Supporting bees and other pollinators

There are now schemes where you can own a part-share in a bee colony.  One example is Adopt-a-Hive Ltd based in Oswestry in Shropshire.  They aim to support bees and raise public awareness.  Their membership pack includes: a bee identification guide; lists of ‘good bee plants’; a packet of wildflower seeds and lots of useful information.  They also welcome members to visit the hives to learn more about the bees.

Also, I’ve recently met with Paula Carnell of ‘Creating a Buzz about Health’.  You can find her on Facebook at:

or on her website:

Paula runs events where you can learn more about bee-keeping, such as ‘Getting Started with Keeping Bees’:

In recent years there have been campaigns by prominent gardeners, such as Alan Titchmarsh and Sarah Raven, encouraging people to plant wildflower meadows and nectar rich plants in order to support a wide variety of pollinating insects (“Bees, Butterflies and Blooms”, BBC2 2012).  It is also important to grow a variety of different flowers that bloom at different times of the year, thus providing food across the seasons.  In addition a new labelling system has been developed for use in garden centres so that buyers can easily identify plants which are ‘bee friendly’.

Other supportive organisations include:

  • the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA)
    set up in 1874 to support beekeepers and to promote public awareness
  • the National Bee Unit (NBU)
    which supports governmental Bee Health Programs
  • the International Bee Research Association
    which aims to promote the value of bees
  • the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust

This Trust has 4 main aims:

  • The prevention of the extinction of any of the UK’s bumblebees
  • A long-term future for all our bumblebees and other pollinators
  • The protection, creation and restoration of flower-rich habitats
  • An increase in the understanding and appreciation of bumblebees

Hopefully, with all these people and organisations working to support bees and other pollinators, these amazing insects will have a more secure future.


(This is an extract from my article which you can read in full here)






Last week I began to explore some of the threats challenging the honey bee.  In addition to parasites the bees are also suffering from:

Habitat loss

Farming habits in England have changed dramatically in the last century.  We now have fewer ancient hedgerows, bigger fields and more mechanised practices.  This has resulted in large areas of land growing human and animal food crops which do not produce the nectar-rich flowers needed by bees.  Field margins used to be full of wildflowers but modern farming has also reduced this food source.  The land might appear fertile to us, but to hungry bees it is like a desert.  It seems strange, but bees can now find more food in cities and suburbs than in the countryside.


The last few years have seen some very cold and wet weather in Britain.  It is difficult for bees to leave the hive to forage on wet days because the rain makes flight difficult and they are at risk of getting too cold to fly.  Also, if a bee’s temperature drops below 8oC it will die.  However if the colony stays inside for long periods of time it affects the temperature and humidity of the hive and can increase the risk of infection from parasites.  It also means that the bees have to eat from their stores and are not able to collect more nectar to replace what has been eaten.

The best way to protect a hive and to ensure its survival through bad weather is to make sure that the colony is as strong and healthy as possible.  Hives should also be kept up off the ground to allow air circulation and prevent damp, and they should be placed somewhere out of the wind.

Pesticides and Fungicides

In a recent report, published in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists from the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture “have identified a witch’s brew of pesticides and fungicides contaminating pollen that bees collect to feed their hives.”

The researchers collected pollen from certain plants on the east coast of America and fed it to some bees, finding that it lowered their resistance to a parasite that can cause the collapse of a colony.

” The discovery means that fungicides, thought harmless to bees, are actually a significant part of Colony Collapse Disorder. And that likely means farmers need a whole new set of regulations about how to use fungicides.”

(treehugger article: ‘Scientists discover another cause of bee deaths, and it’s really bad news’, July 26, 2013)

It was already known that neonicotinoids (a relatively new type of insecticide, used in the last 20 years to control a variety of pests, especially sap-feeding insects, such as aphids on cereals, and root-feeding grubs) have been responsible for huge numbers of bees dying, but this new study revealed that many more chemicals are involved resulting in a much more complex challenge.

Spraying practices also need to be reviewed as it was discovered that bees forage “not from crops, but almost exclusively from weeds and wildflowers, which means bees are more widely exposed to pesticides than thought.”

These chemicals were thought to be safe, and of themselves they might not be lethal to the bees, but it appears that they affect the immune system making them more susceptible to attacks by parasites such as the Varroa mite and Nosema.

It is not economically practical, however, to simply stop spraying crops with these pesticides and so various groups have been looking into alternative ways of supporting bees and other pollinators.  I’ll be looking at these in Part 5 next week.


(This is an extract from my article which you can read in full here)


Issues facing the honey bee

Scientists are still unsure why so many bees are dying. Various different causes have been proposed: parasites, loss of suitable habitat, bad weather, pesticides.  It is probably a combination of some or all of these factors:



Bees can suffer from several parasites including varroa and acarine mites, nosema fungus and ‘amoeba’.

Varroa mites are external parasites which can only reproduce in honey bee colonies.  They can attack the larvae, pupae and adults.  They weaken the bees by sucking their hemolymph (the fluid in their circulatory system) and spreading viruses such as deformed wing virus (DWV).  A severe infestation of DWV can result in the death of the colony.  This could be a contributing factor in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  It is one of the most significant causes of bee death in the UK and so all beekeepers must treat their hives for varroa.  Treatment involves various different chemical sprays, which can only be used when there is no honey in the hive, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which removes mites at the most effective point in their breeding cycle.  The queen is trapped and drone comb is removed thus restricting the cells available where the mites can breed.

