Tom Marshall from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust investigates the decline of bees in our countryside

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 July 2013

Photo by Gillian Day

Photo by Gillian Day

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It's rare that wildlife as small as a few millimetres long makes the news. This year, however, the decline in our bees has hit the headlines as the future of these vital creatures reaches crisis point. Tom Marshall from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust investigates

There are around 250 species of honey, solitary and bumble bees in the UK. Once thriving populations, today it’s thought that the total number of bees in the UK countryside has halved and at least two bumblebee species have become extinct on our shores, one as recently as the 1980s.

But while we might lament the loss of a striking butterfly or the song of a once renowned bird in our hedgerows, the disappearance of our bees seems to have gone largely unnoticed by most of us. Perhaps it’s their small size, a misunderstood reputation, or the fact that like the similarly declining ‘cockney sparrer’, they are a part of our natural world that we always assumed would be there.

So if we’ve had decades of unnoticed decline in these workman-like pollen carriers in our backyards, why should we be concerned? The answer lies in the one thing that our population relies on – food.

Bees and other insects are the primary pollinators in our countryside. They ferry the stuff of life across everything from the fruit and vegetables we eat, to the hops that become our Friday night pint, to the grass our cattle feed on that becomes your favourite steak. Without bees, our food chain and habitats within our environment would simply collapse.

Indeed, a recent study by Reading University and Friends of the Earth put the cost of taking on the UK’s pollinating needs by humans or mechanical processes at an estimated £1.8 billion a year, with more than £500 million of annual crops sales linked directly to bee pollination. The study went on to suggest that without bees, the price of the everyday apple could double. Quite a responsibility for a creature so easily swotted away on a summer picnic.

At the heart of the decline is a changing rural picture, including a 97 per cent drop in flower-rich meadows that in generations past would have been the power-house of British bee populations. Bee ‘motorways’ like hedgerows have also disappeared in their thousands of miles, while a tendency toward single-crop or ‘monoculture’ planting has seen the variety of flora in our countryside reduced.

Like the DDT catastrophe of the 1960s, pesticides have also played their part, which in May this year led to the European Commission placing a temporary suspension on dangerous insecticides called neonicotinoids. It is expected that the ban will come into effect from 1 December 2013 and will restrict the use of the three most common neonicotinoids (Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam) on crops which are ‘attractive to bees’. Disappointingly, the UK Government has currently chosen not to add its support to the suspension despite these clear losses.

The loss of domestic honey bee colonies has also contributed, with almost half lost from the 1980s to the 2000s, while solitary bees have also declined by the same amount and wild honey bees almost gone entirely.

The future for bees it seems, could be in our hands. Lending our support to organic farming, pressing the Government to reconsider its position on neonicotinoids and simple changes to how we manage our environment like encouraging the re-wilding of road verges and ensuring the Common Agricultural Policy has the environment at its heart could all help to stop the declines.

Most important perhaps, are the one million acres of gardens and backyards across the UK that all have the potential to become a haven for bees. By making a few simple choices in your planting and providing places where bees can survive over winter, we can all play a part in getting the buzz back in our countryside.

Bee a friend to bugs

In the spring the queen bumblebee needs to find a suitable nest site to start her colony. Ideal sites are old mouse or vole holes, but they can also find places in tussocks of grass or under dry debris. An area of permanent long grass along a hedge bottom, an overgrown stone wall or even an abandoned log-pile is likely to provide suitable sites.

Commercial bee boxes are now widely available, however if you want to try making an artificial nest site, bury a medium size clay flowerpot in the ground in a dry, sheltered location, preferably warmed by the sun. Use a short piece of pipe (old hose pipe will do) to make an access tunnel. Put some nesting material inside: bits of dry grass, moss, material from an abandoned birds nest or bedding for small rodent pets. Don’t use cotton wool as this can get caught up in the bees’ feet.

For the ultimate in a bee des res, you can construct a ‘bug hotel’ (see photograph) which will provide a home for all manner of invertebrates and is great fun to make. These popular structures have even been exhibited by Cheshire Wildlife Trust at the RHS Tatton Park Show.

Your garden could also be worthy of a Cheshire Wildlife Trust ‘Wildlife Friendly Garden Award’ and you could find yourself with a coveted plaque for your garden gate! Visit the website to find out more.

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