Every gardener must have noticed a decline in the bee population over recent years. Intensive farming that demands the use of toxic chemicals, climate change and parasite infestation have all been put forward as potential causes, it's a worrying trend but one that we can all help to reverse.
Repeated studies, reported in respected journals such as Science and New Scientist have shown that a toxic cocktail of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, is perhaps the greatest threat to the bee population, most notably the use of neonicotinoids.
What Are Neonicotinoids?
Neonicotinoids are a family of systemic pesticides that infiltrate the whole structure of a plant including its pollen and nectar. There five main types of neonicotinoid – thiacloprid, acetamiprid, imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – all are extremely toxic and, after being ingested, attack the bees' nervous system.
Do Neonicotinoids Kill Bees?
Neonicotinoids do not immediately kill the bee, studies including one by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology have found that bees will die at a younger age, their colonies were more likely not to have an egg laying queen and were at greater risk of infection and disease. The colony's ability to overwinter may well also be affected.
Neonicotinoids are used mainly as a treatment for seeds. Only a fraction is absorbed by the plant, the rest remains in the soil, contaminating crops for years to come. The neonicotinoids will also seep into water courses which means that the contamination spreads further to wild flowers and further afield.
Research from the Soil Association has also shown that the toxic nature of neonicotinoids may be increased by a thousand fold by the presence of up to a dozen different pesticides, fungicides and insecticides found in the bee population.
Should We Be Concerned About The Bee Population Decline?
Without bees food production would collapse, as it is estimated that at least one third of all the crops that we grow depend on bees and other insects for their pollination.
They are a vital element in our eco-system, as hand pollination is impractical and prohibitively expensive. According to The Guardian, producers of Gala apples are now having to spend £5.7m each year replacing natural pollinators.
Leading expert Prof. Dave Goulson of Sussex University reasons that the collapse in bee and insect numbers reflects the fact that pesticides and mono-culture are making land inhospitable to most forms of life.
'We are currently on course for ecological Armageddon as entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity.'
Can Neonicotinoids Affect Humans?
Only a small amount of research has taken place but continued exposure may well pose a health risk according to the National Resources Defense Council in the United States, and food for thought has been provided by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology whose on-going research has discovered neonicotinoids in 25% of British honey.
Have Neonicotinoids Been Banned?
There is already a partial ban imposed by the EU, neonicotinoids were banned from flowering crops in 2014 and, as a result, the frequency of contaminated honey samples has fallen.
The UK government is now ready to back a complete ban on neonicotinoids having acknowledged that there is now a considerable amount of evidence that indicates the risk that they pose to the environment.
The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove is quoted as saying,'Bees play a key part in our £100bn food industry, this justifies further restrictions on their (neonicotinoids) use. We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.'
What Are The Best Plants To Attract Bees?
Plants that have single open flowers will attract bees as access to plants with multiple petals can be difficult for pollinators and they may lack pollen and nectar. You should also ensure that there is a range of plants from crocus and daffodils that flower when food is scarce in the spring to late autumn and even winter flowering varieties.
Wild and garden flowers such as knapweed, marjoram, thyme, clover, foxgloves, honeysuckle, sweet william, hyssop, jasmine and English lavender are all recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society along with many others and there are several specialist retailers from whom they can be purchased.
If you want a lawn, allow dandelions to flourish along with white and red clover. Better still, why not establish a wild flower meadow that can be grown from seed or laid using a Meadow Mat which resembles normal turf but contains wild flowers known to attract bees and other pollinators.
When growing flowers from seed make sure that they haven't been treated neonicotinoids, this won't be on the label so you might need to do some research. Some seed packets will carry the RHS 'Perfect For Pollinators' logo, and bio-degradable neonicotinoid free wild flower seed mats are also available that just need to be laid out on prepared soil.
How Can I Help To Save Bees?
Although the man in the street can only show their disapproval of intensive mono-culture farming techniques and the use of pesticides by adding their voice to popular opinion and buying organically grown food, there is much more gardeners can do to encourage bees.
Many people have bird boxes in their garden, even hedgehog homes and squirrel feeders. To attract bees there are a large variety of artificial habitats that are sturdily built and easy to locate. Usually containing a series of hollow tubes, they offer a safe place to lay eggs and a haven over winter for solitary species.
Garden organically. If you must use a pesticide, make sure they do not contain neonicotinoids, if you see thiacloprid or acetamiprid on the label don't buy the product. You may still have products containing imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam in your greenhouse or shed, these are completely banned and you will have to visit a household waste recycling site that accepts chemicals for responsible disposal.
Perhaps you can find a local beekeeping enthusiast who is willing to locate a hive in your garden or, even better become a beekeeper yourself, the British Beekeeping Association will give you all the advice that you need,