Though they can sting, bees are not pests but our friends because they're prolific pollinators and a vital part of our eco and food systems. One third of the world's food supply is dependent on pollinators, mostly honeybees.
As they forage for their food – which is made up of nectar providing sugar for energy and protein-rich pollen, they pollinate plants by carrying pollen from one plant to the other, helping them to reproduce.
But bees are in danger and their species is in decline because of pesticide use, the loss of the green spaces that provide them with a flower-rich habitat, monoculture farming practices, pests and disease.
The UK counts 20,000 bee species but this diversity is declining: 13 bee species are now extinct and 35 others are in danger of disappearing. 30% of its bee population has been lost in the past 10 years and over 97% of grasslands have disappeared in the past century.
Here are a few simple ways we can help bees and at the same time preserve our ecosystem.
Plant more flowers
By planting flowers in your garden you can create a floral bee oasis. You don't even need a garden space to attract bees, your balcony or window box will do. Another idea is to add hanging baskets of flowers next to your front door or entrance way, or pots of flowering plants on your back porch, patio or roof terrace.
Bees are busy foraging from March to September so consider planting different types of flowers for different seasons. Plant crocus, hyacinth, wild lilac, lavender and flowering herbs in the springtime with your bee friends in mind. Come summer, fill your garden or green space with colourful cosmos, echinacea, snapdragons, and foxglove. In the autumn it's time for bee-friendly zinnias, witch hazel and goldenrod. But avoid 'double-flowered' varieties with more than one layer of petals and hybridised plants because these contain little or no pollen or nectar and are of little interest to bees.
Another tip is to plant the same flower in clumps. Busy bees are picky: they like to visit one type of flower at a time and by planting in batches you'll be making their job as foragers and pollinators easier.
Give them water
Like every living creature, bees need water to survive. They use water to produce food for their bee families, mixing it with pollen and nectar. They also utilise water to control the temperature in their hives.
Bees look for a clean source of water. Leave out wide and shallow bowls and containers filled with clean water in your outdoor spaces and refresh them regularly. Make sure you add stones, corks or twigs so they can safely land and not fall in and drown.
Create a bee hotel
Many species of bees burrow in the ground while others like to nest in soil, wood or plant stems. Leave a quiet corner of your garden uncultivated and create a home for them out of piles of branches, reeds and sticks of untreated wood. You can use a plastic bottle stuffed with twigs, or hollow reeds or bamboo.
Find a sunny spot that's sheltered from the rain to place the bee hotel and make sure it's at least a metre off the ground. Bee visitors will build cells inside the hollow reeds and bamboo and lay eggs, feeding the larvae with pollen and nectar until they hatch the following season.
As we know, pesticides are highly toxic for bees, even at low doses, and are a cause of the declining bee population so avoid using them in your garden. Consider natural alternatives such as oils made of neem, citrus or eucalyptus, diatomaceous earth, or sprays made of common kitchen ingredients such as vinegar or garlic. There are also physical methods to repel pests, for example laying down mulch or garden fabric on the soil will keep bugs away from plants.
One of the best ways to help bees is by buying local and organic produce. In this way you'll not only be supporting organic farmers and avoiding harmful chemicals yourself, you'll also protect bees by reducing their exposure to toxic chemicals.
Is your honey ethical?
Commercial honey producers exploit bees by using questionable practices to increase production, replacing the honey meant for the bees' food with artificial sweeteners, and using forced breeding methods on queen bees. Ask yourself if the honey you're buying is ethical. Does the beekeeper have a bee-centred approach or are they only interested in profit? Do the bees have enough of their own honey to feed on? Is the honey produced in a sustainable way?
Words: Isabel Putinja