Why are bees so important?
Bees play an important role in pollinating crops; about one third of all the food we eat has been pollinated by bees. As well as commercial crops about 50% of wild crops, on which a greater part of wildlife eventually depend, are insect pollinated.
What do bees need?
Plants! Bees and plants are interdependent; bees need food and plants need to be pollinated. Pollen provides protein, essential for the development of bee larvae and nectar is the main source of carbohydrate (sucrose, glucose and fructose) plus vitamins and minerals which is taken back to the hive to process into honey. Bees also need access to a water source for their own metabolism and to maintain the relative humidity of the hive.
When is pollen and nectar most needed?
Bees start emerging at the end of February and need to build themselves up. Early pollen stimulates the queen to lay eggs and it is believed that if bees struggle to find this vital early pollen it will adversely affect the size of the colony later, limiting ability to gather enough nectar to produce stores of honey.
Later in Spring, bees will be out foraging in hedgerows and fields on blackthorn, hawthorn, followed by oilseed rape, field beans and brambles through until June.
The ‘June Gap’ is a time of dearth of flowering plants between spring flowering plants and summer flowering, yet the colony is almost at its peak in numbers so actually need even more pollen and nectar. Herbs and cornfield annual wildflowers are great for filling this gap. Bee colony numbers are high in the summer months and research shows that July and August are the months in which bees are struggling to find nectar so later flowering plants are really important, enabling bees to build up fat and protein reserves to survive winter.
POPPY WITH POLLEN
Plants to attract pollinators
Although as beekeepers we want to do our best for bees, they are not the only pollinating insect, in fact there are over 1500 species of pollinating insect in the UK. These include bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and moths. It is, therefore important to provide a range of plants that will attract many insect friends and improve biodiversity.
There are no hard and fast rules here; flowers and insects have co-evolved and different shapes and sizes will attract different insects. Bees have good colour vision to find flowers and are attracted to blue and purple. They see yellow as blue but cannot see red, although they can spot the yellow pollen centre in a red flower.
Shape is important; simple, open shapes are good; double flowers are mostly inaccessible. Daisy-shaped flowers are all good.
Lipped and tubular flowers that bees can crawl into will all be visited regularly. Umbels, with their flat heads made up of many florets are also popular with many insects.
If you are buying plants in flower from a garden centre, select those you can actually see being visited by bees or butterflies, or look for the Perfect for Pollinators logo.
Bedding plants, such as pelargoniums, busy lizzies and begonias, found in most garden centres are often highly hybridised and don’t produce much nectar at all so are useless for insects and have often been drenched in insecticides. Try instead wallflowers, sweet peas, cosmos, heliotrope or nicotiana – bees love them!
If you would like to receive by email list of suggested Plants for Pollinators, please message via the Contact page.
OTHER INSECT POLLINATORS & PLANTS WHICH ATTRACT BEES
What can we do to help?
Grow more flowers, trees and shrubs and extend the flowering season to include early and late-flowering plants.
Avoid cutting back perennials in autumn, if you can. This will provide homes for overwintering insects and seed heads provide food for birds.
Leave a patch of land to grow wild; plants like stinging nettles and dandelions will provide food sources and breeding places for butterflies and moths.
Cut grass less short and leave for longer between cuts to allow plants to flower. Who says garden lawns have to look like bowling greens!
Think carefully about using chemicals and pesticides. Only use if absolutely necessary or use non-chemical alternatives where possible. In particular, avoid using pesticides on flowering plants or where pollinators are active or nesting.
Diversity leads to stability
The greater range of plants you provide, the greater range of insects and the more diverse and stable will be the food chains which build up, the more birds you will get and the less likely you will be plagued with so-called garden pests. It’s natural pest control. That is what biodiversity is all about.
For more information on Plants for Pollinators please click the link below!
Written by Sarah Algar
Photos by John Perring