they’re ‘sure’ about what causes issues such as the Bee decline. The world’s industries are constantly developing new chemicals to aid their supremacy in the market, yet the consequences of those chemicals and their potential interactions are rarely fully understood.

I agree, Ian. I think it’s fair to say that the only thing we can be sure about is that the decline in bee population is due to multiple factors. The unusual weather that Colin mentioned will make the colonies more at risk to other factors.

Many chemicals introduced for use in agriculture and by the home gardener have been banned over the years.

“No-one has yet proven that modern pesticides are killing bees”

It is an interesting concept that the test for whether a drug/chemical is ajudged lethal is on an exposure of limited duration and a percentage surviving.

As modern research conclusively shows bees befuddled by relatively low concentrations fail to act normally. Whereas no one expects man to control the weather systems we can expect man to be smart enough not to destroy the linchpins of much agriculture. This might explain the BBKA’s support of the moratorium.

I highly recommend the very readable books of Dr. Goulson who is an expert in the field.

Just to point out that mankind is attacking on another front with chemicals.

” The new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, used machine learning statistical methods to analyse the role of 24 different factors in explaining the decline of four bumblebee species, tracked at 284 sites across 40 US states. These included latitude, elevation, habitat type and damage, human population and pesticide use.

“The ‘winners’ in predicting both nosema prevalence and range contraction were fungicides,” said Scott McArt, at Cornell University in the US and who led the new study. In particular, chlorothalonil, the most used fungicide in the US, was most strongly linked to nosema, while the total fungicide usage was the best predictor of losses of bumblebees.

“I was definitely surprised,” he said. “Fungicides have been largely overlooked.” However, a few lab-based studies have shown that fungicides can make nosema much worse in bees, probably by killing beneficial gut microbes. “We are showing the same thing is happening at the larger scale as people are showing in the lab.”

It may seem ridiculous that fungicides used to treat plant diseases should harm bees but as I explained above, chemicals that are harmful to a problem species are generally harmful to other species. Worse still, they are harmful to beneficial insects and organisms in the soil.

I know little about agriculture but it would make sense to focus on crops that require less use of agrochemicals, including ones with better natural disease resistance.

I moved from the outskirts of a city to a small isolated residential area outside a village, surrounded by fields and with plenty of trees. I see many more birds but noticeably fewer bees and other insects. Since this Convo started I have been looking at a lilac tree covered with blossom and not seen a single bee. In fact the only time I have seen many was when a neighbour spotted bees coming out of the brickwork of a gable end of my house as a result of a missing cavity wall weep vent. They were identified as feral honey bees.

I will keep looking.

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Not exactly decisive, is it?

“Applications of acutely toxic pesticides would be prohibited under certain conditions when bees are most likely to be present. “

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For a lot of information about bees and their vanishing read past issues of Private Eye, they had regular articles about them.

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