Gina Davidson: Flower power can save the bee

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Ahead of a fresh bid to halt the decline in bee numbers, Gina Davidson discovers gardening is the buzz-word

THE chirping of songbirds in the trees, the low whirr of lawnmowers, the drone of bees as they bumble about the garden . . . these are the sounds of summer.

As the sun has finally re-discovered Edinburgh, they should soon be the aural backdrop to lazing in the Meadows, barbecues in backgardens, and school sports days and fetes.

However the sound of buzzing bees, busily collecting nectar and pollen – be they honey or bumble – is one which is slowly being silenced.

For a number of years there have been warnings about declining bee numbers across the world due to mites, blights and the vanishing from sight of their natural habitats. But despite the concern and the studies, the bee numbers are still falling.

Two species of native bumblebee are already extinct in Britain, and six more are on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as their numbers are so few. Meanwhile honey bees – the domesticated species bred in hives – have seen their numbers decline by almost 30 per cent because of the Varroa mite, which puts more pressure on the wild bumblebee to cover its share of pollination.

The latest attempt to reverse this trend will be launched on Friday at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Its campaign Bees for Everyone will focus on getting people to grow more pollen-producing plants in gardens, patio pots, window boxes and on allotments – and there’s even a Bee Kind mobile phone app which will show people how friendly their planting is for bees.

Gill Perkins, conservation manager with the trust, says: “Bumblebee numbers have declined steadily because agricultural changes have destroyed their natural habitats. There has been intensification of agriculture, but we can’t just blame farmers and land-owners, as we need the food they produce and they need to survive financially.

“I do a lot of work with farmers, looking at how they can use their land in different ways to encourage bees back to increase pollination of flowers and plants, but there is also a lot that people can do in their gardens where it’s much easier to change what we are planting.

“Garden centres and supermarkets will tell you that people just want bright pretty flowers, that they’re responding to consumer choice, but the petunias, busy lizzys and pansies are grown in such a way that they don’t have much pollen or nectar, so are useless to bumblebees and other pollinating insects.

“What people need to be planting are hollyhocks, bluebells, foxgloves . . . meadow type flowers of the kind that pollinators love. And bumblebees love allotments – they are the only pollinators for tomatoes and potatoes so it’s vital to grow more of these plants.”

She adds: “Bumblebees are wild while honey bees are domesticated. However it’s not an either-or situation, both are vital pollinators, but as honey bee numbers decline because of mites it means there’s more pressure on bumblebees to do more pollination.”

While the campaign, which will be launched by environment minister Stewart Stevenson MSP, aims to get gardeners of all ages planting, other work is going on at Edinburgh University. Its Institute of Evolutionary Biology is part of a three-year, £10 million, Insect Pollinators Initiative, looking at how bees and other pollen-loving insects can be increased in cities.

And the work of Dr Graham Stone and Edinburgh City Council biodiversity officer, Malcolm Fraser, will result in the drawing up of a map of Edinburgh’s bee hotspots.

“As long as flowers are allowed to grow in city habitats, and areas are left undisturbed for nesting and development of young stages such as caterpillars, then city habitats can support almost as many pollinators as found in the countryside,” says Dr Stone.

“Our aim is to identify which habitats in cities are best, and how others might be improved – for example, by increasing the diversity of plants present or changing the intensity and timing of mowing.”

One good piece of news however, is that since the plight of bees has started to make headlines around the world there’s been an increase in the number of people keeping bees in their gardens.

Nigel Southworth, editor of the Scottish Beekeeper magazine, has kept honey bees for five years, and says it’s vital that more people get involved with looking after the insects. “In terms of honey bees they pretty much look after themselves but it is important that the colony’s health is checked regularly, especially for the Varroa mite which, although not everywhere in Scotland, is widespread.

“I’m one of those people who is quite happy to sit near the hives watching the bees go about their business. But being a beekeeper has made me more aware of nature and the delicate balance needed to keep them healthy and increase their population. If more people can help to do that, we will all benefit.”

• Bees For Everyone begins on Friday, visit www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk • For information on keeping bees visit www.edinburghbeekeepers.org.uk

Time for plan b

THERE are 250 species of bumblebees worldwide and 24 live in Britain, although within the last 70 years two species have become extinct.

There are a further six species which have been named as priorities for protecting in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Only six species of bumblebee are still common, the rest have all declined to varying degrees

The reason for the decline is the removal of the bees habitat: hedges have gone, marshes drained and more than 97 per cent of managed flower-rich grasslands have disappeared throughout Britain.

Yet many crops, especially fruit and vegetables, depend on bumblebees for pollination and in total the value of Europe’s insect pollinators is estimated at £11.4 billion.

Two years ago, Edinburgh was chosen as one of four UK cities to help find a way to reintroduce bee species. The three-year project is part of the £10 million Insect Pollinators Initiative run by Bristol University.