The bee

David Chapman

Award-winning nature writer and photographer, David Chapman, on the story behind the headlines about disappearing bees

You probably won’t be surprised that there aren’t many bumblebees around in the garden at the moment. During cold weather they will be tucked out of the way in safe sheltered spots where they can sleep out the worst of the weather.

Their usual routine has been threatened over the last few years by a combination of negative influences which has led to a dramatic decline in their populations. Of the 25 species of bumblebee recently native to Britain three have already become extinct and many of the others are seriously threatened.

It is difficult to be exact about how great the decline of many species of bee has been. It is estimated that bumblebees have declined by something like 60 per cent in the last 40 years. On the other hand it is relatively simple to monitor the population of the honey bee because this is the species which is kept in hives. It is reckoned that honey bees have declined by up to 54 per cent in the 20 years with a marked decline over the last couple of years. Last winter, for example, nearly a fifth of all hives failed to make it through the winter and spring compared to an average failure rate of between 7 per cent and 10 per cent.

It isn’t possible to be specific about the causes of the decline in bees but there are several factors which will probably prove to be of significance:

  • The climate is very important and the last two very poor summers will have had a major impact on numbers. Bees don't fly in the rain, and so are unable to get around to pollinate flowers, fruit and veg. Wild bees have virtually disappeared in the UK.
  • Disease and parasites are taking their toll. The varroa mite for example is a blood-sucking parasite which spreads disease amongst bees; also the Nosema parasite is also attacking bees. These have a more dramatic impact on the populations when honey bees, for example, are restricted to hives in bad weather.
  • The loss of habitat due to greater intensification of agriculture and the use of pesticides and herbicides on the land over the last few decades may have had a major effect.

There has been a lack of funding for research into the decline of the honey bee so now conservationists are highlighting the important role they play in our economy. It is estimated that one third of everything we eat has been pollinated by bees, without bees the agricultural productivity of our farmers would be hit hard. Almost one hundred of our crop plants are pollinated to some extent by bees, some of which include apples, oilseed rape, beans of many types and broccoli. One estimate suggests that bees are worth £1 billion to the UK economy over five years, and somewhere in the region of £35 billion to the world economy.

Rather than thinking in monetary terms I think we should be considering the impact on the well-being of the whole environment. Many species of flower depend upon bees for their pollination so without bees they wouldn’t survive. The loss of those flowers would lead to the demise of any creatures which depend upon them and the effects of their losses would be felt higher up the food chain.

What can we do to help bees?

We can all act to help bees in our gardens. Firstly by planting suitable flowers (both wildflowers and cultivated varieties) from which they can take nectar and pollen. Read our guide to making a bee friendly garden.

Wild Flowers: foxglove; red campion; honeysuckle; lupin; clover; bird’s foot trefoil; knapweed; any of the scabious family; teasel; heather; blackberry; wild marjoram.Garden Flowers: rosemary; hollyhocks; any of the mints; comfrey; lavender; delphinium.

Secondly we can provide them with suitable places to hibernate. Some species of bees hibernate in holes in rotten wood or underground beneath leaf litter. So we can leave log piles for them; allow ivy to grow on dead trees and we can even buy purpose built insect houses for bees and other insects to hibernate in.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.