BEE serious

pollen frenzy: One of the many bees on my Spiraea japonica; below, Buddleia davidii.
pollen frenzy: One of the many bees on my Spiraea japonica; below, Buddleia davidii.
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GARDENER or not, you can’t ignore the plight of the bumblebee – or any other bee.

Their numbers have been decimated during the last few years, due to a combination of pesticides, unfavourable weather and viruses.

More than a third of honey bee colonies were lost in the North East last winter – 38.2 per cent, according to The British Beekeepers Association.

The losses reflect the impact of poor and changeable weather last year and the very late spring.

Last summer, honey bees were regularly prevented from gathering pollen and foraging and there was a scarcity of pollen and nectar.

And it’s not just the honey bee. We’re all familiar with bumblebees, but there are also about 260 species of solitary bee in the UK, often mistaken as wasps or hoverflies.

If bees go, one-third of the food we eat would not be available – no apples, onions, avocados, carrots, lemons, limes, melon, courgettes, aubergines, cucumbers, celery, cauliflower, leeks, kale or broccoli.

In the UK, about 70 crops are dependent on, or benefit from, visits from bees. In addition, bees pollinate the flowers of many plants which become farm animal food.

The value of honey bees and bumblebees as pollinators of commercially grown insect pollinated crops in the UK has been estimated at more than £200million per year.

Farming practices disturb natural habitats and forage of solitary and bumblebees at a rate which gives them little chance for re-establishment. The honey bee is also under attack from the varroa mite. Most wild honey bee colonies have died out as a result of this disease.

In April, The European Commission voted to restrict the use of neonicotinoid chemicals in pesticides linked to bee deaths, beginning no later than December.

The UK did not support a ban – the Coalition argues that the science behind the proposal is inconclusive. If you feel strongly, write to your MP!

So what can gardeners do? Firstly, plant bee-friendly plants in clumps in sunny places, not scattered or in the shade.

Look for simple, single blooms and avoid double, multi-petalled or pollen-free cultivars.

Provide nest sites for solitary bees. Some will nest in hollow stems, such as bamboo canes. Hole diameters in the range 2-8mm are required. Place these nest sites in sunny positions on the ground, in bare soil or short turf. Bumblebee nest boxes can be bought but they are often ignored. They prefer to find their own sites down tunnels dug by mice or in grass tussocks.