The sight of bees buzzing around a garden or meadow is one of the first signs of spring in Britain, and a pleasurable reminder of us living in harmony with nature.
But our bees are in trouble! There are multiple factors putting bee populations at risk in the UK and around the world.
This guide introduces the bees we have in the UK, the threats they are currently facing, and outlines fourteen ways you can help protect them and prevent further decline.
After reading you’ll have a solid understanding of the situation, as well as the motivation and knowledge you need to make a difference!
What types of bee do we have in Britain?
There are over 16,000 types of bee on Earth, ranging in size from the 2mm long meliponines worker bee right up to the Wallace’s giant bee, which has a wingspan of around 6 cm. To put that into perspective, it’s bigger than a standard Jaffa Cake.
About 270 species have been recorded in Britain (and thankfully the Wallace’s giant bee isn’t among them!) Some of our bees are common and familiar, while others are extraordinarily rare. Some species are social – living in colonies – and others live a more solitary existence.
Here are a few of the types you’re most likely to come across, courtesy of The Great British Bee Count Bee identification guide.
Bumblebees are the bees you most commonly see buzzing around in flower beds, parks, and gardens. There are many types which, to the untrained observer, may be quite difficult to distinguish (they are all some variation of black and yellow). They all have slightly different seasons and nesting habits:
- Banded white-tailed bumblebees come out from May to November, and nest in old animal burrows and other similar holes.
- Early bumblebees come out in March to June and also like old burrows and holes.
- Red-tailed black bees come out in April to November, and nest in old burrows or tussocks (lumps of dry grass). Despite the name, they have yellow tails.
- Brown carder bees are around from March to November and nest in tussocks.
- Tree bumblebees come out from March to July and live in above-ground holes (like those you might find in tree trunks).
- Shrill carder bees come out from May to September and nest in tussocks. They are quite rare!
Honeybees are the only type of bee to make the type of honey eaten by humans, which is the end product of the nectar they use for food. Nectar is passed between bees to provide sustenance, and each extracts a bit of the water in the mixture.
Ellen from West Plains Beekeepers Association describes this process in more depth: “as bees transfer nectar from one to another, enzymes are added breaking down the sugar and removing some of the water, but not all of it. More water is removed through evaporation by the nurse bees in the hive before being capped.”
The majority of honeybees live in managed hives, and the most common species – the Western honeybee – is a result of human domestication. It is unusual to find a truly wild honeybee colony.
Mason bees are solitary bees. This means they live alone rather than being part of a colony in a hive. These bees do not produce honey or wax. Here are some types you might encounter in the UK:
- Wool carder bees
- Red mason bees
- Long-horned bees
- Hairy-footed flower bees
- Common mourning bees: This type of bee acts as a parasite for the hairy-footed flower bee, invading their nests and laying eggs in their broods.
- Small scissor bee: This is the smallest bee you’ll find in Britain.
- Leafcutter bees: These critters cut sections from leaves to use as nest-building materials.
There is another set of bees called mining bees. These guys are ground nesters, building their homes underground. Some types to look out for:
- Tawny mining bees: They build mounds at the entrance of their nesting sites.
- Ashy mining bees: Each female has her own nest.
- Orange-tailed mining bees
Then, there are insects that look like bees. Wasps are the most common, but hoverflies and bee flies also fit the bill. Bee flies are a parasite, with the females putting eggs into bee burrows so that their young may eat the collected pollen.
Why do we need bees?
Bees help humans in a bunch of ways. Honeybees make honey – which is obviously delicious – but this is just a side product of all species’ most useful activity: Pollinating plants.
By ferrying pollen between plants while they collect pollen and nectar for food, bees aid reproduction in plants. Pretty much every plant-based food humans eat is naturally tended by bees, including vegetables, oils, spices, and even edible flowers. Bees also pollinate plants that are used for animal fodder, meaning that meat and dairy production would be impacted by a decline in their numbers.
George Monbiot, an environmental journalist who has been reporting on such environmental issues as bee decline for many years, sums up their contribution nicely: “[Bees are] the pollinators without which a vast tract of the plant kingdom, both wild and cultivated, cannot survive.”
What is pollination?
To make seeds, ‘female’ plants need the pollen created by ‘males’. The terms male and female may seem strange when talking about plants, but the way plants reproduce isn’t that different from animals. Pollen created in the ‘male’ plant’s anther is used by the ‘female’ plant’s stigma.
Outside of 50s sci-fi B-movies, though, plants can’t walk. So they need help moving their pollen around. Bees are one of nature’s pollinators, along with the wind, water, birds, insects, and other animals.
