Saving wildlife with Bumblebee Conservation Trust
The humble bumblebee is more important than many may think! We spoke to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust about the importance of these little invertebrates and how to help save them from further depletion. Take a read of our interview below.
Our interview with Bumblebee Conservation Trust
1. A lot of people probably don’t know how important bumblebees are in terms of wildlife. Why should people be concerned about their declining numbers?
Our charismatic bumblebees are keystone species, holding a unique and vital role in the way the ecosystem functions. These wonderful little invertebrates play a huge part in the pollination of a number of the commercial crops that we rely on, such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries (all that good stuff that we love). In fact, according to a study by Potts et al in 2014, bees contribute over £651 million per annum to the UK economy.
Bumblebees are perfectly adapted to the cold, wind and rain here in Britain, working hard to pollinate 80% of our native wildflower species. Fewer bees means less pollination, and ultimately even fewer wildflowers. Wildflower-rich grasslands are the building blocks of a complex food chain directly affecting the success of other insects, birds and mammals which reply upon it. The high cost of pollinating plants without our prized pollinators would most likely mean an increase in food costs for us all.
Whilst bumblebees provide us with a vital service, we should also value bumblebees simply for their intrinsic value. They are an interesting wild species, perfectly endearing, and a delight to watch whether out in the countryside or at home in your garden.
2. What are some of the main reasons why their numbers have been declining in the UK?
The overriding reason for the decline of our bumblebees is the loss of bumblebee-friendly habitat in the UK. An increased demand for food has spurred a need for specialist technology and more intensive land management. These changes in agricultural techniques from the traditional to the modern unfortunately means fewer wildflowers for our pollinators.
Worryingly, since the 1940s, 97% of our flower rich grassland has been lost - combine this with the added complications of pesticide-use, climate change and parasites and things aren’t looking too good for our bees. Within the last 80 years, two bumblebee species have become nationally extinct and further extinctions may follow in the near future unless we act quickly!
3. How can gardeners get involved and help conserve the bumblebees?
First and foremost is making space for bees! Bee-friendly gardening is easy and doesn’t have to break the bank. If you’ve mastered this and your garden is a haven for bumblebees, you could consider holding an open garden day and inspire fellow gardeners to practice wildlife-friendly gardening. You could also link up with other gardening enthusiasts, creating a network of bee-friendly gardeners to share tips, cuttings and seeds from your own bee-friendly plants.
Supporting the Bumblebee Conservation Trust by becoming a member allows us to continue our vital conservation efforts. New members receive a great welcome pack with loads of advice about bumblebees and what to plant to support them.
4. Are there any tips or advice you can give to gardeners as to the best ways to attract bumblebees to their flowers?
Having a succession of bee-friendly flowers right through from March to October is the best way to attract bumblebees and support them throughout their life-cycle. Making sure there are plenty of foraging opportunities for new queens in spring will increase the chances of a nest being located nearby.
Take some time in your garden to simply watch bumblebees and see which flowers it is that they visit, you can then maximise on their favourites.
You could consider adding a pond to your garden if you have the space. There a number of aquatic and marginal plants that are great for bees such as the Yellow Iris, Watermint and Bogbean. A pond also has the added bonus of attracting a whole host of other wildlife into your garden.
5. How could gardeners and the general public help to monitor the bumblebee population in the UK?
There are a few surveys which the Bumblebee Conservation Trust run and support which you can get involved in.
BeeWalk - This survey helps us to monitor changes in the bee population and acts as an early warning system. Our volunteers walk a fixed-route of 1-2km each month and record what they see. Reasonably good bumblebee identification skills are needed for the survey, so if you are a complete novice you might be better starting with another of our options below and/or attending one of our basic ID courses, and then graduating to BeeWalk when you're a little more confident.
Blooms for Bees - This survey aims to explore which bumblebees visit gardens and allotments and discover which flowers are bumblebee favourites. Taking part in this flower friendly project is easy; simply download the app (search 'Blooms For Bees' in the App Store or Google Play) or visit the website and register your location; choose a flowering plant and observe for five minutes; photograph and ID the bumblebees, then simply submit your data!
To record bees (and other wildlife) on a more ad hoc basis, go to www.brc.ac.uk/irecord. If possible, include a photo of the bumblebee that you have seen to allow the iRecord experts to verify your sighting.
6. What are the best plants to help these pollinators?
Old-fashioned cottage garden flowers such as globe thistles and borage are brilliant for bumblebees with an added bonus of being beautiful to look at. There is also a whole variety of culinary herbs such as lavender, chives, marjoram, sage and rosemary that are all loved by bees.
Herbs and other cottage garden flowers are often very similar to the wild flowers from which they originated, and so have not lost their natural link with their pollinators. They tend to be hardy, easy to grow, and most are perennials so that you do not have to plant them every year. They will grow well in a traditional herbaceous border, but also equally as well in pots on a patio or even in a window box.
It’s important to provide a good source of nectar and pollen throughout spring to late summer to cover all stages of the bumblebee life cycle. We recommend at least 2 bee-friendly plants per season and have suggested some bee-friendly favourites below:
- Flowering current
- Pussy Willow
- Globe thistle
- Sweet pea
You can find out how bee-friendly your garden is by using our handy Bee kind app. Select the flowers that you have in your garden to calculate your score and then receive a tailored list of 10 more flowery suggestions to provide even more bee food.
7. What advice would you give to someone if they came across a bumblebee nest?
If you find a bumblebee nest, you should consider yourself very lucky! We would advise that you don’t disturb it - thankfully bumblebees are not aggressive and will quietly go about their business if left alone. If you do approach the nest, try not to breathe on it as this can cause bumblebees to become defensive. Bumblebee season starts in spring with the emergence of the queen from hibernation and will end late summer/autumn, so a colony will only live in a nest for a few months before dying off naturally.
It is important to remember that bumblebees will not cause structural damage and do not bore holes or chew through wood. They will rarely nest in the same location two years running, but if you do have bumblebees nesting somewhere that you don’t want them (i.e. roof space or cavity wall) then simply wait for the autumn when the nest is empty and block the entrance hole. This will prevent a new queen from finding the hole next year.
Remember to provide lots of bee-friendly plants to help the colony through its life cycle!
8. Are there any other tips on things that gardeners should be doing or avoid doing to help the dwindling bumblebee population?
There are a few things to avoid when thinking of the bees!
Invasive plant species that have a habit of escaping from gardens and into wild habitats nearby are best avoided, this includes plants such as Rhododendron ponticum and Himalayan balsam. They can look pretty but their benefits to the bees are far outweighed by their negative impact on the surrounding environment.
If you wish to have happy bees, try to avoid growing flowers with little to no pollen and nectar. These often come in the form of annual bedding plants such as begonia, pansies and lobelias and are a result of selective breeding by horticulturalists. Whilst they can look spectacular, the breeding process causes flowers to lose their vital nectar, or produces deformities in the flowers which means it is nearly impossible for insects to reach the nectar or pollen, such as double varieties with extra sets of petals.
Pesticides are often labelled as 'bug killers' or something similar, but almost all can harm bumblebees even if not intentionally. If you do decide to use them, it’s certainly best to avoid spraying them near flowering plants. Left to nature, natural enemies such as ladybirds, hoverflies, ground beetles, lacewings and wasps will usually consume troublesome aphids or caterpillars before long, but if you wipe them out with insecticides you can expect worse pest problems in the very near future.