To bee or not to bee

Where reading material is concerned I’ve been in the mood for fiction of late so the copy of Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s Dancing With Bees, which I picked up in a charity shop, has been completely neglected for several weeks. Not any more! This has to be the most enchanting and fascinating book I have read in a long, long time and I am enjoying it so much that I am rationing myself to a few pages at a time as I really don’t want it to end. I’m glad I paid a generous price for it, too, since it won’t be going back for re-sale; like other treasured tomes on my shelf, I suspect I will be reading this one several times over. I’m not new to the world of bee love ~ my chosen WordPress profile picture features a beautiful bumble climbing into a Japanese quince flower, after all ~ but I am beginning to look at them through very different and extra-enthusiastic eyes.

There is so much in this book that resonates deeply with me that it could almost have been written for me. It arose from Brigit’s awareness that she had somehow lost the connection with nature that had been very profound in her childhood and studying wild bees has been a way for her to renew that lapsed relationship. I haven’t lost my connection with nature (far from it, in fact) but I am the first to admit that despite spending a large part of my time outdoors and immersed in the garden or coppice, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to identifying and identifying with much of the life around me. As a teacher in a rural primary school, I was saddened to find how few children in my class could name or recognise more than a handful of garden birds; however, there are 24 (or 25 depending on who you talk to) species of bumblebee in the UK and 44 species in France . . . and I’m not sure how many of those I could identify with complete certainty. I have no problem distinguishing between honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees, or telling bees apart from wasps which I know some people can find tricky; I also have a reasonable idea about their different social set-ups, nesting behaviour and foraging preferences but when I analyse my knowledge honestly, it’s all very generic. There is so much I don’t know, which is fine because I love learning. There’s certainly a lot to do.

It’s not that I’m not interested, engaged or observant. Quite the opposite, in fact; I would say it’s a rare day that I achieve everything I set out to do in the garden, such is my habit of being distracted by the life forms around me. Trust me, once that new pond is established and teeming with life, whole days will be lost! I was absurdly excited last year to find horned bees in the garden and some of my most absorbing moments were spent watching a solitary bee building tiny nests in the wooden handles of tools hanging in the Love Shack. Of course, there’s a lot more out there than bees and anything that catches my eye or imagination presents itself as a worthy excuse to down tools, grab the camera and observe.

I enjoy a bit of research so whenever I see something I don’t recognise, I’m happy to spend time identifying them and then reading up about them. The problem is retaining the information and then building on it, instead of ticking the box and moving on in a sort of mental ‘Eye Spy’ book way. Take carpenter bees, for instance, a species I came across for the first time when we moved to this area over ten years ago. I was totally captivated by their size and noise, their shiny black metallic armour and stunning bluey-purple gauzy wings, their restless habit and busy movements . . . and more than a little horrified when an initial internet search threw up far too many sites about how to destroy them. I love to see them in the garden but capturing them with the camera is always a challenge; I spent half an hour one day last summer trying to get a decent photo of a bee in the sweet peas (my inner colour nerd thought the combination was perfect). Sadly, my energetic subject had other ideas although I finally managed a shot in a patch of phacelia a few days later.

Half an hour of observations . . . but what do I know about these incredible creatures, without cheating and looking them up again? Well, what I think I know is that they are solitary bees, that the females are all black and the males have yellow on their face, that they like to nest in holes in wood hence the ‘carpenter’ bit (this is a habit which gets them a bad name as people fear their domestic wooden structures will be undermined), the female can sting but rarely does, the male can’t sting but can display aggressive behaviour in defending the nest. That’s pretty much it and I admit it’s really nowhere near enough, and even worse, might also be incorrect; even just writing this paragraph, I realise that the bee in the photo above is different to the others I’ve seen here before and in our Asturian garden because its wings are brown, not the startling blue that originally captured my attention. Have I been glibly referring to everything similar as carpenter bees without bothering to distinguish between different family members? As for what I don’t know about them, the list is a long one and I already have many questions to answer.

