Emma Nelson joined BBCT as a volunteer earlier this year, and writes and gardens as a hobby. She wrote this article as an appeal to her local Allotments Association, to highlight how, despite providing an amazing food supply for pollinators for much of the year, gardens and plots can fail to sustain bumblebees at crucial points in their lifecycle.
Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) feeding on Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).
Think you know how to garden for bees on your allotment? Think again. I’m a big fan of gardening for bees, – bumblebees and wild bees in particular (they, not the honeybee, pollinate 2/3 of our crops that require pollinating). The more I read, the more I realise how almost arrogantly assuming I have been about their dietary requirements (just because they happen to visit my Eryngium, strawbs, lavender, or any of the abovementioned flowers that I happen to like and have come across as bee-friendly).
I had the great pleasure of meeting an experienced gardener, entomologist and volunteer with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at Leicester University’s Botanic Gardens at the end of May. Maggie began gardening aged 6, when her dad allocated a portion of their just post-war allotment to each of the children, “I grew flowers and sold them, I got to keep the earnings off it”.
Maggie was taking a group of us on a bumblebee identification trail around the glorious gardens. We had an ident sheet of the 8 “common bumblebees” we were likely to see (there are 24 UK species). Maggie was worried about one of them, the Garden Bumblebee (bombus hortorum). “I haven’t seen it in my garden much this year”, she explained, “I think it’s also now in danger. It’s one of the species with very long tongues, and the flowers they like are becoming less common” – and will continue to do so, if the bees that pollinate them decline.
It’s the clovers, trefoils, vetches, meddicks and melilots (come again? And I’ve been gardening veg and flowers over ten years now!). Legumes, our peas and beans. Your peas and beans.
So, you supply the long-tongued bumbles with protein-rich peas and beans for part of the year, but what do you give the emerging Queens in February, when they’re starving from an 8-month hibernation? They need nectar to rehydrate their eggs and the stored semen from a mid-summer tryst many moons ago. They need pollen to create the egg baskets (and a personal honey pot, for sustenance) into which they will first lay and brood upon up to 16 eggs, for their first batch of workers. If the Queen has food enough in February, and finds a suitable nest site, she can begin, and if her workers find enough forage in Feb/March (what do you grow for your pollinators then?), she and her daughters will raise another brood… and another. If not, the nest will fail. If nests fail, there’s a high chance our crops will fail.
In early Spring, when it’s too cold for the honeybees to emerge reliably, you will pray for the bumblebee to pollinate your broad beans (or, you wont even know it’s those gals, who can heat up their bodies by 30 degrees celcius thanks to their fabulous chest muscles and fur – you’ll say, airily, “It was so cold, the bees didn’t come out of their hive” to explain the lack of crop); in Summer, you’ll be taking their services for granted on your runner beans and peas, your tomatoes – ONLY pollinated by a bumblebee’s unique “buzz” pollination).
And, when you’ve harvested your food, congratulated yourself on the luck of the weather and enough tending on your part… What will your next year’s pollinators be eating to see them through hibernation? What will you plant this Autumn for them to eat in February?
“A bumblebee with a full stomach is only ever about forty minutes from starvation”, writes Dave Goulson, in “A Sting in the Tale”. They are fantastic pollinators, but just look at the size of them. How do they get off the ground?? Terrific chest muscle vibration (the source of the buzz) – which costs a lot of calories. They forage very early in the morning, before their hive cousins, til daringly late into the evening. Within 2 weeks, a worker will work herself to death. A bumblebee needs good nutrition ALL THE TIME, not just when our crops require her services.
Please plant clover. Phacelia. Plant the sedums you thought were frilly extras. Leave a patch for dead nettle. Have a swathe of snowdrops and glorious gluts of crocus. Use green manures to feed your soil when it’s flagging. Recreate Olde England (this green, but also colourful, and buzzing land) on your plot. And then, no matter how cold a winter and reluctant the hive, the unsung pollinators will come through for you.
Emma lives in Warwickshire and has three young children whom she home educates part time.
“Volunteering with BBCT is becoming a family activity, as the children have all been able to come along to the events I have helped out with – and I love that integration. The boys have made beeswax candles, insect houses, they’ve helped me invent a game, and most importantly for me, they’ve been able to see how Mummy’s love of gardening for bees translates into something meaningful in the community and wider world. I’ve had the pleasure to meet some really experienced and supportive volunteers, but it’s clear we could do with some more Midlands-based, bumblebee ambassadors – I can recommend enlisting as a volunteer for BBCT, it has been very enriching to be part of this “small but mighty” organisation”