A quote from Elizabeth Lawrence.
Einstein is quoted as saying that without bees to pollinate our food crops humans would die off in just 4 years. Apparently, he didn’t actually say this, but as with many urban myths, there is a logic to the thought that he may have said it; and it’s worth remembering. Bees are some of the tiny creatures that maintain our healthy ecosystem, and keep ‘Life as we know it’ ticking along.
The vast majority of plants we need for food rely on pollination, with almost 90% of the main global crop types being visited by bees: from almonds to vanilla and apples to squashes. Even the cotton plants that produce the threads which make so many of our clothes And soft furnishings. In addition, around 80% of wildflowers in Europe depend largely on bees for pollination.
So it’s not just our countryside that would be far less interesting and beautiful without them. Going back to the misquoted statement which was apparently not from Einstein, there is a very true cautionary message even if the origin of the quote is not so reliable: If bees do die off it is fairly certain that life as we know it will cease with in a short time, and that there will be far fewer humans around, as there will be so much less for them to eat. So a world without bees will probably also be a world with far fewer humans.
We really do rely on these relentless workers for so much more than honey; perhaps without really appreciating it.
Are bees the only pollinators?
No, but the difference is that bees tirelessly gather pollen to stock their nests as food for their young. Other pollinators include flies, wasps, moths, beetles and even some birds, bats and lizards. But these only visit flowers enough to feed themselves, whereas bees gather pollen to stock their nests, and so visit many more flowers, carrying more pollen between them; therefore are the most effective pollinators.
Both the plant and the bees benefit from their ‘symbiotic’ relationship: bees harvesting nectar and pollen, and the plants getting the help they need to reproduce, as their pollen is transferred from one flower / plant to another. Flowers are carefully designed to attract bees: plants compete with one another to be pollinated, as only then can they reproduce.
The bee’s senses are cleverly adapted to colour and scent that are emitted by flowers. Bees can see colours. They prefer to fly to-wards the colours yellow and blue. Remember this when planning planting!
Bees have adaptions to maximise their ability to actually collect nectar and pollen as well. Their bodies carry an electrostatic charge that attracts pollen. Some varieties of bee have particularly long tongues for getting into the centre of flowers such as foxgloves. Bees’ hairs are a notable distinguishing feature, marking them out from similarly marked insects. Their branched hairs, or ‘scopae’ form bristled combs which act as pollen baskets on their legs. Pollen catches onto these bristles and is moved between plants, thereby fertilising, or pollinating them.
Declining bee numbers
There has been much discussion over the past few years about the concern that, globally, bee numbers are in serious decline as they face many threats. From climate change, habitat loss and the use of toxic pesticides among other dangers. Many of the threats to bees share parallels with the threats to trees and woodland, so saving bees goes hand-in-hand with a sustainable approach to farming, gardening, life generally – and saving trees and native species. If the threats posed by our modern life are not brought under control, we could be looking at a future without bees.
Bee tolerant… let it bee if it doesn’t really do any harm.
Pesticide use, commercially and in our own gardens, is a serious danger. When bees land on plants and flowers laden with pesticides both the bee and the whole hive may suffer from the effects of pollution. It’s worth thinking – is the cost of having an aphid free flower, or unblemished cabbage worth it – do we really prize perfect looking food over a pretty well perfectly designed eco system? Changing our mindset, and valuing nature for the co dependent system that it is may be worth considering. Cutting down on pesticide use, and relying more on natural alternatives or simply monitoring and ‘letting it be’, appreciating the wonder of a few ‘bugs’ rather than seeing them as the automatic enemy may leave the bees, and nature more broadly, in a much better state.
The images below show our roses earlier in the year, with a host of aphids having a festival which lasted for several weeks on the buds… no respect for keeping the ‘r’ rate down here! A few years ago, I’d have reached for the bug spray in horror. This year, I’ve enjoyed watching birds feed on the aphids, and indeed watching the aphids themselves. I’ve then enjoyed the best and longest repeating flowering season our roses have ever had!
Life and let live… ‘Let it bee if it doesn’t really do any harm’ is one of my new mottos!
The importance of plant choice: Native Species
The decline of native plant species in our gardens and hedgerows has also had an effect on the balance of our carefully designed, interdependent ecosystem, including reducing bee numbers.
It’s fascinating to learn about ‘bee friendly’ plants. Nurseries have helpfully jumped on the eco-friendly band waggon and happily label relevant plants clearly, marking them out as particularly suitable.
A note of caution, though: plants (or the peat they are grown in) labelled bee, butterfly or wildlife friendly may have been treated with pesticides, potentially including ‘systemics’ or the neo-nicotinoids (a name which literally means “new nicotine-like insecticides”). If so, toxins can remain present in all parts of the plant including the nectar, pollen, leaves, fruit, seeds etc for up to a year. Therefore, although the plant in theory is good for wildlife, the way it has been grown may mean that it could be harmful.
The safest option is to look for organic plants and seeds.
Generally, as bees see blue best, lots of blue / purple flowers are an easy win. Certain varieties produce more pollen and nectar as well, so flowers such as Lavender, Crocus, Poppy, Lilac, Sunflower, and Marigolds are all great choices. I can’t believe the numbers of bees which flock, each day, to the lavender plants I’ve introduced.
Learning from bees
Bees genuinely work together, for the common goals and good of their community or the hive. No competition or jealousy.
Bees protect their hive, their home and their queen at all costs, even to their own life. Diligent, protective, fighters when need be, and selfless. They are also loyal to the areas that they work in, returning year in and out to pollinate plants in their zones.
If you’ve ever had a bouquet of flowers in the house, you may have witnessed a bee tirelessly trying to find a way in through your window. Focused and determined to achieve their goal, trying to overcome any hurdles with buzz but no fuss.
Bees will come back and come back again. At a picnic, a bee may have seen and smelt the jam and, without realising that it is not a flower, will persist in trying to get to it – no matter how much you flap and shout at it! It will only sting as a last – and very final – resort.