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Lots of gardeners have heard that bees are on the decline. Indeed, research led by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology showed that one third of species experienced declines in terms of areas in which they were found over the period 1980-2013.
Why is this a problem?
Bees are important pollinators, which means that they transfer pollen between flowers. This is the method by which a lot of plants reproduce; without pollination we would have far fewer flowers and fruit. Many of the foods we eat - and those eaten by animals which we farm - are reliant on insect pollination. In fact, up to 1 in 3 mouthfuls of food we eat is dependent on pollination, and in economic terms it has been estimated that insect pollination contributes £430 million to the UK's annual crop production. Without insect pollination we would lose some of our favourite foods, struggle to obtain vital nutrients from elsewhere and possibly suffer food shortages. And of course we would lose other plants which contribute to the environment we live in.
Why is this happening?
The answer to this question is complex.
Wild honey bees not just in the UK but across Europe have been largely wiped out by disease. Intensive farming has increase the yield of many crops but has also reduced the availability of wild flowers on which some bees are dependent, as has the spread of towns and buildings; even tree planting can be a problem where it is carried out in areas rich in wifldflowers. Some pesticides aimed at killing troublesome insects have also killed beneficial ones. And finally, extreme weather due to climate change may be a factor.
Is there an alternative to honeybees?
Honeybees are responsible for around a third of crop pollination in the UK, but very little wild plant pollination. The rest is carried out by other bee species such as bumblebees and also by a range of other insects and animals. These include hoverflies, butterflies, moths, other flies, beetles, wasps, ants, and bats. Unfortunately some of these are also in decline, and different creatures often specialise in pollinating particular plants, so this does not offer a solution.
What can be done?
At a national level, the UK government have created a National Pollinator Strategy aimed at improving the state of our bees and other pollinating insects, which can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pollinator-strategy-2014-to-2024-implementation-plan
Gardeners can encourage pollinators in their garden by planting flowers, shrubs and trees which will encourage them. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) publish a list of plants suitable for pollinators which can be found here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/conservation-biodiversity/wildlife/plants-for-pollinators
If you have the time and a suitable location, you might also want to consider keeping a honeybee hive of your own. To find out more visit the British Beekeeping Association website: https://www.bbka.org.uk/should-i-keep-bees.
If you can't keep your own hive some beekeepers have a scheme whereby you can adopt one of theirs, eg: http://www.heatherhills.co.uk/adopt-our-bees.html
Are we doomed?
Fortunately, it's not all bad news. A few bee species have actually increased in number, particularly those pollinating crops such as oil seed rape. Although there are few honey bee colonies left in the wild the species is kept alive by beekeepers, and since 2007 there seems to have been an upsurge in beekeeping, apiary and colony numbers.
In my own garden
I have a number of "plants for pollinators" as recommended by the RHS. The most popular seems to be my hemp agrimony which attracts all kinds of pollinator as shown below:
They also love a variety of other flowers:
Oddly, despite having 4 different "butterfly bushes" (buddleja), most pollinators including butterflies seem to prefer other plants. This is the only photo I've managed to get of a pollinator on one of the buddlejas, in this case it's a bee on a buddleia Weyeriana 'Sungold':