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Category: Bees and Flowers

  1. Bees Need Flowers

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    There’s been a lot of social media posts recently advocating making bee feeders and leaving out sugar water for bees.  For lots of reasons this is a really bad idea (please see previous blog https://www.thelittlehoneybeecompany.com/blog/read_185365/why-leaving-sugar-water-out-for-bees-is-such-a-bad-idea.html ). 

    Sugar water will give bees a quick energy boost so is still good to revive a tired bee, but it doesn’t meet all their nutritional needs.  They need nectar and pollen, both of which are provided by flowers in varying quantities.  That means bees are vegetarian.

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    (Solitary bee on fleabane)

    In the UK there are approximately 280ish different bees.  One of them is the honeybee, 26 are bumble bees and the rest are solitary bees. 

     

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    (Carder bee on lavender & sedum)

    Some species of bee are known as short tongue bees, and some have longer tongues.  What’s that got to do with plants for bees?  Well bees use their tongues (or to give it it’s proper name proboscis) to suck up nectar from the flowers.  Different flowers have evolved different shapes so the nectar can be accessed by different types of bees – so when it comes to bee friendly flowers one size doesn’t fit all.

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    Bees need forage early in the year and later in the year, not just during the summer months.

    Early in the year queen bumbles will be coming out of hibernation and they need a carbohydrate boost to give them the energy to fly. 

    This is the time of year when a quick bit of sugar water on a spoon for a stranded bee (if there are no flowers around to move the bee to) could save not only a bee, but a whole future colony.  Once the queen has had her carbohydrate “fix” she needs pollen too.  When she has fed sufficiently she’ll be off to start a new colony and will have young to feed.  After she has reared the first batch of workers, some of them will take over the foraging.  As the nest expands so does the need for food.

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    (Buff tail bumble bee queen emerging from hibernation)

    Around this time of year, honey bee colonies are also expanding in size and rearing ever increasing numbers of young.  Whilst the adult bees need plenty of nectar, the young will need plenty of pollen.

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    (Extra frames have been given to a small colony of honey bees to give them room to expand)

    Solitary bees are also starting to emerge.  Once mated, the females will build a cell, provision it with nectar and pollen and lay an egg.  She’ll then seal the cell and start another one.  The eggs will hatch, the larvae will feed and then pupate.  The following year the new generation of bees will emerge to continue the cycle.

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    (Wool carder bee checking out a bee hotel)

    Later in the year new bumble bee queens will need to feed sufficiently before they go into hibernation, or they won’t make it through the long winter months.  Honey bee colonies are rearing less young and reducing down in size, but as they don’t hibernate they need to store as much food as possible for the winter. 

    During the milder winters some buff tail bumble bee queens don’t hibernate and try to raise a nest during the winter months.  Honey bees will also fly on milder days to collect water and any food they can find.

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    I’ve been asked a lot recently about how to help bees, which plants we can grow etc, and the more I tried to write a blog to answer these questions, the more I tied myself up in knots as the blog got longer and longer.  So instead I’m planning on writing a series of blogs over the next few months about planting for bees and other ways we can all help bees.  I hope you’ll enjoy these blogs and I look forward to your comments. 

    Please also feel free to share the blogs, because every plant will make a difference.

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  2. Bees Eat Honey, Don't They?

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    We all know bees eat honey.  But do they? 

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    There are approximately 280ish different types of bee in the UK.  Only one of them is the honey bee.  26 are bumble bees and the others are all solitary bees. 

    All bees sup nectar from the flowers they visit.  This gives them the energy boost they need for flying. 

    Female bees will collect nectar and pollen to take back to their colony/nest. 

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    Female solitary bees build a cell, provision it with nectar and pollen, lay an egg and then seal the cell.  She will then build another cell.  The egg will hatch, eat the nectar and pollen and then pupate before emerging the following year to continue the cycle.  The female bee only lives a few weeks and doesn’t make honey.

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    Bumble bee queens will collect and store some nectar in little “wax pots” before they start to lay their first batch of eggs.  This nectar helps to feed the queen bee whilst she is incubating her eggs.  Once the nectar runs out she will need to leave her eggs whilst she collects more.  When her first batch of bees emerge they are all girl worker bees.  Some of them will stay in the nest with the queen bee and some will take over the foraging duties, bringing nectar and pollen back to the hive to feed the growing colony of bumble bees.  Bumble bees store a small amount of nectar for a short time, but they don’t make honey.

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    The only bees who make honey are honey bees.  Why do they make honey?  Well they are the only bees who don’t die out, or hibernate during the winter.  During the winter the colony is about 10,000 strong.  This number of bees is needed to keep the colony warm during the winter months.

    During the winter months the colony clusters and the bees on the outside will “shiver” to generate heat and to keep the cluster warm.  This takes up a lot of energy at a time when the honey bees are unable to leave the hive to collect more food i.e. nectar.  During times of plenty any nectar collected which isn’t needed for immediate use is stored for when it is needed.

