I’ve always felt an affinity with bees. Perhaps it’s because my name (Melissa) means ‘honey bee’ in Greek or that I like their hard-working, loyal nature and cute, furry faces. So when I was invited to St Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster for a beekeeping workshop by ‘bee guru’ Camilla Goddard of Capital Bee I jumped at the chance.
Bees in the UK are vanishing at an alarming rate; two species of bumblebee have become extinct since 1940 and wild honey bees are at risk in many parts of the country. Camilla founded Capital Bee in response to this critical shortage of bee colonies in Britain and I went along to find out more.
According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, we’ve lost around 97 per cent of the UK’s flower-rich meadows since the 1930s, which means bees have lost their main source of food and are struggling to survive. Worse than just a honey shortage, many food items such as strawberries, tomatoes, avocado and courgettes would become harder to produce if we lost our bees and would be much more expensive. According to the British Beekeepers Association, a third of the food we eat depends on pollination so this would have a huge impact.
Living smack bang in the middle of the city, I wondered whether there was much I could do to help. Thankfully Camilla, who looks after the hotel’s 300,000 Buckfast honey bees, had some great tips on how each of us can make a big difference:
Try to plant a ‘bee-friendly’ garden
If you have a garden, provide food for bees by planting bee-friendly plants which flower year-round. Bees tend to like purple flowers and you should avoid ornamental plants, such as begonias or pansies, which produce little pollen. Instead, opt for plants rich in pollen or nectar, such as dandelion, horse chestnut, heather, ivy, honeywort, rosemary, lavender, crocus or lime trees. Bees tend to visit only one type of flower per trip so block planting is good as it makes it easier for them.
Buy local honey
Support your local beekeepers by buying local honey where you can. Some people even swear by it as a hay fever remedy!
Steer Clear of Pesticides
Bees can get insecticide poisoning so try to avoid using pesticides in your garden. There are lots of natural ways you can control pests by planting certain plants near to each other.
Take a survey
Help Friends of the Earth with its ‘Great British Bee Count’. Use their smartphone app to help experts collate data on which species of bees are present around the country and build up a better picture of the health of the UK’s bee population.
Ask your MP to back the ban on bee-harming pesticides
Pesticides called neonicotinoids are dangerous for not only bees but butterflies too and, because of this, their use has been restricted across Europe. Yet, in 2015 the Government agreed to let some farmers use them on certain crops. Friends of the Earth is asking people to contact their local MP to stop this from happening again.
Save a Stranded Bee
If you find a stranded bumblebee that seems ‘sleepy’, you can help boost its energy levels by mixing some artificial nectar (half sugar, half warm water poured onto a sponge) for it to eat. Leave the sugary sponge and bee near some flowers to recover.
Get a Bee Saver Kit
By making a donation to Friends of the Earth, you can apply for your own ‘Bee Saver Kit’ which contains a bee guide, British wildflower seeds, a garden planner and a bee ID chart to help you identify the species of bees in your garden.
If you’d like to get more involved you can even become a beekeeper yourself! Enrol in a course or find your local beekeeping association to help get you started. In the US, you can check out various options of getting involved with The American Beekeeping Federation.
Before you get going, you might also be interested to learn three surprising facts about bumblebees…
SMELLY FEET: Bumblebees have ‘smelly’ feet which leave a scent on the flower they’ve been feeding on. This is so other bees know not to bother wasting their energy by landing on that flower, as it won’t have much nectar or pollen left.
SHAKE IT OFF: Bumblebees can do something called ‘buzz pollination’. They hold onto a flower and buzz so that the vibration dislodges pollen which otherwise would have remained stuck inside. This is how tomatoes are pollinated.
DANCE OFF: When a colony needs to find a new home, scouts go out to find the best new pollen sources. On their return, they dance to tell the others directions. The other bees will fly to the site and, if they agree it’s the best location, will join in the dance when they return. Gives a new meaning to a dance off!