How to Grow Bees

Yes. Growing bees. I had this thought on the way home from meeting my friend Paul, where we had been lamenting the problems of ‘wildflower meadows’ in community spaces, as he is masterminding in the churchyard at Winchelsea. The difficulty is that the public perception of a wildflower meadow is cornflowers, poppies, daisies, waving grasses, skylarks, pretty girl in a broderie anglaise dress etc etc. The reality is very different, partly because a great deal of a meadow ecosystem exists in the soil, with the accumulation biota in the undisturbed substrate, reflecting the rhythm of pre-war, extensive agriculture. The flora will also respond to the underlying geology and water table, altering what can grow. In any case, a meadow will, whatever its heritage, spend a fair amount of time looking unremarkable to our eyes, and this can be a real problem when initiating any sort of change from a ‘clean’ grass or brown-earth state to something a little more eclectic.

Bees – that is honey bees, bumblebees, solitary bees – and all their pollinator cousins and invertebrate cohabitees need a holistic environment in which to live and work. We tend to focus on flowers as we like them, and bees need nectar and pollen so: win-win. That is only one part of the story though, and the rest of the resources they need are within the wider habitat: fungi; resin; microbes; symbionts; moisture; places where males can aggregate – and those are just the ones we know honey bees need. There are also nest sites and nurseries, and a myriad of complex systems we cannot even hope to imagine. They can all exist where nature is allowed to develop at its own pace using the resources to hand (geology, air, water) and this is why a messy meadow is indeed growing bees, even when it is not in flower. The billions of microorganisms; the interactions with other insects, birds, mammals; the shade and the light; the death and decomposition leading to recycled nutrients. These all form part of a bee’s healthy existence.

As Paul said, if we can move from looking critically at a brambly scrub, and instead focus on the sound of Nightingales that the scrub harbours in the summer, we can shift from visual to auditory appreciation. Rather than looking at dead tussocks of grass, we can see a potential larder of small rodents for the local kestrel population. A patch of nettles becomes a patch of butterflies and ladybirds, as stinging nettles are the larval food plant of many species of moth and butterfly, and the aphids that suck the sap attract ladybirds in number. I have seen honey bees collecting pollen (?) from nettles, and birds eat the seeds – and any aphids the ladybirds miss.

There is a bit of an obsession with needing constant gratification from our outside spaces, perhaps an unwillingness to embrace quiet times and rest, despite our complaints at the pace of modern life. I wonder if the concept of growing a functioning habitat for bees rather than simply growing flowers for bees would allow a more holistic approach?

5 Replies to “How to Grow Bees”

  1. ‘growing a functioning habitat rather than simply growing flowers…’ That’s (for me) a novel and helpful way of thinking about land that’s not particularly attractive and colourful. Thanks for this. I’ll keep this with me – and perhaps write something on it for our BKA newsletter (acknowledging the source of course!)

  2. “…needing constant gratification from our outside spaces…” quite a quote. Your photos, at the end, are effective at driving home the point. What looks, at first glance, to be ‘just’ a brown meadow…. is teeming with life. Well done!

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