I don’t want to become an ‘expert’ or bee bore and I have no intention of going around quoting Latin or Greek, although binomial nomenclature is helpful in distinguishing between different species . . . and I must confess, I do quite like the word bombus (I think the photo above is of bombus lapidarius, the red-tailed bumblebee, but please don’t take my word for it). My plan is to become properly curious about the creatures we share our patch of earth with, to start with more focused observation and take it from there. No more stopping once I’ve taken a photograph and watched it for a bit, I need to climb inside the life of each one and search out the answers to many questions. Take the bee in the picture above, for example:

  • Am I right with my identification? Is it common, rare, endangered . . ?
  • Is it a queen, worker or male?
  • Where is it nesting? What are the preferred nesting sites/materials? (Follow it and see . . .)
  • How many bees are there in the colony at any particular time of year? I know bumblebee queens are the only ones to survive winter, but when does the first brood hatch? What size will the colony be at its maximum (and when)? Do all the bees live together or do the males live separately?
  • Are there interesting behaviours typical of this species?
  • What is its preferred forage? Are these leek flowers typical /a good source of food? Is it taking nectar, pollen or both?
  • What are its main predators?

Such questions are, of course, just a starting point and an example of how I’m planning to frame my investigations; I’m quite excited about spending time trailing these creatures round like some kind of zoological sleuth! More than anything else, I need to give myself time to stop and stare and wonder. I used the photo above a couple of blog posts ago and I’m as certain as I can be that it’s a buff-tailed (bombus terrestris) bumblebee queen; as I decided to focus on a single bee, what isn’t obvious from the picture is that there were at least half a dozen all feeding on that single heather plant. What a fascinating sight, those large velvety matrons, newly-emerged from their hibernation and feeding up in preparation for the busy breeding season to come. How I wish I’d taken a break from whatever I was doing in the garden to watch them ~ really watch them ~ and then perhaps follow and see where they were making their nests. One of the things I loved to do as a beekeeper was simply watch at the front of the hive, all the comings and goings, the exchange of messages at the hive entrance and the extraordinary variety of different coloured pollens being collected. My mission is to find bumblebee nests this spring, hopefully of several different species and spend time watching them throughout the year.

As a former beekeeper, I will always have a soft spot for honeybees (apis mellifera, the European honeybee pictured above) and I know a lot more about them than other bee species. I love to see them working around the garden, so industrious and focused in their foraging activities. Some afternoons last week when the sun had warmed the west wall of the house, our resident feral bees came piling out and made a beeline ~ literally ~ for the area around the front door. Puzzled as to what they were up to, I stood and watched them for a few minutes and realised they were taking water from the damp soil in the pots I had been watering and were trying to drink from the buckets of grey water waiting to be used. Bees need water in their nest for several reasons and some workers will have been assigned to water duty rather than food forage; in the current drought and dry air, it’s possible they are having to work hard to keep the young brood moist. It might seem strange, but they actually seek ‘dirty’ water from ponds, puddles, birdbaths and the like ~ it’s thought because of the nutrient value ~ so hence the attraction of wet soil. I wasn’t sure about the grey water, though, as despite the fact that our dishwashing liquid and bath products are all ‘eco’ it’s possible there could still be some harmful chemicals in there. I swapped the bucket for its lid to make a safe and shallow drinking spot for them, full of saved rainwater, and at least that meant we could use the front door again without being mobbed. Contrary to the last, they still preferred the plant pots.

Fond as I am of the little honeys, it’s sensible to keep their importance and role in perspective. There is a huge discrepancy in assertions about how much of the world’s food production is reliant on pollinators and in turn how much of that comes down to honeybees ~ a quick scout round the internet threw up figures ranging from 7% to 90%! Whatever the figure (it’s easy to forget that many plants are wind-pollinated or self-pollinating), pollinators do have an essential role to play but honeybees are a long way from being the only ones or the best ones. Perhaps it’s a result of their commercial value both as pollinators and honey producers that there has been such a spotlight on their plight in recent years, while so many other species of bees and insects have been in serious decline in the background. In the photo below, there are two insects busy in the flowers but only one is a honeybee.

To put things in perspective, of the 267 species of bee in the UK over 250 are native solitary bees (in France, there are over 800 species) and they win the brownie points every time when it comes to being the most efficient and effective pollinators. I’ve already mentioned carpenter bees but how about mason bees, miner bees, leaf-cutter bees, carder bees, blood bees, mourning bees, sharped-tailed bees, nomad bees and the delightfully-named hairy-footed flower bees to name but a few? I’m beginning to feel like this could take another lifetime. Let’s throw the net wider still: hoverflies, lacewings, wasps, beetles (including ladybirds), butterflies, spiders, moths, worms, snails, slugs and a whole host of other invertebrates, then of course reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Mmm, several lifetimes, maybe.

