A few words of note about the humble bee.
Bees are one of the greatest and most prolific pollinators in the world. There are over 20 separate species of bees and together they are responsible for the pollination of roughly 30% of the world’s crop plants. It is safe to say that without their diligent effort, there would be a lot less food to go around!
It is unfortunate then, then the world’s bee population is in fact declining. The exact reason for this decline is not explicitly known, but most experts agree that it is a direct result of human interference due to pesticides, habitat infringements and expansive farming clearing large swathes of land that was previously home to wild flowers, (a particularly ironic twist). As more land is cleared for farming purposes a direct result is a reduction in the local wild bee populations, the decline of which reduces the efficiency of the pollination and therefore reduces the amount of food that can be produced. Managed hives are used in many cases, providing pollination services to farmland, but the decline of the wild bee population continues. It is estimated that in the US alone, the work carried out by wild bees in pollinating food crops is worth between 10 to 20 BILLION dollars, or an average of USD$15,000,000,000!
We have wildflower banks planted around the Canterbury campus to encourage bees and biodiversity!
This is not to say that humans are the only problem for bees. Given that almost every single continent containing pollinating flowers in the world harbours some form of wild bee population, it is only natural that they have natural predators, (such is the law of the wild), and one of the worst of these is the wasp. Every nationality and variety of bee throughout the world is engaged in an all-out macroscopic war with the wasps and that is not the end of their problems! There is even an African breed of bird called the ‘Greater Honeyguide’, similar to a Woodpecker, which has evolved of its own accord a mutually beneficial relationship with humans. It will call and flap to attract humans and lead them to an active bee hive. The humans will smoke and destroy the hive to harvest the honey whereupon the bird will feed on the larvae, wax and other remnants. With assault on all sides, it is little wonder the bee population is in the state it is in.
Back in the UK, the two most famous types of bees that are commonly recognisable are the humble bumblebee and the stalwart honey bee. Honey bees can attend to up to 100 different flowers a day and are ‘generalists’, meaning they visit many different types of flower. This helps with effective cross pollination of plants and crops. It also helps the biodiversity within the area they inhabit which is very good for the environment. The honey bee is also the only bee that produces honey that is consumed by humans. In fact, it is the only food eaten by man that is produced by insects. They are also a great hit at sporting events, being one of the few creatures in the animal kingdom to perform a ‘Mexican Wave’, although bees only tend to do this when their hives are threatened and not when Manchester United score a goal.
Bumblebees, unlike honey bees do not produce honey for humans, but instead produce a nectar/pollen paste to feed themselves and their young. They are however very efficient pollinators and are an invaluable part of our ecosystem. Another interesting, although unrelated, fact about these little critters is an old adaption of their name. In Old English, the bumblebee was known as a dumbledore! All you Harry Potter fans out there can be safe in the knowledge that every time you take a stroll during the summer, our favourite Hogwarts professor is probably close by and being a very busy bee.
At CCCU our amazing Grounds and Gardens team have been keeping bees for several years, but we now have our very own sustainability bee hive too, and are training up student and staff beekeepers across the year!
In closing, we need to be very aware that our bee population is quite fragile at the moment and anything we can do to help it would benefit, even in the smallest way it can make a difference. Bees can see the colour purple more clearly than other colours, so if you have any garden space, try planting some bee friendly flowers, such as Lavender, Catmint or Alliums. Aside from helping the bees, the overall effect would be very pleasing to the eye and don’t worry – bees, unlike wasps, tend not to sting humans unless provoked so you would be quite safe to sit and watch them play (but not too close). Tubular shaped flowers such as the foxglove, honeysuckle and snapdragon are a particular favourite to the long-tongued bumblebee.
These are just a few things you could do, but there are many other things that could be done to help. Websites such as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is packed full of articles, information and advice.
by student blogger, Chris Bamber