Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserves Officer Robert Morgan says let’s "bee" more pro-active in helping protect these vital pollinators.

There can be few creatures more recognisable and distinctive as a bee.

They provide us with an important cultural reference to the natural world, perhaps only matched by the butterfly.

Most children grow up being able to instantly recognise the black and yellow stripes and humming buzz of a bee.

Sadly, this is typically learnt from children’s books and television, much more rarely now a result of exploring a flower-rich garden or meadow.

As adults, we tend to hold on to the assumptions we were taught as children; bees make honey and bees-wax, they sting, bumble bees are too heavy to fly, but do anyway, and of course they are better than wasps.

But as with many things, and particularly nature, the truth is far stranger.       

Bees have been in the news a lot recently, and for good reason, as their decline (along with a great many other insect species) has become a worry.

Eastern Daily Press:

The disappearance of worldwide bee populations has prompted the United Nations to instigate a World Bee Day, held on the 20 of May each year.

Bees play a vital role as the primary pollinators of both native plants and agricultural crops.

The day’s main purpose is to raise awareness of the threat to bees from harmful human activities, and there are plenty of those.

Most recently the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides was implicated in their decreasing numbers, as it was shown to effect bees’ ability to forage.

Astonishingly, despite many governments banning it, debate is still on-going and its restricted use continues in the UK.

The other main issue is habitat loss, as native flower meadows are now far and few between.

There is also a trend towards easy to keep gardens, most lack the beds of nectar laden flowers of yesteryear and many ornamental garden centre flowers contain little or no nectar.

Road-side verges, the last refuge of many of our wildflowers, are too often cut down in their prime flowering period.

This has resulted in ‘Nutritional Resource Decline’ effectively meaning bees have to travel further for food, weakening the colony and allowing greater exposure to pathogens and parasites.

As well as honey bees, 270 other bee species can be found in the UK, with an estimated 20,000 worldwide.

They form a group called Hymenoptera that includes ants, wasps and sawflies.

Eastern Daily Press: Tree bumblebee on cherry plum

Bee species often, but not always, live in tight colonies consisting of a queen, workers and male drones.

However, along with the various bumble bee species (and their cleptoparasitic mimic the ‘cuckoo’ bumble bees) there are many other types, some colonial, and some solitary.

Most gardens, churchyards or parks can have several species of leaf-cutter, mason, mining or carpenter bees, all have interesting and varied life cycles and are vital to our eco-system. 

Attracting bees to your garden or local green space can be easy, and although providing a wildflower patch and establishing native trees is important, some thought is required concerning the plants you provide, especially if you are buying bulbs or seeds.

It is essential that they are not dipped in neonicotinoids, or any insecticides, as they do indiscriminate harm to insect life.

It is important to provide a good spread of flowering plants across all seasons, as bees can be active almost all year round, from the first warm days of February, which will see queen bumble bees emerging from hibernation, through to the closing days of November.

It is particularly important in spring and autumn, with flowering trees such as cherry, crab apple, willow and hawthorn attracting a variety of early emerging bee species.

Ivy and honeysuckle play an important part in providing nectar in the autumn for a range of insects, including bees. 

Leaving a patch of ‘weedy’ lawn and providing a small area of bare compacted ground can favour several species of common mining bee, and installing a bee hotel is a great way to boost bee diversity in your garden, as they attract a number of solitary bee species.

Solitary bees find the hollow cavities provided by a bee hotel ideal for laying their eggs in.

The bee will supply a small amount of food, then block the hole with mud, leaving the hatched larvae to feed and grow in the safety of the tube.

Most garden centres sell bee hotels, although they are easy to make, either by binding tubes together, such as bamboo, or by drilling a dozen or so centimetre-wide holes in the flat end of a log.

It is important that your ‘hotel’ is located off the ground and in a sunny spot.

There are a number of very good bee identification guides available that can help you discover carder bees, tree bees, red-tailed and white-tailed bumbles bees as they furtle around your flower beds; spot tawny and ashy mining bees on the bare ground you created, or leaf-cutter and red mason bees in the ‘hotel’ you built.

Wider exploration of an NWT reserve could lead to you discovering the UK’s only ‘oil-collecting’ species, the yellow-loosestrife bee or the bizarrely trousered, pantaloons bee, and if you are really lucky the magnificent violet carpenter bee.

They are all fascinating in behaviour and diverse in form (although they’re not necessarily ‘better than wasps’, but that’s another story).

It is not just our moral duty to ensure they remain healthy and numerous, but as key pollinators, absolutely essential for our wellbeing and the planet’s properly functioning eco-systems.

Call to action

There are a number of things you can do to help bees in your garden or local green space.

  • Select and plant native flowers with a variety of colours and shapes. Different kinds of bee like different kinds of flowers.
  • Plant a group of each flower type together. If you can plant a bed or row of a particular flower, this will attract particular species of bees more easily than scattered plants
  • Avoid insecticides in your bee-friendly garden
  • Create a log pile in a sunny corner, perhaps install a bee hotel or provide a bare patch of compacted ground.
  • In spring, flowering trees such as cherry, crab apple, and hawthorn are important, spring flowers such as daffodils, grape hyacinth, bugle and heather are good for bees too.  
  • In summer, lavender and native scabious, comfrey and foxgloves are full of nectar and fantastic for bees.