How Gardeners Can Help Prevent The Bee Apocalypse
Hello and welcome to DIY Gardening and our guide to protecting the bee population.
Since 1947, there has been a 60% reduction in known honey beehives in the United States(1). The situation in the UK is just as dire; since 1900, 13 bee species have become extinct, and a further 35 are considered under threat of extinction(2).
As many gardeners know, bees are crucial for pollination and are among the most important insects on earth(3). In fact, if the bee population were to disappear altogether, our shops would only have half the amount of fruit and vegetables(4).
My name is Hannah Miller, and I’m on a mission to help the bee population.
In this guide, I’ll show you how any gardener, anywhere in the world, can take a few simple steps to help prevent the decline of these incredible crucial insects.
Why Bees Are So Important:
There are so many reasons why the bee population should concern us.
Bees are crucial because:
- 80% of flowering plants can be pollinated by bees(5).
- It would cost UK farmers £1.8billion ($2.5billion) to manually pollinate crops(6).
- 39 commercial crops are reliant on bees for pollination(7).
- Beeswax is used in thousands of foodstuffs and also products including ointments, lotions, skin creams and medicines(8).
- 24 species of birds are known to eat bees including blackbirds, starlings and magpies(9).
- Mammals such as badgers and even bears consume the honeycomb, beeswax and young bees(10).
- Reptiles such as geckos and lizards feast on wasp nests and love the young larvae while several insects eat bees and honeycomb(11).
Why The Bee Population is Declining:
There isn’t a single cause of the bee population decline but rather, several issues that have combined to create a genuine threat:
- Land-use changes for urbanisation and agriculture(12).
- Pesticides that directly affect the bee population such as insecticides and fungicides(13).
- Pesticides that indirectly affect bees such as herbicides(14).
- Climate change and extreme weather incidents and temperatures(15).
- Invasive alien species such as the Yellow-Legged Hornet(16).
To put it bluntly, the all-important bee population is declining because of human interference.
There are also too few bee-friendly plants and too few safe places for bees live.
Just ask yourself; how many meadows are there in your area?
I bet there’s hardly any; most will have been trampled by dog walkers and runners or have been turned into another type of recreational space. The loss of natural meadows has been linked to the decline of bees, butterflies and other crucial insects(17).
With the general bee population struggling, the number of managed bee colonies has also dropped to a record low level(18):
Actionable Steps ANY Gardener Can Take to Protect Bees:
Here at DIY Gardening, we believe that our government and is too slow, too reluctant and far too cosy with the chemical and farming industries to do anything about the harmful products that are killing bees and contributing to their decline.
Waiting for or even relying on our government to act isn’t a viable solution. It takes years, often decades, just to get them to acknowledge a global problem.
You, the consumer, the gardener, can act and do your bit to help the mighty bee.
Try these simple steps:
Step 1: Stop Using Fungicides (use these instead):
Fungicides are directly responsible for the bee population decline, and you might be surprised how often you use one of these chemicals:
- To kill mould or black spots on walls and ceilings.
- To get rid of moss in lawns.
- To kill lichen and remove black spots as well as yellow and white marks on paths, driveways and patios.
Try these safer alternatives:
Ventilation – Does your home suffer from damp, mould or black spots on walls and ceilings? A lack of ventilation usually causes this, and there is no need to use a fungicide; just improve the ventilation, and almost all cases of damp can be solved(19).
Lawn Moss – Lawn moss grows in damp and dark gardens where grass struggles to cover the ground sufficiently. Moss can also be found in established lawns that are rarely raked or tended to. You don’t need to use a fungicide on any lawn to kill moss, as there are safer options. “No Rake” lawn products that contain Bacillus Subtilis will kill the moss without harming bees or any other pollinator. Bacillus Subtilis is a natural bacteria(20) that eats away at the moss and, while it’s slow to act, is harmless to insects; in fact, it’s even found inside bees digestive systems. These products are called “no rake” because the natural bacteria will literally consume the moss; all the gardener needs to do is overseed with new grass seed.