    Bees on comb

    Nectar is mostly water and sugars with some amino acids, vitamins and a few minerals thrown in for good measure.  Nectar can be up to 80% water.  Water and sugars will ferment into alcohol if stored for more than a short time.  Bees can also suffer from bad tums, and if they used fermenting nectar they would get a bad tum.  To stop the nectar from fermenting the moisture content needs to be reduced to less than 20% moisture.  To do this the bees spread the nectar out in cells in the hive, bees in that area fan their wings to evaporate the moisture.  Once the moisture content is below 20% (usually around 18%) the honey (as it is now) will keep until it is needed.  Well it would if it were not for the fact that being hygroscopic honey draws moisture into itself.  So the clever little bees cover each cell containing honey with a thin coating of beeswax.  Being waterproof the beeswax stops the water getting into the cell and “spoiling” the honey.

    Before using the honey the honey bee needs to dilute the honey.  To do this they mix it with a small amount of salvia which they work into the honey, before sucking up the resulting thinner liquid.

    Honey bees are also workaholics.  All the time the weather is favourable and there is nectar available they will collect it and store it.  On average a colony of honey bees needs 40 pounds of honey to see them through the winter, but most colonies will collect and store far in excess of that amount.  This is the surplus the beekeeper can take for his/her own use.  Although some beekeepers will take as much honey as possible and feed back sugar water, many beekeepers will only take what the bees don’t need.

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    So if honey is just concentrated nectar it must be better to feed bumble bees diluted honey?  Well actually no because honey can spread diseases amongst bees.

    When bees (of all types) collect nectar from the flowers to take back to their nests/colonies they suck it up into their honey crop.  This is a pre-stomach.  Almost like an inflatable balloon inside the bee which is used to carry the nectar.  Once back at the nest/hive the nectar is regurgitated. 

    At the honey bee hive it is passed from bee to bee as enzymes are added and the drying out process is started.  If the bees happen to have one of the bee diseases the pathogens or spores can also be added to the nectar along with the enzymes.

    Whilst honey bee diseases cause no harm to humans, honey is well known to spread diseases between colonies and beekeepers are advised not to feed their bees honey from another colony. 

    Whilst no research has been done on the spread of disease to bumble bees by feeding them diluted honey, it is known that some of the honey bee diseases can be passed to bumble bees.  The logical assumption can therefore be made that feeding honey to bumble bees could very well introduce them to a disease which they would otherwise not have come into contact with.

    Whilst a weak sugar and water solution is “empty” food for a bee as it contains only carbohydrates and has no other nutritional value, it is better to feed a struggling bumble bee sugar water.  The sugar water will give the bee the energy it needs to get on with the business of collecting food for the colony without risking passing on disease which could be taken back to the colony.

    Sugar water should never be left out for bees to find though - please check out my previous blog  "Why Feeding Sugar Water to Bees is a Bad Idea"

  3. Imagine If We Gave Nature A Helping Hand. . .

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    I don’t know about you, but sometimes I really despair at the damage we are doing to the world.  The problems the world faces seem insurmountable.  It feels like anything we can do is just a drop in the ocean and it’s all too late. 

    The thing is nature really is truly wonderful and has an amazing ability to bounce back.

    For years I have walked my dogs over a brown field site close to my home.  The same brown field site has also been used by dirt bikes at weekends.  To begin with this wasn’t really a problem as bikers and dog walkers gave each other space to use the area.  Over time though the attitude of some of the bikers gave the others a bad name.  It no longer felt safe as bikes would tear past too close.  Then the bike tracks extended to the neighbouring common and it seemed that the whole area turned into a race track at weekends. 

    Bikes were burned over on the site, then last year a few cars too.  Weekends the sound of the bikes tearing around could be heard all day long.  When I’d walk on the neighbouring common after a weekend my heart would break at the damage caused by the tracks torn into it, broken tree branches and the lack of respect for nature.

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    Then earlier this year another attempt was made to stop the bikes, CCTV was installed where the bikes had accessed the site and suddenly they were gone.  Weekends became more peaceful, but what has been amazing is the difference in the site just a few short months have made. 

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    Earlier this year the area was large areas of churned up bare earth which became a mud bath when it rained.  There were some large bramble patches, but the only wildflowers were clinging to the edges of the area.

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    Now seeds which had remained dormant have germinated changing the area completely

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    The bike tracks have almost vanished under an explosion of wildflowers and grasses

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    Crickets and grasshoppers can be heard in the tall golden grasses

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    Bees gather up the abundant pollen 

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    Whilst butterflies dance amongst the flowers

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    Hoverflies and other insects have moved in to take advantage of the new food source

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    Even with the lack of rain we have had over the last few months the whole area is literally humming and buzzing with life

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    I find it incredible that just being left alone for a short while the area has changed completely bringing back insects, and I’m sure impacting larger wildlife as a result.  The insects pollinating the flowers will mean more seeds for next year and I look forward to seeing how the site changes over the next few years

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    Nature really does know how to heal itself if we just give it a chance.

    Imagine if we were to give it a helping hand . . .