Wild and free: bees in your garden

If you grow fruit, beans, almonds, hazelnuts or coppice willows, flowering crops of any kind, or just have lots of wildflowers in your garden, you will already have bees as visitors, so keeping a hive or two of bees would seem like a great idea. However, although my primary interest is in bees, my first piece of advice to gardeners considering getting into beekeeping is to first spend time tending to the needs of other wild pollinators, especially bumblebees and bees. lonely.

It might sound romantic to have thousands of bees buzzing around your flower beds, but the reality is that they’re not entirely without their problems. If your garden is small and urban, you may need to think carefully before placing a box of fifty thousand insects equipped with stingers near a neighbor’s territory. There may be pets, children and the elderly to consider. You may want to think about how you use your garden space and how your activities – like sunbathing, eating outside or just hanging out laundry – can interfere with their flight path, which can sometimes make Heathrow look like a quiet backwater.

I say these things not to discourage you, but to encourage you to think carefully about the real reasons why you want to “raise” bees.

Chances are the flowering plants you are growing are already quite effectively pollinated by wild bees and other insects and unless you are growing such crops on a large scale, the addition of honey bees to the mixing will only have a marginal effect on yields. Exceptions to this could include areas where neighbors regularly spray insecticides – with the result that wild insect numbers have been drastically reduced – or places where wild bee populations have suffered for other reasons, such as heavy pollution or loss of habitat. Unfortunately, in these cases, you are probably in the wrong place to keep bees.

Compared to most farm animals, bees require little attention and can therefore be added to a garden, farm or smallholding without fear of creating a serious waste of time. However, like any other creature in our care, someone needs to give them the right kind of attention at the right time, if only to make sure they are comfortable, full of provisions and disease free. Bees are – and always will be – wild creatures, unimpressed by our attempts to domesticate them, so “keeping” them is really a matter of providing suitable housing and allowing them to roam freely. Beyond that – especially if you have honey in mind – you need to consider the degree and style of “management” you will strive to apply.

Meeting the needs of other native bees first will help ensure that you don’t cause an imbalance by flooding the area with honeybees when the local bumblebee population is not optimal. Exactly how this can be assessed is not yet fully established, but if bumblebees are currently rare visitors to your garden, it may be too early to add a beehive.

One of the most important considerations is the availability of food throughout the bee flight season, and this is where the gardener can apply their special skills to ensure biodiversity and the appropriate variety of species. There is considerable overlap in the varieties of flowers visited by different types of pollinating insects and each has particular preferences. For example, comfrey, red clover, and foxglove tend to be preferred by bumblebees, while honey bees are more likely to be found on heather, white clover, and apple blossoms. Of the “imported” species, Buddleja is renowned for attracting butterflies, moths and many species of bees, and Himalayan Balsam provides a welcome late-season boost, especially for bees and bees. hoverflies.

Of course, many – if not most – would-be beekeepers are tempted in this direction by the prospect of having their own honey ‘on tap’. Honey yields depend on three main factors: the number of colonies kept, the extent and variety of food available, and – more than anything – the weather. Of these, only the first is entirely under your control, as bees can forage within a 5 km radius of their hive. If most of that territory is flower meadows and hedgerows, organic farmland, or green, uncultivated wilderness, you’re probably in a good position to keep at least half a dozen beehives if you want. Increasingly, beekeepers in towns and cities are finding that their bees are healthier and more productive than those kept near farmland, and the explanation seems increasingly clear: our agricultural system is a heavy consumer pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, which are known to be harmful to pollinators. Much attention has recently been focused on the insidious destructiveness of systemic neonicotinoids, including imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which are known to be highly toxic to bees under laboratory conditions but have been licensed for a field use. They are usually applied as seed coatings, penetrating the cellular structure of plants as they grow and rendering the whole plant – from its roots to its pollen and nectar – toxic to anything that grows. getting too close. Concerns have also been widely expressed about their potential for toxicity to humans.

If you decide you want to bring bees into your life, an early choice you have to make is between “conventional” beekeeping, using variations of the Langstroth style frame and foundation hive, and so-called “natural”. , which is primarily based on variations of the top-bar hive. The route you take will depend on your philosophy, your priorities and your pocket. The conventional approach requires a substantial initial investment in equipment, continued reliance on purchased supplies, and the possibility of higher honey yields; while the natural route can be followed at minimal cost, with generally lower but longer lasting yields and a minimal carbon footprint. Before choosing between them, you should first look for opportunities to have direct, hands-on encounters with live bees. en masse.

It’s also worth noting that not everyone is temperamentally suited to working with bees, and it’s best to establish that one way or another before you end up with tens of thousands of them. in your backyard.

There are some things all gardeners can do to help all bees and other pollinators, unless they’re into beekeeping.

The most important thing one can do is learn how to control pests using organic methods that do not require the use of toxic chemicals. About 98% of all insects benefit us in some way, but most insecticides don’t distinguish between “friends” and “enemies”.

The next most important thing you can do is improve bee habitat by planting native wildflowers – the kind that bees have evolved with over a hundred million years. There are lists of bee-friendly plants available online and some nurseries that specialize in these plants.

If you have room in your garden, letting some of it run wild to create a safe haven for bees and other insects is a great idea. Overly manicured gardens are not so wildlife-friendly. Small piles of twigs and leaves and piles of rocks are useful to many species.

Besides the practical reasons why you may be considering keeping bees, they are an attractive species from which we have much to learn. Beekeeping is a fascinating and absorbing activity that has the potential to enrich your relationship with the landscape and its wild inhabitants.

And just having more bees of all kinds around can greatly add to your enjoyment of your garden.

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