I’ve written more than once about how so much of our project here is about protecting and increasing biodiversity through providing a range of habitats and supporting various ecosystems: it’s not a case of ‘us and them’ but all of us together. It’s a given that we use no toxic chemicals anywhere. Ever. So far we have restored native hedgerows, planted trees, dug a pond, provided bird feeders from November to April, built stone walls and domes, made log and brush piles, left wide corridors of long grass and wild flowers around the boundaries, started to develop wildflower meadow and woodland areas, put up nestboxes for birds, bats, red squirrels and insects and planted or sown nectar- and pollen-rich flowers and shrubs. I think the time has come now to be really specific about what we do or grow in order to support as much life as we can and I’m hoping to get a better handle on that by studying a wide variety of beings more closely and tapping into advice based on research that isn’t often at the forefront of things. For example, many of the commercial ‘bee friendly’ seed mixes on sale are actually based on a list of plants favourable to honeybees and may not offer much in the way of forage for solitary bees which tend to have more specific or specialised requirements.

What, then, should we be growing and doing for the benefit of the widest range of bee species (and others)? One of the effects of media focus on the plight of the honeybee has been an upsurge in interest in beekeeping and an acknowledgement that perhaps the conventional approaches aren’t necessarily the best for the bees. I’m all in favour of this but the danger of an increased number of hives in any area is that it can have a detrimental effect on the non-honeybee populations whilst research suggests that greater numbers of honeybee colonies in itself does nothing to help them. It’s another reason for us not to have hives again, but be content with our feral wall-dwelling colony and focus on consciously supporting all the bee species and other insects with whom we share this space. In short, it’s time to welcome everyone to the garden party.

There’s certainly no shortage of advice available but finding helpful information about some species is easier than others, and often everything seems to be set out in strict, unyielding black and white so I think a pragmatic, common sense approach is essential. For instance, I respect the sentiments behind schemes such as ‘No-mow May’ which are designed to encourage people to move away from manicured, weed-free lawns towards something more wildlife-friendly. However, it must be remembered that a short sward actually suits many species, especially those bees who build underground nests and ground-feeding birds, and also encourages low-growing beneficial plants such as bugle and white clover to flower. Our mown areas will soon be covered in dandelions in the insect version of a food festival, every bright flower an ‘eat all you can’ buffet which is a crucial source of forage at this time of year. Of course, areas of long grass and wildflowers have huge benefits, too; it’s all a question of balance.

Now, I realise that where I personally see a thing of beauty in the picture above, there are many gardeners who would recoil in horror at the idea of allowing even a single dandelion into their patch. I understand completely, because if I am going to commit to doing the best I can, then I will have to get over myself and introduce plants which aren’t exactly top of my favourites list. Let’s talk about heather. I don’t mind heather per se, I’m just not a fan of it in gardens (especially mine); I have hills and moorland in my blood and that’s where I love to see the cloaks of wild purple in late summer, preferably intermingled with some very productive whimberry bushes! However . . . I can’t deny that the handful of winter-flowering heathers planted in the bank behind the house is currently Bee Central and they are undeniably an excellent source of forage at a time when flowers are few and far between. That bank has proved to be an ongoing nightmare when it comes to making it an attractive part of the property: it’s heavy clay, so steep that it’s impossible to work in organic matter to improve it and overrun with couch grass, periwinkle and a host of other things that have simply got out of hand. The heathers are surviving despite everything so perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt here: plant more and accept that although they’re not really my thing, the bees will be well catered for.

