Save Our Bees: 5 Great Books To Teach you Why and How
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‘To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.’
– Emily Dickinson
It’s a nice thought but unfortunately, the revery alone won’t do.
You have probably come across some scary predictions of how long the human race could survive if all the bees disappeared. Four years is a commonly quoted estimate although others argue that we could survive on the grain and sugar cane crops, for example, which don’t require pollination. Without even entering into a discussion of the vitamin and mineral deficiencies, the soaring cancer rates and limited life expectancy, the questions is this: do we want to live in a world without fruit and vegetables? Can you even imagine having no more L or T in your BLT? No more blueberries in your muffin? No more tomato sauce on your pizza? There is a lot more at stake than your jar of honey.
100 crops provide 90% of the world’s food. Of those, 71 are pollinated by bees*.
If we don’t arrest the steep decline in worldwide bee populations we are in immediate danger of facing higher food prices and greatly diminished variety.
When we think about bees, we usually think about honeybees, species Apis mellifera. Honeybees are termed social bees because they live in hives of up to 80,000 bees working together to support a single Queen bee. Honeybees are an awe-inspiring species. A typical 1lb jar of honey represents about 7,221 hours of bee labour, visiting about 8.7 million flowers.
Honeybees are just a single species of bee.
'Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you...
Above all, send the bees love. Every living thing wants to be loved.’
– Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
There are more than 250 known species of bumble bee. Like honey bees, bumble bees are also social bees. They live in colonies but they don’t make honey. Instead, they store small quantities of nectar in tiny wax pots as emergency rations. This means that a bumble bee colony needs a constant source of nectar and is, in fact, never more than a few days away from starvation. Bumblebees prefer to forage within 1Km of their nest but have been shown to fly more than 5Km in search of food.
The third category of bees, known as solitary bees, make up 95% of the world’s 20,000 known bee species. These bees mate and leave eggs in a nest to overwinter. The parent bees die and the young emerge from the nest in Spring. Some solitary bees make nests by mining holes in the ground. Some, like the leaf-cutter bee, excise circular blankets from rose leaves which they use to line their nests. One species, Osmia aurulenta, will only nest in empty snail shells.
Bees are diverse in behaviour and appearance but they all play a vital role in the food chain and they are all in grave danger. The alarming decline is bee population has resulted from a combination of factors, a perfect storm of homelessness, hunger, sickness, poisoning and climate change.
The expansion of urban and industrial areas, and the rise of intensive farming techniques have reduced the available nesting sites for bees leaving them homeless.
Efficient farming practice and our tendency to tidy-up the landscape has dramatically reduced the availability of wildflowers and flowering hedgerows, thus leaving bees to go hungry.
Pests and diseases are the biggest threat to managed honeybees. Varroa destructor is a parasitic mite which wipes out whole colonies. There are also other invertebrates as well as some bacteria, fungi and viruses which can result in colony collapse.
Pesticides applied to crops reach bees through the pollen and nectar as well as through water, air and soil. There is now scientific evidence that insecticides have a clear, poisoning effect on bee populations.
Climate change has resulted in a mis-match between active bee populations and available sources of nectar. A bumble bee, for example, may emerge from its winter nest early, because of rising temperatures, only to find that her favourite wildflower species has yet to flower. Given the bumblebees meagre emergency ration, she will starve unless she finds nectar quickly.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. This is where we can really do something to make a difference and, even better news, most of what we can do involves doing LESS.
We should mow our lawns LESS frequently, if possible leaving an area or strip of grass un-cut where wildflowers like clover can grow and flower. We should do LESS weeding, letting those bright yellow dandelions shine as beacons to welcome the bees. We should do LESS tidying up, leaving cuttings and wood piles undisturbed over winter as nesting areas. We should use LESS chemical pesticides in our gardens and, ideally, none at all.
The only thing we need MORE of is flowers. If every patio and balcony had some long-flowering herbs like lavender and thyme it would make a big difference to the bees. Bumble bees are quite happy to flit around an urban environment, visiting one garden after another and enjoying a wide variety of flowers.
Spring is the hungriest time for bees, when reserves are running low, so early-flowering shrubs like Viburnum, Ribes and Camelia, perennials like Lungwort , and bulbs like crocuses and bluebells are all a gift, literally a life-saver, to the bees. Later in the season bees will feast on borage, buddleia, catmint and comfrey.
Late-flowering plants, like Echinacea, verbena and common ivy, all help bees to build a good reserve for the winter.
Bees don’t ask for much. They are happy to do the work while we relax with a good book to the tune of their happy humming.
Here are some books for more information and inspiration:
*With credit to the National Biodiversity Data Centre of Ireland, an excellent source of information about bees.