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Bees Please!

Bees Please! is an exciting new part of Wild Villages that brings together people’s love of flowering plants and of seeing busy insects buzzing around their gardens (thanks to funding from Tesco Bags of Help). It will show you some simple actions that we all can take that will help boost insect numbers and help ourselves at the same time.

> Why?

Imagine the reaction if the human population dropped by 75% in the space of 30 years. That would be three out of every four people gone. Yet those are the figures from a long-term study on nature reserves in Germany, which show it is happening to insect populations.

The same broad environmental factors are affecting the UK too. There has been a 30% decline every decade in the numbers of British moths, and there is evidence that 70% of UK butterfly species are in decline, with numbers of some populations halving in the last few decades. 

Insects have many, important ecological functions: they pollinate, provide food for many animals, control many other insects we consider pests, and they act as decomposers, clearing up a lot of waste.

The reasons for the decline are undoubtedly very complicated, but there are things that we can do in our gardens and in our communities that will give insects a life-line - providing them with sources of food and shelter. This short guide sets out some simple actions we can all take, as well as providing a brief look at the insects that are likely to be seen.

> What can you do?

The good news is that it is very easy to do something that makes a real difference. Here are a few tips:

  • Leave as much grass uncut as you can. Dandelions are a good source of nectar early in the season and leaving them to flower could be a life-line for newly-emerged insects. 
  • Create a wildflower meadow. Wildflowers flourish on poor soils so seed your meadow on bare earth in autumn or early spring with no fertiliser. Nectar-rich wildflowers are best (see Appendix 1). You’ll need to cut the meadow in the autumn, once the seeds have set, and remove the cuttings.
  • Plant pollinator-friendly plants. Think about what you plant. Even the right choice of vegetable can be important, and herbs can be brilliant for bees (see Appendix 2 for suggestions).
  • Build a Bug Hotel. Just a bundle of cut up bamboo canes will bring in solitary bees. 
  • Reduce your use of pesticides. Or preferably stop using them altogether. They kill the useful insects as well as those you think are a pest.
  • Be less tidy. Save yourself some time and leave parts of your garden untended. What looks like a rough, untidy corner to you is an important sheltering, feeding and nesting area for insects.
  • Take a break and watch the results. Spending five minutes watching the insect visitors to a patch of flowers will not only make you feel a whole lot better, but you’ll also be fascinated about the beauty and variety of those you’ve attracted.   

> What is that insect?

When asked which insects pollinate plants, most people will picture a bumblebee. In fact there are just, a handful of common bumblebee species in our area; most of the pollinating is down to solitary bees, hoverflies and other flies, beetles, wasps, and butterflies and moths. Buglife have produced an excellent guide but in brief:

Bumblebees are always large, robust and hairy. The social bumblebees have rear legs that are adapted to hold pollen in a basket structure. Look out for the closely related cuckoo bumblebees that do not have that structure and which parasitise the nests of the social bumblebees – they can look remarkably similar!

Honeybees and solitary bees come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes across more than 200 species. Honeybees have pollen baskets, like bumblebees, but other solitary bees carry pollen on a brush of hairs on the underside of their abdomen but some, like the yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus sp) are almost hairless and carry the pollen in a crop. Some have long tongues, some short, and it is important to have a range of flowers in your garden to suit all tastes.

Hoverflies are known as flower-flies in America and will be a very common visitor to your garden. They are true-flies in that they only have two wings (in the Order ‘Diptera’, from the Greek for two - ‘di’ and wings – ‘pteron’). They often have large eyes and come in a variety of forms, some of which mimic bumblebees and even hornets! They have a tendency to hover. While hoverflies are frequent visitors, many other true-flies also visit, and pollinate flowers.

Beetles can be identified by the adapted fore-wings that form two hard cases (known as elyctra) over the hind wings, usually meeting neatly over the abdomen. There are over 4,000 species in the UK and they range from the familiar ladybirds to the tiny and obscure.

Wasps are much maligned but there are a couple of species that really bother us. These are the social wasps and, as with bees, they are far outnumbered by the solitary wasps, which come in a dazzling variety of forms and colours.

Butterflies and moths are some of the more obvious visitors to flowers. Butterflies are usually seen during the day but look out for special visitors, like the Hummingbird Hawk-moth, which is a frequent summer visitor to our area.

If you are very keen, you could contribute to the knowledge of these fascinating insects and their relationship to  the plants by undertaking a very simple citizen-science project. The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme is being organised by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. One thread of the scheme involves a simple count of a defined area, which should take no more than 15 minutes. Full details can be found on the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology website.

Have a go and improve your knowledge of both plants and insects while having lots of fun!

> For more information, or if you have any questions, contact Gary Lowe on 07736 132871.

> You can download this page as a handy guide.

> Many thanks to the support from Kew Garden's Grow Wild team.