Hard Surfaces – Almost all patio, driveway and path cleaning products will contain a fungicide. Why? Because it kills moss, mould and lichens, which are often found on these surfaces. In fact, it’s these lichens that make the surface look dirty(21). There is a safer alternative; either leave the hard surface as it is or clean it with a pressure washer; there’s no need to use any chemicals to clean a hard surface in the garden.
Step 2: Stop Using Pesticides (try these instead)
While nasty fungicides are often misused, pesticides are just as damaging to the bee population.
Gardeners usually deploy pesticides on fruit and veg crops as well as decorative plants infested with pests.
In most cases, the gardener can kill the bugs by introducing and encouraging natural predators, while other methods include natural products that kill pests and not bees:
Companion Plants That Attract Predators – Certain plants will attract specific insects that are capable of keeping garden pests in check as they are predators. By mixing and matching the best companion plants with your crops, roses and other plants, you’ll never need to resort to nasty pesticides.
Herbs and Plants That Repel Pests – There are several herbs that garden pests hate, so much so that they keep their distance from them. Deploy these herbs near your fruit and veg crops to keep the pests away.
Natural Alternatives to Pesticides – If you’re having trouble keeping pests at bay, there are many natural alternatives to consider:
As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to encourage natural predators to attack the pests rather than relying on pesticides. If you must resort to chemicals, avoid spraying into plants in bloom as bees suck the nectar from flowers.
Step 3: Ditch The Weedkiller (try these instead)
Thanks to lax government regulations and an abundance of advertising, chemical weedkillers are often the first thing a gardener will use when they see unwanted weeds growing in their gardens.
The truth is that these products harm insects and are responsible for the decline of many species, including bees.
There is no need to use dangerous chemicals as there are plenty of safe alternatives:
Hard Surfaces – Weeds often grow in cracks and corners in paths, driveways, patios and other hard surfaces, and it can be very difficult to get to the roots without using chemicals. Consider using a weed burner; these products heat the weed to several hundred degrees which is enough to kill the plant without damaging the surface or bees. Contrary to popular belief, electric weedkillers don’t burn or scorch the weeds to oblivion; the heat just kills the plants, they then degrade naturally.
Borders and Flowerbeds – Weeds grow in compost and soil and will flourish if given enough space, light and nutrients. Fighting weeds with chemicals is a bit like playing a game of “whack-a-mole”, and in addition to the harm caused to bees, the chemicals can also drift into crops and other plants. A simple and cheap solution is to use mulch, a layer of woodchips and other material placed over the soil’s surface. Mulch stops light from penetrating the soil, which prevents the weeds from germinating; it also stops the soil from drying out, meaning you’ll need to water your plants less, and the plants will have a more consistent water source.
Lawns – An established, dense lawn should naturally suppress weeds and even stop them germinating in the first place. Problems usually arise when the gardener tries to grow grass in an area where it wouldn’t naturally thrive, such as in the shade. Yes, you can grow grass anywhere, but it would be better to design the garden, so the grass is grown in the area that receives the most sunlight and flowerbeds and hard surfaces are used to cover shaded areas where possible. Manual weed removal tools can pull the weed and roots out from the ground, and by mowing regularly, you’ll prevent lawn weeds from germinating in the first place.
Step 4: Bees Love These Plants So Add These To Your Garden
One of the best ways to help the bee population is to grow plants that bees are attracted to. Bees will extract the nectar from the plants listed below; not every plant is bee-friendly, and bees ignore many plants.
Here are our 6 favourite bee-friendly plants that we’ve had in our garden for years, and below you find links to sites that list even more plants that bees love.
Bee Balm really packs a punch when planted en-masse and, as the name suggests, is loved by bees and insects of many kinds. We recommend planting Bee Balm if you care about bees and insects. It’s a fairly carefree plant that’s easy to grow and available in most garden centres. Img by Kor!an | Licence.