What has made me happy is that a brief look at the quick planting guide on the excellent Bumblebee Conservation Trust website shows me that of the 23 recommended plants, we are only short of three: pieris, viper’s bugloss and Californian lilac (ceanothus). Well, there’s something we can do about that but I also want to find out exactly what would help all those solitary bees, too. Watching a short video clip of 25 suggestions on the Nurturing Nature website, I realise we’re already a long way there; obviously, these are UK sites and we have to be aware of a more diverse bee population in France and tap into local resources accordingly. I’m encouraged, though. We can do this. It might just take me even longer to get anything done in the garden, mind you . . . 😊

14 thoughts on “To bee or not to bee

  1. Hooray for spring flowering heather. It’s definitely number one here at the moment, closely followed by dwarf comfrey. Managed to find the book on ScribD so will start reading it shortly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, I thought you’d be pleased! Your heathers are truly beautiful, though, not sure they’ll be so great here but worth a go. First rain last night since 21st January (I’m not counting the day of drizzle, it was useful) plus a hike in temperature and we can see things responding already. Lots of celandines open and blossom about to burst. At last! The perennial kale plants are back outside acclimatising, should be in the ground in the next few days. Hope you enjoy the book, I’m finding it really interesting. 😊


  2. You’ve already done so much to welcome in as much diversity as possible, I’m sure the hairy-footed flower bee will visit you. Keep an eye on the heather 🙂

    Btw, half an hour observing an insect to take a decent picture is not that long

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I truly hope so, I just need to familiarise myself with all the little beauties! I’ve never been confident with a camera, it’s a case of point, click and hope ~ and pure luck when anything works. I’m thinking of investing in a zoom lens, a bit of an indulgence but it would help me look more closely at small creatures and flowers as much as anything. Hope spring has arrived with you in Galicia, are you catching the warm tropical air?


  3. Well, your pictures are beautiful! Maybe a macro lens would be better suited, although it’s a bit trickier to work with than a zoom lens.

    Warmer air has definitely reached Galicia, but with this warmer air came thunderstorms and loads of rain again. Glad I’m a pluviophile 🙂

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  4. What a fascinating blog post! I can really relate to your enthusiasm for learning more about the world of bees and other pollinators. Your approach to observing and studying them more closely, rather than just checking them off a mental list, is inspiring. I’m curious if you have any tips on how to attract and support a diverse range of bee species in a garden setting, beyond just the commonly recommended honeybee-friendly plants?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello and thank you for visiting! I’ve been guilty of taking many wild bee species for granted in the past so I’m very excited to give them the attention and love they deserve! I think one of the key factors in supporting them in a garden is to provide as many different habitats as possible which doesn’t need to be too complicated but does mean letting a few spaces go wild; in fact, a lot of the reading I’ve been doing suggests that putting up commercial bee homes isn’t necessarily the best thing to do, better to leave wild spaces and let the bees choose for themselves. Some nest underground, some in hollow stems, some in cavities (sand, clay, mortar, wood, brick . . . ), some need mud, others need leaves or plants with furry leaves, so providing just a few of those possibilities is helpful. What I have already discovered is that in some cases you have to do a fair bit of digging to find a list of plants that are useful to specific species (especially solitary bees) because so much guidance and advice is very generic ~ as in ’10 great bee plants for your garden’ or ‘this bee likes wildflowers, herbs and bedding plants’ ~ or is more skewed towards honeybees. Still, searching out the information is all part of the fun and a great excuse for increasing the diversity of plants in our garden, something I never tire of doing! 😉


    1. Ah, that’s lovely, Cornelia! I finished it in bed with a mug of tea this morning, such a beautiful book . . . I’m tempted to go straight back to the beginning and read it again. I hope you enjoy it, I feel absolutely sure there will be so much that resonates with you and your strong and wonderful connection with the natural world. Have a lovely day! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t wait! I could have had it right now on Kindle but this sounds like I need to hold it in my hands and smell the pages😬. Have you read Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee? Or The Scent Of Water by Elizabeth Goudge? Both really lovely books!

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  5. Finished your post. Fascinating! I’ve also always been a lover of bees. I would have loved to be able to have an apiary but we haven’t got the land for it. In the meantime I welcome all creatures great and small into my tiny container garden. As I potted some flowers the other day I had several bee visitors. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think welcoming everything into the garden has to be the way forward now, I don’t know what the situation is in Japan but the decline in insect numbers here in northern Europe is deeply worrying. Looking into a beehive (and breathing in the incredible scent) is a magical thing but I am persuaded that there are far better things I can do now than have hives again . . . and there is no shortage of honey to buy from local beekeepers!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To bee honest 😉I haven’t looked into it. Now I’m curious. I’m glad you are doing what you are for the natural world. ❤️

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