The wind scoops pollen out of plants and carries it around, meaning some of it will land on other plants. Bees, birds, and other insects move pollen manually from one plant to another as a byproduct of their own activities. Because bees spend a lot of time moving between flowers, they are very effective pollinators.
Why is pollination important?
Greenpeace sum it up quite nicely: “A third of all our food depends on their pollination. A world without pollinators would be devastating for food production.”
As bee numbers decline and other methods become necessary for pollinating plants, crops dependent on pollinators become more expensive. This has a knock-on effect through human food chains, impacting all sorts of foods.
Bees also play important roles in various ecosystems and food chains, meaning that they are prey for predators. If one element of a food chain reduces in numbers it has upward effects, meaning problems for animals that feed on bees (birds, badgers, skunks, foxes, bears, and mice to name but a few).
What are the risks to British bees?
Sadly, bees are being impacted of the ominously-named Insectaggedon, an observed phenomenon in which 76% of insects have disappeared over the past few decades.
There has been a 40% loss of commercial honeybee populations in the US since 2006, and a 25% loss in Europe since 1985. Britain is not faring any better, unfortunately: 45% of our honeybees have been lost since 2010. Those sobering statistics are taken from a Greenpeace report.
(Note: Lots of the information in this piece comes from Greenpeace. If you’re not familiar with them, they commission studies to gather empirical evidence about environmental issues, then campaign accordingly.)
But where are the bees going?
The same report states the main causes of bee decline as industrial agriculture, parasites and pathogens, and climate change.
“The loss of biodiversity, destruction of habitat and lack of forage due to monocultures and bee-killing pesticides are particular threats for honeybees” it says, before continuing: “It is becoming increasingly evident that some insecticides, at concentrations applied routinely in the current chemical-intensive agriculture system, exert clear, negative effects on the health of pollinators – both individually and at the colony level.”
In short, if things carry on as they are, bees are in trouble.
Let’s look at each in a bit more detail, to see what we’re up against. Take a deep breath, because some of this is quite heavy:
Modern industrial agriculture often relies on the use of pesticides. These chemicals come with daunting names like imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, fipronil, chlorpyriphos, cypermethrin, and deltamethrin. You can tell just by reading that those aren’t friendly.
A report found that “half the colonies exposed to neonicotinoids disappeared in the course of one winter; none of the untreated swarms vanished.” Neonicotinoids include the first three chemicals in the list above, and are used on a huge percentage of crops: Between 2011 and 2014, 100% of corn crops and 40% of soybean crops were treated with the chemical.
Requirements for vast tracts of farmland also leads to the destruction of natural habitats, including grassland and woodland. When these areas naturally provide bees with a place to live, their destruction for farming means that bees are forced to live elsewhere.
Parasites and pathogens
The ability of bees – individual and collective – to resist parasites and pathogens decreases when they are under stress. The type of stress caused by having their natural habitats destroyed, incidentally.
The University of Western Australia’s Centre for Integrative Bee Research (CIBER) investigated how one fungal parasite – Nosema apis – affected bees, and found that infection reduced flight time and, by extension, the range of distance within which plants could be pollinated.
There are more parasites, too:
- Varroa mites: These creatures, which look a bit like ticks, infiltrate broods of bee colonies – the area where eggs and developing young are kept. The mite lays its own eggs amongst the brood, while feeding on the developing bees. Varroa infestation can destroy a colony within 1-2 years if no action is taken.
- Tracheal mites infest the trachea (or windpipe) of adult bees, where they live, breed, and feed on the hemolymph (a fluid that plays a similar role to blood in humans). This infestation eventually results in the bee’s death due to disruption with oxygen exchange.
Further destruction of habitats is caused by climate change. A 2015 study found that bee habitats have shrunk by nearly 200 miles in North America and Europe.
Changing temperatures also leads to slight variations in the usual seasonal timings of plants producing pollen. This disruption in natural rhythms impacts bees and can negatively affect their health.
Parasites that harm bees seem to prefer warmer temperatures, so any rise in temperature attributed to climate change has the knock-on effect of making parasites more hardy.
It seems climate change exacerbates all the issues already facing bees.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is just as alarming as it sounds, is one example of the outcome of the stressors mentioned here. When a colony is affected, the worker bees suddenly abandon the queen and the hive. There is no agreed cause for this phenomenon, but the list of possibilities includes some familiar names:
- Infections with Varroa mites
- Malnutrition from loss of habitat
- Various pathogens
- Genetic factors
- Loss of habitat
- Changing beekeeping practices
- Or, “a combination of factors”
What can be done?
