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Honey Bees Need You

Honey Bees Need You

Einstein said ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man’. So how many bees have you seen in your garden this year?

Probably if you think back to just a few years ago it will seem gardens positively hummed with bees from spring to autumn but today this is rarely the case. It has been well reported that bees are in a dramatic decline and latest figures from the British Beekeepers’ Association suggest that nearly 20% of the UK’s honey bees died last winter. This may sound disastrous but is actually an improvement over figures for 2007/08 when just over 30% were lost.

Tim Lovett, President of the BBKA, makes the point that ‘similar losses of livestock in other areas of farming such as beef or dairy sectors would be rightly seen as disastrous with dramatic effects on food prices’. Bees are just as important to our food supplies as animals. Without them plant pollination would be seriously affected and would result in shortages of food for both humans and animals with estimates that one third of human food supplies depend on bee pollination. In 2007, Lord Rooker, then a DEFRA Minister, said ‘the UK honey bee population could be wiped out in 10 years’, and this phenomenon is not just confined to the UK, it is happening worldwide.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was first identified in California in 2006 and is differentiated from other mass bee die-offs by the sudden loss of the entire bee colony with seemingly healthy bees abandoning their hives. No dead bees are found and the colony never returns. Strangely no other insects are interested in taking up residence in the empty hive.

Possible Causes of CCD

There is an aon-going debate amongst experts, as to the causes of this problem. The Soil Association believe there is a strong case for banning the use of a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids that were first used in the mid 1990s which is when the first bee disappearances occurred. It is thought the chemicals damage critical parts of the bee nervous systems, impairing their ability to communicate, find their way home and fight infections. Several European countries have already banned these substances including France and Germany. The French ban came into effect in 1999, five years after the first use of the chemicals in 1994. In 1996 French beekeepers reported that a third of their bee colonies had been lost but by 2006/07 the losses were down to a more manageable 10%.

Yet not everyone agrees with this belief. The UK Government and the BBKA regard the most likely causes to be either a new resistant strain of varroa mite, a new virus or a fungal infection caused by lowered immunity and a small gene pool or a combination of any/all. However it could be said there is a problem with the impartiality of the BBKA as it is funded by Bayer who are the manufacturers of neonicotinoids. Many beekeepers feel having a dialog with a pesticide manufacturer is acceptable but that taking money from them is not.

It is to be hoped that more light may be shed on the reality of the situation following the decision of the US Natural Resources Defence Council in 2008 to file a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency to uncover important information that the US government is withholding about the risks posed by pesticides to honey bees. In 2003 Bayer was granted a registration to a new pesticide on the condition that it submit studies about its products’ impact on bees. However EPA has so far refused to disclose the results or acknowledged that they have even been submitted. An outcome of this lawsuit is still pending.

The latest research published August 2009 in the US scientific journal PNAS made use of new breakthrough in gene research and suggests a possible cause may be multiple viruses affecting the bees at the same time resulting in problems with their protein production.

What We Can Do To Help

Rudbeckia fulgida Goldsturm

Whatever the cause, our UK honey bee needs all the help it can get and designers can help by encouraging their clients to include plants in their gardens that benefit bees the most. Very often, apart from a few likes and dislikes, clients are happy to have the majority of plants chosen for them, therefore giving designers a great opportunity to try and make a difference.

There are three main factors to consider when choosing plants for bees: firstly choose single-flowered varieties as bees ignore plants with double flowers; secondly choose a range of plants that will provide nectar and/or pollen from March to October when bees are most active; finally use large clumps annuals and herbaceous perennials to help bees find them more easily, so conserving vital energy.

As a general rule of thumb choose plants from the Allium family, along with mints, beans and flowering herbs. Daisy-shaped flowers are particularly popular with bees so consider plants such as Asters, Sunflowers, Rudbeckia and Echinacea and bees will find many tall plants irrisitable like Hollyhocks, Larkspur and Foxgloves. See suggested links below for more detailed plant information.

Where there is room, consideration at the planning stage could also be given for the inclusion of hives. If the client is interested in looking after the bees themselves that is great, alternatively the local beekeeping association would be only too happy to try and match the owner with a beekeeper looking for a site. For those who wish to grow vegetables, having a beehive close by would be very beneficial, hopefully resulting in improved crops of peas, beans, fruit etc.

Useful Links

If you would like to see the use of neonicotinoids in the UK banned, visit http://apps.soilassociation.org/Bees/Register.aspx and add your name to their petition to encourage the government to put a ban in place.

For a comprehensive list of bee-friendly plants see: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Learning/Research/biodiversity/plantsforbees.htm

Also the BBKA produce leaflets on bee-friendly trees and shrubs that can be found at http://www.britishbee.org.uk/information_leaflets.php

The BBKA sponsored a show garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2009. The garden, designed by Phillipa O’Brien, included 10 trees that can provide pollen and nectar from the end of February to September. For a list of these plants see http://www.britishbee.org.uk/news/current_news/bees-need-gardeners.shtml

© Sharon Brown 4th September 2009

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