Acarine (or tracheal) mites are rare in the UK.  They infest the bees’ breathing tubes (tracheae), particularly the large tracheae at the front of the thorax.  They shorten the life of the bees and therefore slow colony development, especially in the spring.  As there are no external signs of infestation, diagnosis is done by dissecting a sample of bees and examining the tracheae.  These should be a creamy white colour, but in infected bees they turn brown.  There is no licensed chemical treatment for these mites but it seems that bees can develop resistance.  The best course if action is probably to leave the colony to see if it recovers or to replace the queen with one from a more resistant strain of bee.

Nosema fungus has 2 different forms: Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae.  The latter is widespread in the UK and seems to be the more virulent form of the disease.  Bees infected with this fungus are less able to digest food, particularly pollen.  Spores travel through their gut and are passed out in the faeces.  Bees usually defecate outside of the hive but if they are prevented from going out by, for example, bad weather, they defecate inside.  This is then cleaned by other bees who ingest the fungal spores and so the cycle continues.  Nosema infection shortens the life of the bees and prevents the colony from developing as it should in the spring.  If a colony is infected the frames should be removed, the comb burned and the frames sterilised before being used again.  The hive also needs to be sterilised.

‘Amoeba’ is a protozoan, Malpighamoeba mellificae, which lives in the bee’s ‘kidneys’ (malpighian tubules).  This is a rare disease and does not appear to affect the colony therefore it can be transferred onto clean comb if necessary.  ‘Amoeba’ is spread in the same way as Nosema.

Sadly these are not the only issues threatening the honey bee.  In Part 4 I’ll be talking about some of the others.


(This is an extract from my article which you can read in full here)


Last week I began looking at the life of a bee colony.  As the numbers grow the colony can reach the point at which it becomes too big for the hive, the worker bees start turning one of the female eggs into a queen.  They do this by surrounding the egg with lots of royal jelly.  This egg will grow more quickly and when she hatches she must mate within the first 3 weeks, so she leaves the hive and mates with a drone who then dies.  His sole purpose was to mate with her.  She stores his sperm and will use it to create female eggs in the future.  Now that the colony has 2 queens it splits with half of the bees following the old queen to search for a new site.  In order for the old queen to be able to fly the workers stop feeding her for a couple of days so that she slims down a bit.  She is not much bigger than them and so is able to fly.  This swarm normally breaks off from the colony in June / July giving them time to establish a new hive before winter.

The colony continues to grow until August, building up honey reserves to see them through the winter.  The queen then begins to lay fewer eggs and the colony starts to kill any remaining drones.  They bite off their wings and throw them out of the hive since they no longer serve any purpose.  The queen normally stops laying at the end of autumn and the bees huddle together on the hive frames through the winter, eating the stored honey.

In Part 3 I’ll start looking at some of the issues facing the honey bee.


(This is an extract from my article which you can read in full here)


Back in June 2015 the campaign group 38 Degrees held an event in Westminster to “arm our MPs with everything they need to know about bees and bee-killing pesticides.”  That was over 2 years ago but bees and pesticides are very much still big news with further headlines hitting social media recently.  It’s heartening to see that Michael Gove is backing a total ban on these chemicals, as reported in the Guardian on Thursday 9 November 2017:

UK will back total ban on bee-harming pesticides, Michael Gove reveals


So why is this so important?

Bees are amazing creatures.  They play a very important role in the pollination of many of the plants that we depend on for food but in recent years their numbers have been declining rapidly.  I will focus on the honey bee here and look at some of the issues that it has been facing, and steps that are being taken to try to support it.

A year in the life of a honey bee colony

Each colony is ruled by a single queen.  She starts laying eggs in early spring and the old worker bees, who hatched in the previous autumn, make sure that the colony is viable and start bringing in pollen from snowdrops and other spring flowers.  These early blossoms are therefore important to the bees.  They provide a source of food as the bees become active again after the winter.

The queen starts by laying female eggs (fertilised with stored sperm) and then she will lay some male (unfertilised) eggs as well.  She can lay up to 2000 eggs a day.  The colony continues to grow and can reach up to 50,000 – 80,000 worker bees (females) and a few hundred drones (males) by June.  (The worker bees live for about 3 weeks, the queen for about 3 years and the droves for about 3-4 months.)

When temperatures reach 12oC or above the worker bees go out to collect nectar to make honey, and pollen to feed to the developing grubs.  Normally they will forage up to 5km from the hive.  When a worker finds a new source of nectar she brings some back to the colony and passes it to some of the other bees.  They gather round her and she does a ‘waggle dance’ which gives them information about where to find the nectar.  She goes round in a horseshoe pattern then bisects this at an angle.    The number of times she goes round the horseshoe is the distance to the nectar source and the angle indicates the sun’s position.  (She has 5 eyes, one of which can see polarised light, so she knows the position of the sun even when it is cloudy.)

In Part 2 I’ll describe what happens when the colony increases in number and becomes too big for their hive.


(This is an extract from my article which you can read in full here)