Bees and the organic gardener

The humble little bee has become a giant in the fight for the environment.  These buzzy creatures symbolise everything the organic grower fights for to keep our planet healthy, including:
• banning pesticides
• encouraging wildlife
• growing a variety of plants to provide pollen and safe habitats for all our beneficial insects.
 
So how do bees help us?  And how can we celebrate World Bee Day by helping them?
When bees forage for food (nectar and pollen) they are actually helping the plant by transferring the pollen from the male to female parts of the plant – thus ‘pollinating’ it to fertilise the embryo, which will create a fruit or seed. A good example is apple blossom, once pollinated, will set to create a fruit.  Or any flowering vegetable, such as courgettes, beans and peas.  And of course the fruit or vegetable will contain the seed for future generations of plants. 
The pollen itself is a protein for bees, and the nectar a source of sugar for energy.  Honey bees will use this sugar to create honey in their hives.
 
Do all bees make honey? 
No.  The bees that make honey are those which live in colonies (often in man-made hives).  The vast majority of bees are actually solitary bees, which – as their name suggests – do not live in colonies and do not make honey. Think of these bees as being like wild birds; whereas the honey bee, which lives in a hive, is more like a chicken which is kept by humans to collect the eggs.
 
Here are some more bee facts:
• Over 90% of bees in the UK are solitary bees. They are fantastic pollinators: a single red mason solitary bee is equivalent to 120 worker honeybees in the pollination it provides.
• Honey bees have sacs on their legs to collect the pollen and take it back to the hive
• Bumble bees live in colonies, but the small amount of honey they make is used to feed their young. 
• Each honey bee visits up to 100 flowers per foraging trip in a radius of about 4 miles. It takes over 500 foraging bees to visit 2 million flowers to make less than half a kilo of honey.
• When the honey bee gets back to the hive, with pollen sacs full, it will do a ‘waggle dance’ which scientists believe is the way a bee tells its colleagues where the source of pollen is.
• Some bees, such as bumblebees, are capable of vibrating their wing muscles and thorax to create a particular buzz while visiting flowers. These vibrations shake the pollen off the flower's anthers and onto the bee's body.  This "buzz-pollination" is particularly effective in tomatoes, green peppers and blueberries, all of which have tubular anthers with the pollen hidden inside the tube.
• Most bees are not aggressive, and only sting on provocation.
 
Bees are having a tough time.
Modern agricultural practices have deprived them of their habitat, reduced the variety of flowers they can gather pollen from, and introduced dangerous chemicals into their diet. These chemicals, often based on neonicotinoids, can alter a bee’s directional sense, weaken its immune system and radically reduce its fertility.  For more information on neonics see here.
 
So how can we help bees?
As organic gardeners we can do much to help bees.  Growing a variety of blooms will provide the bee with nectar and pollen throughout the year.  Avoiding toxic chemicals will keep bees and other insects safe.  And we can provide suitable areas for bees to nest. 
Here’s how…..
• Plan your planting.  Most bees are active from March to October.  Early flowers such as dandelions, pulmonaria, hellebores, pussy willow and spring blossom provide much needed energy sources.  Summer and autumn blooms loved by bees include lavender, cat mint, comfrey, cosmos and phacelia – plus culinary herbs left to flower, such as marjoram and chives.  Some bees, like the buff tailed bumble bee, don’t hibernate.  They need winter flowers like snowdrops, winter flowering honeysuckle and heather to survive. 
Don’t forget bees like wild flowers too!  Keep some clover and daisies in your lawn.  Leave a flowering thistle or two.
See plants suitable for bees
• There is no need to spray pesticides in your growing area.  The danger lies either in residues left on plants, or in the ‘off target’ effect – this is when you think you might be spraying an aphid, but the spray drifts and affects other insects.  See here for how to cope with pests and diseases without toxic chemicals in the garden 
• Leave some parts of your growing area untidy.  Some solitary bees like to nest in old masonry or hollow twigs. Bumble bee queens hibernate and build their nests underground.  See how to make a bumble bee nest  as well as creating habitats for bees to overwinter.
 
Finally, to celebrate World Bee Day, why not spend some time looking for bees.  This handy guide will help you identify them.