Most gardens can boast about six species of bumblebee; my own (he says, with the merest hint of pride) hosts eight species: the common carder, red-tailed, garden, white-tailed, early and buff-tailed, as well as two species of cuckoo bumblebee. Did you know that there are bees that lay their eggs in other bees’ nests? I certainly didn’t, until the wild-bee enthusiast Kate Bradbury came and ‘bee-watched’ in my garden to tally up my brood.
The greatest cause of decline in the UK bumblebee population is the destruction of habitat. This can come about as a result of building development on land that was hitherto hospitable
to insect life, the change of use of land or chemical pollution-all of them detrimental to the life-cycle of a much-loved but rather neglected member of the family Hymenoptera, which also includes wasps and ants.
At least, gardeners can do our bit to create patches of land that are beneficial to bumblebees’ wellbeing. We’re frequently treated to tales of doom and gloom as to the losses of wildlife on our planet and with good reason, as wake-up calls are needed if we’re not to find that something has disappeared without our noticing. But, all too often, we’re left thinking that we can do little to improve matters, which is often far from the truth.
In my experience, all forms of wildlife are opportunists. It’s in their interest (indeed, it’s instinctive) to survive given the smallest form of encouragement. With thoughtful gardening, we can help bumblebees in their quest for survival in exactly the same way that we helped frogs and toads-the garden pond was instrumental in saving them from near oblivion when building sites replaced village greens across the land.
Aiding bumblebee survival isn’t necessary simply from a sentimental point of view. Bees pollinate about a third of our food crops; without them, it’s no exaggeration to say that the world would starve and, yet, few of us are aware of the vital role they play in feeding us, from ensuring the production of apples, pears and plums to peas and beans. Even cabbages, carrots and onions would not exist without the pollinating efforts of bees, for without the seeds that are produced thanks to their floral fertilisation, what could we sow?
The reason my own garden is so rich in bees is down to two main factors: we run an organic regime here and, for the past 25 years or so, I’ve used no chemical sprays whatsoever plus I plant lots of nectar- and pollen-rich flowers. This doesn’t mean that I have a garden devoid of showy double flowers, whose vital central stigma and stamens have been replaced or overwhelmed by petals-it’s just that I make sure I have plenty of other flowers that do offer the bees what they need.
Most important of all is our two-acre wildflower meadow behind the barn where I write. It was sown about six years ago, with Emorsgate’s wildflower seeds (01553 829028; www.wildseed.co.uk); the company makes a mixture specially developed for chalk downland like ours. I sowed the seed
in autumn (the best time for those seeds that need to be repeatedly frozen and thawed to trigger germination) and, each year, it’s altered slightly in its make-up and the preponderance of particular species.
In April, we’re awash with cowslips, to be followed by vetches, clover, marguerites, field scabious and knapweed. A healthy sprinkling of the semi-parasitic yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) has helped to reduce the vigour of the grasses on what was once a richly fertilised farmer’s field.
Over the summer, we mow rides through the wildflowers, then, once a year-in September, when the seed has fallen-it’s cut and the hay removed. That really is all there is to it. My reward is a meadow that gives me more pleasure than I can express and which allows me to boast of a bumblebee count to impress my neighbours. I can only hope that they take the hint.
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