As you sit in your shed with a welcome cup of tea after a tough session on the allotment, you might spare a thought for the humble bee. These days, bees are having it pretty tough and their numbers are falling dramatically. What has this got to do with you, you may ask? Well, bees play a crucial role in the natural world and without them it would be a very different place.

The role of bees

The importance of bees cannot be underestimated. They are pollinators and, as such, make an important contribution to the natural reproduction of plants and crops; meaning they are a vital link in the food chain. Without bees, about one third of the food we eat would not be available. In fact, about 70 crops in Britain depend on or benefit from the attention of bees.

Bees also pollinate the flowers of many plants that are used to feed farm animals. It is estimated that the value of bees to commercial crops in Britain is over £200 million a year, with wild bees rather than honey bees thought to perform the lion’s share of the work.

The threat to bees

Bees are in danger of disappearing; their numbers have been drastically reduced in recent years. The causes are both natural and man-made:

  • Natural causes – one of the biggest threats facing bees is the varroa mite that feeds off the bodily fluids of honey bees at all stages of its life and carries viruses that leads to deformities in bees. Prolonged cold weather also affects food sources leading to the starvation of bees.
  • Man-made causes – Use of pesticides is thought to be a major factor contributing to the reduction in the bee population. Most dangerous is the neonicotinoid group. Since the 1990s, it has been increasingly used in commercial applications and is available to the public in over 25 insecticide products. New farming practices and human development are also disturbing and destroying bee habitats.

How you can help bees

Bees need everyone’s help to survive. You can play your part in a number of ways.

Plant bee friendly crops

Just like you, bees have their preferences. Some vegetables and fruits are high on their list of their favourites, but a few flowers will help the bees without taking too much ground away from your food crops.

Bees are particularly fond of herbs, so if you include chives, thyme, borage, oregano or basil on your allotment then you can expect them to pay a visit. They also love fennel after it has gone to seed. Planting borage in tandem with strawberries will also improve your strawberry crop.

Your normal vegetable crops will also benefit bees. Onions, carrots, runner and broad beans, turnips, peas, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes are among the most valuable. Common fruits also attract bees. Apples, apricots, blackberries, cherries, peaches, plums and strawberries are all reasonably easy to grow and are all popular with bees.

Affording some space to flowers will be of special value, not only for helping bees but also for keeping harmful insects and bugs at bay. For example, bees love marigolds, which also attract predatory insects like hoverflies. Similarly, chamomile is a bee favourite. Like marigolds, it attracts predatory insects but has the added benefit that you can make a tasty herbal tea from its flowers.

Cut down on pesticides

Pesticides, particularly the neonicotinoid group, are highly toxic to bees. Applied as a seed coating or sprayed on foliage, neonicotinoids control aphids, leaf-eating beetles and root-eating grubs. They are absorbed by the plant and reach all parts, remaining toxic for weeks after application. These toxins can remain in the soil and be taken up by untreated crops up to two years after initial application. Worse, some of their breakdown products are even more toxic to bees.

Bees ingest the toxins by mouth or contact. Even though each exposure might only be a low, non-fatal amount, repeated exposure can be devastating. They reduce the bee’s immunity making them susceptible to parasites and disease. Once infected, a bee can influence the whole hive with drastic effects.

To help the bees, you should cut down on your use of pesticides and avoid the neonicotinoid group as much as possible. This does not mean that you have to allow harmful insects to run riot. Many plants attract predatory insects, harmless to your crops but lethal for pests: marigolds, chamomile, poached eggplant and parsley are among the most effective. If you have blackfly, nasturtiums are very useful as they will attract blackfly away from your crops.

Spread the word

Among the most important things you can do to save the bees is to learn all about them and spread the word among your fellow allotment holders. Have a chat with them when the opportunity arises or put a poster up on your shed; use every opportunity to promote the welfare of bees. The more people you can educate, the better for the bees.

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