The summer that I turned 6 there were bees living under the floor of the wooden garage in the back garden of the house I grew up in. I can remember it so clearly. It was a proper, old fashioned garage, that would never been big enough for a modern car, but might have had enough space for a Sunbeam Talbot or a wooden paneled Morris Traveller. Built with the house in the late 1930s, it was a relic of a time when people kept everything that might have been useful, out of sight in the shed at the bottom of the garden. There was a dusty, cobweb laced net at the window. A brightly coloured wooden swing hung from one of the roof timbers. Rows of shelves with half empty tins of paint and rusting tools that had belonged to Mrs Lavery, who had lived there before us, sat gathering dust, adorned with spiderwebs and stray feathers. I’m fairly certain there were birds nesting in the roof. It was a really quiet, still space. The sort of space where you could imagine time standing still. The entrance to the bees nest was a gap in the floorboard over the threshold, just where the afternoon sun would stream in, and if I close my eyes, I can see the dust, dancing like fairy magic, and the shafts of light warming the floorboards, and the bees below. The shed is long gone now, but somewhere there, in the echoes of that space, my 6 year old self is sitting on the swing, the toes of my black patent leather school shoes only just touching the wooden floorboards, and watching with absolute fascination, a memory of bees coming and going about their business, their busy wings and gentle humming a meditation.
In Celtic mythology, bees were believed to carry messages between the human and spirit worlds, bestowing ancient wisdom on those they chose to live alongside. In Scotland, and perhaps elsewhere too, there is an old tradition of “telling the bees”. Imparting family knowledge, day to day business, and events of great significance to the resident colony meant the news would be spread far and wide, and kept the winged visitors in good spirits. In the Scottish folklore handed down through the generations, bees have always been welcomed.
So imagine our delight when this week we discovered that a family of Tree Bumblebees (Bombus Hypnorum) have decided to make their home in our garden. Smallest and I have already introduced ourselves to them, as is customary, and told them how welcome they are to stay. It’s so beautiful to see the same enchantment in my children’s faces, as they watch bees coming and going, that I felt all those very many years ago. Bees have always been a favorite in our family, and many over the years have been revived with sweet water to live another day. But these new additions to our garden have brought with them much to talk about! We have talked about collective nouns for bees, and discovered there are so many! From my favorite, which is a charm of bees, to an erst, a cluster, a hive, a swarm, a rabble, a grist and perhaps most appropriate, a hum of bees. We have discovered that Tree Bumblebees are not native, arriving in the UK a roughly 20 years or so ago, and that they have a tendency to make their homes in abandoned bird boxes, as is the case with our nesting colony. We are also hoping to find out what flowers they like, so we can plant more for them. We are hoping they come back again next year.
Whilst it is wonderful to see bees nesting so close to our back door, they are a daily reminder of the plight of bee species across the UK, with so many in decline. Habitat loss, toxic pesticides, disease and of course the impact of the climate crisis all contribute. In the last 60 years, more than 90% of the UK’s wildflower meadows have been lost, and along with changes in the use of land, including infringement of green belt land for urban use, destruction of hedgerows, the use of neonicotinoids and the impact of seasonal disruption to blossom, it is clear that the impact on bee populations has been devastating.
As if to prove the point, today we were in a local nature park, meeting home ed friends and enjoying the sunshine. I wanted to take some photographs for this blog post, specifically of bees on flowers. We were there for almost 4 hours, under trees in bloom, beside flowering rhododendron, magnolia, a bank of aquilegia and allium. I saw a handful of bees, but nowhere near the volume I was expecting. The stillness in a place where you would expect to see lots of bee activity was overwhelming.
The stark reality of a planet without pollinators is too difficult for many of us to really process. The impact on the human population will be astronomical. 75% of the world’s food crops depend at least in part on pollination, by insects such as bees. And the insects are dying in their millions. To save these vital species is to save, in part, ourselves. Because without them, we’re as good as dead too.
I can close my eyes and remember watching the bees of my childhood, flying in and out of a crack in the floor. I can walk out of my back door right now, and watch them foraging in the blossom of our apple tree. While there is still time, I can engage my children to do what we can to support our local bee populations, planting the flowers that will sustain them, and providing habitats for them to build their colonies. My grandchildren, and their children, may never have that privilege.
How you can help wild bee populations
The most important thing we can all do, is plant bee friendly plants, in a bee friendly way. The wild meadow look is very romantic and you can buy packets of random wild flowers to cast about your lawn, but in reality, bees like blocks of flowers – it helps them conserve their energy to have a bank of flowers they like all in one place. Have you ever noticed that when bees are foraging they will visit a single species of flower over and over again? Having lots of differing types of flower all mixed in together makes life harder for bees. My top tip is wild Oregano – our front garden is full of it, it’s hardy and will come back year after year with only the bare minimum of tending to. When it’s in bloom, it’s covered in happy bees too. Dandelions are great early sources of pollen and nectar in Spring, and lavender, thyme and heather all bring the bees out to forage in our garden.
Providing habitats is important. A bird box, a solitary bee hotel, letting hedges and grass go uncut for a while, leaving the edges of your garden to go a little wild, and planting native wild flowers all helps. Writing to your local council to ask them to leave grass verges uncut during the summer months, and to cease use of weedkiller in public spaces is something we will be doing – perhaps you could do this too? A quick email, a handwritten letter from your kids, or maybe if you’re a teacher, from the whole school?
You can get a bee saver kit from friends of The Earth by following this link to give you more support and ideas, as well as useful info on identifying your local bee populations.
One thing is for sure – the decline of the bees is happening because of human activity. And we need to work together to reverse it. Our survival depends upon theirs.
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