Hardy Geraniums AKA Cranesbills (not to be confused with Pelargonium Geraniums) are a mainstay of many gardens, and we have four varieties growing here. Bees just love them, and they are easy to grow and flower for months if located in the right spot.
Butterfly Bush, AKA Buddleja, is a beautiful deciduous shrub that needs little care beyond a yearly prune. Grow in a sunny spot, and your plant will produce ample amounts of nectar for butterflies and bees, making this a must-have plant for bee lovers.
A popular coneflower, Rudbeckia is a herbaceous perennial with daisy-like flowers surrounding dark centres. Grow in borders or large pots; this plant is easy to grow. These plants also make perfect cut flowers and are a favourite for bees and butterflies
Step 5: Provide a Water Source
Bees need water for several reasons:
- To drink.
- For constructing the hive.
- For controlling the temperature in the hive(22).
- As a way to regulate the humidity in the hive.
- When living off honey, they need to dilute it so it can be consumed.
One of the best ways to provide water is to create a small, shallow tray or something similar and place both pebbles and water in it.
The pebbles make for handy perches that the bees can stand on while they suck up the water.
Step 6: Provide Shelter
Some bee species live in small holes in timber and other garden materials; Mason and Solitary bees behave this way.
By providing a home for these bees, you’ll be helping the overall bee population.
The easiest way to do this is to get a large piece of solid timber and drill holes into it; just make sure the entrance is the lowest point, so rainwater doesn’t fill the hole.
Hollow bamboo sticks can also be used, and there are plenty of commercially produced products made from bamboo.
The best place to put your bee home is an elevated spot inside a south-facing garden but out of direct sunlight.
You might be surprised at how quickly Mason and Solitary bees take up residence; we had guests within a week of placing the bee home in position!
Made from bamboo, this little bee home is built primarily for solitary bees and is perfect for all gardens, patio gardens and balconies.
Solitary Bee Home:
Made from timber, this bee home has small diameter holes and channels that are perfect for bees to shelter in. You can also take it apart, making it very educational.
Step 7: What to Do if You See a Bee Swarm in Your Garden
If you see a bee swarm in your garden or anywhere on your property, you should keep some distance from it. Bees won’t attack or sting unless they are threatened, but you should keep pets and children well away to be sure.
Rather than reaching for the chemical pest treatments, get in touch with your nearest beekeeper and ask if they do swarm removals.
Bees that swarm usually do so to protect and serve the queen bee, so if she moves to a new location, the there bees will follow.
We’ve previously had a swarm in our garden shed, and a relative had one in the roof eaves, just above the front door and in both cases, a local beekeeper removed them for free.
Some beekeeper may charge a fee to remove bees, and this is usually the case with established hives. Some are so keen to get a new queen that they offer their serves free to locals although this is more likely with a new swarm rather than an established hive.
If you’re wondering how beekeepers remove bees, then watch the video below, it’s very insightful:
How to Identify Bees Found in the UK and US:
Use these graphics to identify bees in both the UK and the US – click to enlarge(23):
Are We 100% Bee-Friendly Here at DIY Gardening?
No, we aren’t 100% organic here, but over the last 3 years, we have dramatically reduced the number of pesticides we use in the garden.
Also, we have ditched several plants bees ignore and swapped them for Lavender and Rudbeckia, which the bees love.
We’ve also stopped using driveway and patio cleaning chemicals and now just use the pressure washer, so we are well on our way to helping the bee population. We believe if enough gardeners do the same, it can make a difference.
Meet The Author: Hannah Miller
Hannah is a former NHS administrator, mother of two and keen gardener with a horticulture qualification who loves growing new plants and experimenting in the garden.
She enjoys gardening as much as she cares about the environment and likes to share her knowledge with others.
This year is all about pollinators, and Hannah has set herself the goal of only buying new plants that attract pollinators; she aims to make the garden as bee and butterfly friendly as possible.