While it may look like bees are up against it from all angles, it’s not all doom and gloom. Far from it.
This section of our article introduces 14 ways you can help bees. Some suggestions are immediate, others are more long term; so have a read through and see which ones you like the look of.
There are benefits for everyone involved: We get to have nice plants, healthy food, and to feel like we’re making a positive impact on the environment. The bees get to have safe places to do their thing, and to be exposed to fewer harmful pesticides.
1. Don’t panic!
This is an important first step. Use the energy as motivation to do something constructive instead.
There are lots of examples of humans coming together to nip environmental problems in the bud, or to make meaningful change quickly. The Montreal Protocol is an international agreement to ban CFCs that helped prevent further damage to the ozone layer, which has since seen good recovery. Charging people for carrier bags reduced the amount of bags in circulation by around 80% according to government analysis, that’s over six billion fewer bags. Now the trashtag is starting to gain traction, with people picking up as much rubbish as possible from their local area for social media bragging rights.
2 If you see a bee, don’t squash it
Just let it go about its business and it will soon leave you alone. Obviously this isn’t going to contribute much to their wider decline, but every little helps.
Some of the threats currently facing bees (and other insects) come from a position of humans not acknowledging or respecting their right to exist or – more cynically – the valuable roles they play for us. A cultural shift toward making decisions that do not actively harm bees and other creatures starts with small steps!
If other people – especially children – see you let bees be, they are less likely to be seen as threats. It’s easier to be concerned about the declining numbers of a creature you see as friendly, helpful, and perhaps even cute (for proof of this, just take a look at the list of animals available for adoption through the WWF). This attitude trickles down from adults to children.
3. Let your garden grow wild
There are some quick and easy things you can do to make your own garden more appealing for bees, giving them somewhere safe to go about their business.
One way to do this is to swap your perfectly manicured lawn for something more natural: Let your grass grow, and let some wildflowers take hold. Clover, thyme, and dandelions are particular bee favourites.
Put away the weed killer, mow the lawn less frequently, and have a natural sprinkling of colour in your garden: It doesn’t sound too bad to us!
4. Plant flowers that bees like
If you want to give bees more incentive to visit your garden, the Royal Horticultural Society has several lists of plants that, when planted, will attract bees and other insects into your garden. These are hand-picked selections based on “scientific evidence, [their] extensive experience, and the records of gardeners and beekeepers.”
There are three lists, each broken down into different categories to give you a really good idea of what to plant, and where and when to plant it:
- Garden plants: This list is broken down into seasons, with categories for winter, spring, summer, and autumn. Some of the more exciting-sounding plants on this list include Spanish traveller’s joy, Sargent’s crabapple, bottlebrush buckeye, and tansy-leaf aster.
- Wildflowers: This list is broken down into types of ground, with categories for short grass; hedges, shrub borders, and woodland edges; disturbed ground; flower beds; long grass (above 50cm); medium height grass (up to 50cm); ponds, pond margins, and wet soils; and shingle / gravel garden. On this list you can find such names as water plantain, Jacob’s ladder, bogbean, hound’s tongue, and pignut.
- Plants of the world: This list is broken down by plant regions, with categories for UK native plants, Northern Hemisphere plants, and Southern Hemisphere plants. Expect to see such favourites as blue eryngo, Mediterranean spurge, slender vervain, hebe, and love-in-a-mist.
Different bees are attracted to different types of flower, so if you’re really keen you can figure out the ideal list of plants to attract the bees you’re most interested in seeing. The Friends of the Earth bee identification guide has more information on this. You can also check out some of the best plants to help pollinators in the Bios Urn guide.
This step has the added extra benefit of improving your gardening credentials, and making your garden pop just that little bit harder.
5. Build a bee hotel
This type of hotel doesn’t require any construction, planning permission, or licensing. Just some wood, a couple of tools, and a free afternoon.
Making a bee hotel is easy – you can find instructions here – and it’s a great activity for teaching kids about the importance of bees. The finished hotel doesn’t need to be as big as the one in the picture, either. They work just as well in shoebox-size.
Attracting a few extra bees to your garden might not feel like much, but it contributes to momentum. In the same way that drinking soya milk didn’t feel like much, but now there are multiple shelves of non-dairy milks available in supermarkets.
These things take time. People will ask questions about your plants or your bee hotel and you can use this as an unobtrusive way to spread the word.
