Helping the honeybee

Categories: Expert guidance

Sarah Wyndham Lewis co-founded the sustainable beekeeping practice Bermondsey Street Bees, with her husband Dale Gibson. Sarah speaks and writes extensively on honeybee plantings and, as a ‘honey sommelier’, runs raw honey tastings for chefs and bartenders. Her new book, Planting for Honeybees, was published in February this year. She talks about the important of the honeybee, and offers her guidance on making your garden bee-friendly

What would our shopping lists look like if we lost the honeybee? It’s not just a case of having no honey for our porridge, nor even the loss of most of our fruits, vegetables and pulses—meat and dairy would be largely off the menu too, because so many animals are fed on bee-pollinated crops, from alfalfa to clover and borage. But even that’s just the beginning of our loss.

Bees are right at the heart of biodiversity. Their pollination is crucial to feed and provide habitats for many other important insects, as well as mammals and birds. Hive products such as honey and propolis and many bee-pollinated plants make important contributions to our medical repertory too, as the basis of research into many new drugs, not least for cancer. Beeswax plays a role in countless industrial and artistic processes.

But honeybees are now in decline across most of the world. The reasons behind this are extremely complex. They are assailed by disease, pests and chemicals, abused by commercial pollination programmes (for instance, the production of almonds and avocados) and their natural forage resources are being destroyed by both agricultural practices and urbanisation.

In Britain, the lack of honeybee forage is particularly acute. In the countryside, more than 90 per cent of our heathlands, as well as native broadleaf woodlands and hedgerows, have been lost since the 1930s. In cities, driveways get tarmacked, gardens get decked and apartments get built on any patch of open ground. Not surprisingly, honey yields, recorded over many decades, have taken a nosedive—a key indicator of a loss of honeybee forage and impoverished colonies.

Green-offset policy
In Greater London, every year we lose green space equivalent to two and a half times the area of Hyde Park. This is especially worrying when set against the fact that the density of beehives in London is the greatest anywhere in Europe—possibly in the world. This is clearly not sustainable, which is why my husband Dale and I (at Bermondsey Street Bees) now operate a ‘green-offset’ policy: we will never put new hives into London, for ourselves or for companies we work with, without planting meaningful amounts of forage to feed them and to compensate for their impact on the environment. We hope that more and more beekeepers will follow suit.

In town and in the country, honeybees urgently need more to eat. Unfortunately, in the past few years, there’s been inaccurate messaging around what honeybees are looking for—as a result, most people now think that ‘wildflowers’ are the most important thing to plant for them. Important though wildflowers are to many pollinators, they are not, in fact, the primary source of nutrition for the honeybee. Honeybees evolved as forest dwellers, and the majority of their nutrition still needs to come from the dense flowerings of trees and bushes. This is also to do with the way they feed, on a single species of flower at a time, and the sheer volume of forage they need to gather. Worker bees have to bring an astonishing 50kg of pollen and 250kg of nectar into the hive every year, just to keep the colony alive, let alone to start producing an excess of honey.

So, what can we do? In fact, there are plenty of positive actions that we can take once we understand what the bees really need. These six simple principles of planting for honeybees will inform any plantings—and if you have literally not even a windowsill, then consider volunteering with a local gardening charity and putting bee-friendly plantings into community garden spaces.

Think bushes and trees
Bees are natural tree dwellers and feeders and if space allows, bee-friendly plantings should always start with a framework of durable, perennial forage from bushes and trees. A single lime (linden) tree in flower provides the same amount of forage as half a football pitch of wildflower meadow. A bush is, effectively, a small tree—so if you can’t plant a big tree, choose profusely-flowering, forage-rich bushes instead of annual flowers.

Keep it simple
With shorter tongues than many bumblebees or butterflies, honeybees can’t feed from complex flower structures—showy, highly-bred ornamental flowers often give little or no forage. Generally, stay close to the original, wild or simpler forms of flowers, where nectar and pollen are easily accessible. For example, plant the wild dog rose, instead of densely-petalled show roses.

Bees see blue
The photoreceptors in honeybees’ eyes see from yellow, blue and green right up into the ultraviolet (UV) light scale. This makes blue, violet, purple and white flowers especially attractive to them.

Flower fidelity
Uniquely, honeybees only visit one type of flower in any one foraging trip. This is called ‘flower fidelity’ and is what makes them such effective pollinators. By planting large clumps or ‘drifts’ of single species, you’ll save the bees’ energy and optimise each of their trips.

Four season planting
Although March to September are the key months for honeybees, they will fly whenever the temperature is above 10C, even in the depths of winter. This makes early and late flowering plants especially valuable.

Mow less and love weeds
Many so-called lawn ‘weeds’ provide precious forage. Mow lawns but less often and leave some areas to grow wilder. This encourages useful species to grow, such as daisies, trefoil, clovers and especially dandelions.