6. Get a beesaver kit from Friends of the Earth
If you donate to Friends of the Earth they will send you a beesaver kit, which includes the following:
- Wildflower seeds to attract bees to your garden, as detailed above.
- A garden planner that tells you which plants to grow in each month, so you can have a bee-friendly garden all year round.
- A bee spotter guide to help you identify the new bees that visit your garden.
- A step-by-step guide with tips on how to protect bees.
- Bee postcards to send to friends and family: A nice gift, and it helps raise awareness!
This makes a great present for kids, especially the bee spotter guide: Remember collecting bugs when you were younger? The mild thrill of finding creepy crawlies in your garden is something that every generation should be able to enjoy.
7. Join a beekeeping club
Many beekeeping clubs offer introductory courses or taster sessions, where you can learn about how to safely keep bees. When you visit the apiary – yard where bees and hives are kept – you’ll get a great insight into how honeybees do their thing.
Tending bees under the instruction of an experienced beekeeper means you won’t get stung, and that you can have questions answered by someone who knows their stuff.
8. Get rid of beehives without calling the exterminators
Not many people want to be directly responsible for a beehive, especially if it’s one that bees have built in your house without permission. The traditional way to get rid of such hives is to give the pest control people a call, but there are other ways!
Calling a local beekeeper to ask them to remove the hive is one such option. This is a great win-win-win situation: You benefit from not having bees, the beekeeper benefits from having more bees, and the bees benefit from not being killed.
9. Buy organic
Organic farming uses different practices to intensive farming, many of which are actively helpful for bees. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements defines organic as “a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people”, and one that “relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects”.
The adverse effects include those outlined earlier in the ‘Industrial agriculture’ section.
10. Sign petitions
It may seem futile, but the government are obliged to respond to petitions hosted on the government website that receive over 10,000 signatures, and to consider debating those that receive over 100,000.
Petitions contribute to awareness, too. When you see one on social media, even if you don’t sign it brings the issue to your mind. Sometimes local or even national newspapers cover petitions that are gaining a lot of traction.
Greenpeace are running a Save the Bees petition that you can sign here.
11. Campaign directly
If you feel strongly, you can campaign directly for things like ecological farming.
Removing pesticides doesn’t reduce the effectiveness of farming, either. In an article George Monbiot says of pesticides that “their advantages vanish in the face of more sophisticated methods such as integrated pest management.” The sentiment is also backed by a UN report, and an article in Nature, one of the worlds most prominent journals, that found yields would increase without pesticides.
12. Support charities and organisations
If you don’t have the energy or resource to campaign directly, you can support charities and organisations who can do it on your behalf.
The SOS Bees campaign by Greenpeace wants to ban the use of bee-harming pesticides, support and promote agricultural practices that benefit pollination service within agriculture systems, improve conservation of natural and semi-natural habitats, and increase funding for research development and application of ecological farming practices
Friends of the Earth have multiple plans to help bee populations.
The Soil Association want to support sustainable farming practices, ones that would have less negative impact on bees and their habitats.
13. Spread the word
A lot of people don’t know about the existential threat to bees -so spread the word! Knowledge is power, and conversation is a great way to spread it.
If you come across somebody who thinks it’s not “financially viable” to save the bees, tell them that the economic value of their activity has been estimated around € 265 billion annually (source http://sos-bees.org/situation/).
14. Reassure people
Often the people who do are worried or panicked. Show them this piece and let them know there are positive steps that can be taken.
The next section of this guide is especially relevant for this.
Examples of effective action to protect bees
A recent petition in Bavaria, Germany, forced the government to implement policies commiting to protecting bees.
This page on the SOS Bees campaign by Greenpeace outlines 23 solutions being implemented in countries across Europe, including:
- Insecticide-free methods of reducing beetle counts on crops, to reduce reliance on pesticides.
- The use of permaculture practices to create more bee-friendly farming.
- Analysis of soils to determine the amount of fertiliser required, to reduce unnecessary soil damage.
- Cultivation of oranges and lemons, which are attractive to bees.
Some people claim that the threat to bees has gone. This contradicts the majority of research we’ve read, and the sources given by people making this claim usually don’t hold up to as much scrutiny as names like The Royal Horticultural Society, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the journal Nature, and so on.
That’s not to say they’re wrong, necessarily, just that we don’t think the risk has disappeared. And even if bee numbers are recovering, all of the things we’ve written about have other benefits for humans, too. Ecological farming is more resilient and less harmful to animals and ecosystems. Planting more – and more varied – flowers in your garden is nice.
Together we can – and will! – save the bees.