Challenge 19 – Bee Curious

Your challenge this week: to sit and watch bees in the garden or the park and talk to your children about why they are so important.  To get creative and discover ways that we might easily encourage more little bees to make their homes nearby or contribute to an insect survey.

This challenge encourages the following values:
Kindness, Courage, Responsibility, Gratitude, Generosity, Resourcefulness, Compassion, Optimism, Patience, Commitment.

What you need to complete your challenge this week:

  • Make time to spend outdoors in nature
  • A small companion to learn with
  • A bee identification guide
  • To have a root around in the garden or the woods for things that you can put out to encourage bees to make a new home.  Maybe a packet of seeds to grow some bee-friendly flowers.

If all else fails…
Sit in the garden on a sunny afternoon and ponder the blessing that is the natural bee community.

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White-tailed or garden bumblebee?

Food for thought for the grown-ups:
We read over and over again blogs, posts, articles, documentaries and the like about bees being in danger, why they are so important and what will happen if their numbers continue to decline.  The problem for me is that I am left feeling powerless to really know what to do to help.

Let’s start with a few stats so we can get an idea of the problem first… Bees are integral to pollination, we all know this, and we rely on pollination to successfully grow fruit and vegetables, again this is common knowledge but did you know that 34% of crops grown in the UK are reliant on pollination by (mostly) bees. I don’t want to take away the sterling pollination efforts of other insects, especially hoverflies – I know, who knew? – and birds of course, but it’s the bees we need to be concerned about right now because as so many of these well-written articles state their days are numbered.

Next, we need to get our heads around why bees are in danger, which bees are particularly at risk and what exactly it is that bees do…

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Maybe a red-tailed bumblebee?

The humble bumblebee is one of the most effective pollinators because of its shape, size and its ability to buzz (or vibrate).  It’s worth knowing that there are 26 species of bumblebees in the UK. 7 of the most common, and which you’ve likely seen even if you didn’t know it, are the buff-tailed, white-tailed, red-tailed, garden, common-carder, early and tree bumblebees.   It’s a sad fact that even these most common varieties of bumblebees are vulnerable now. 

Bees face a number of threats here in the UK and these include habitat loss, climate change, toxic pesticides and disease.  Various combinations of these factors make for a concerning future for these little workaholics and we need to be thinking about how we can make our own environments, our own gardens, little safe havens for them.

If you might permit me for a moment I’m going to go off topic a little here (I can’t help it – I’m a geek) but check this out! Worldwide there are about 250,000 species of bee. I know! The UK is home to 250 of these different species. Bees are split into 9 bee families, 1 of these is the Apidae family with members which include the honey bee, mason bee, leafcutter bee, carpenter bee and bumblebee. It’s interesting to note here that some are much better pollinators than others so each species need to be monitored and researched closely in order to ascertain how much danger they are in.  Are our pesticides, our habitats turned building sites, our lack of action to tackle climate change diminishing bee numbers to the point that they are incapable of supporting our farming and food requirements?  I totally get that in the grand scheme of things we can’t do much but does that mean we should do nothing?  How much harm can it do to learn a little bit more about bees and what we CAN do in our own gardens to help them?

Ok, back on topic.  In addition to all these bumblebees, many more kinds of easily identifiable bees also exist. The humble busy buzzy bumble bee is probably the first we learn to recognise as children.  We might then learn about the skinnier less fluffy varieties and maybe a few others if we are particularly keen but personally, especially where the children are concerned it’s worth keeping it simple…

Now let’s look at what bees actually do? If you can’t remember back to that Science lesson that covered pollination here is a brief rundown… Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the ‘Anther’, the male part of the flower, to the ‘Stigma’, the female part of the flower. Following this transition of pollen, a plant’s fruit, seed or nut, is formed. It really is as simple as that but without bees and their extraordinary work ethic, the world would quite simply be a very different place. And there would be no honey – well not proper honey anyway – and I like honey!

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Possibly a Common Carder bee or maybe a Southern Cuckoo bee due to its ginger collar?

Before I lose you to more facts let me tell you why I have written this post.  In my opinion, many excellent pollinating UK species of bee are now in danger of extinction and having read lots of stuff I now know that I, (a busy mum who works and barely has time to brush her hair) and you, (who probably doesn’t get around to brushing your hair on a daily basis either), and our little gang of next-generation planet dwellers, (who are looking to us for direction) can support bees with very little effort.  If I can do something that is very little effort and is teaching my children a valuable lesson then it’s worth doing – so I’m going to show you how.

July the 8th – 14th is Bee’s Needs Week.  This is part of the National Pollinator Strategy in England’s wider work for bees and other pollinators.  Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who are supporting Bee’s Needs Week have come up with 5 simple actions that we can all take to support our little pollinating friends. If you click on the link the site will tell you more about each action and how you might identify the right flowers or hibernation spots etc.

  1. Grow more flowers.
  2. Let your garden grow a little wilder than you might normally.
  3. Cut the grass less.
  4. Don’t disturb insect nests and hibernation spots.
  5. Think carefully about whether to use pesticides in your garden.

I don’t think we can argue that these are not difficult to do. 

If you have more time on your hands consider having a look at the Great British Bee Count online or a do a FIT (Flower insect timed) count.  A FIT count takes 10 minutes and all the resources you need can be found here – the children love this one!.

If gardening is your bag then download the Blooms for Bees  citizen science app to survey which flowers in your garden bumblebees like to visit. The app and website include a detailed ID guide  to the UK’s bumblebee species. 

We are technically at the tail end of some of these studies but any information we can contribute to any of the research projects is hugely beneficial to the cause – and it’s a lovely excuse to sit in the garden or the park quietly observing nature.

 

 

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And for the children:
Picture the scene. My youngest is two years old, it’s a beautiful evening and I’m watering the garden, the children are busy trying to scalp each other with a Frisbee.  Me “Come here and look at this bumblebee”. Youngest son shouts “Agghhhh? where? will it sting me? don’t go near it!”, whilst gingerly making his way over to me. This fear, unfortunately, is a common reaction to any flying insect with a stinger.

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My son is now less fearful and happy to get up close to all sorts of insects armed with a little understanding and respect.

It was his ‘normal’ reaction that made me question what I could do to alleviate that immediate terror, I don’t want either of my children to have an irrational fear. Could a little knowledge and understanding about this little insect give him a different perspective and lessen his immediate panic? Dare I go so far as to hope he might learn to love bees? I figured it couldn’t hurt to try so I embarked on a little lesson and as with all good lessons, it involved food! We sat down and I explained what bees do and why they do it, I did it in my own words to suit my own children and their understanding so I would suggest if you choose to take this approach you do the same.  Start the conversation at the dinner table whilst they are dipping into the tomato ketchup. “Did you know that without bees there would be no tomatoes and no ketchup!”. Do it at breakfast time whilst they are licking honey off their fingers after a piece of toast. “Did you know that without bees we would have no yummy honey for our toast or porridge”. When you are watering the flowers in the garden. “Can you imagine what our garden would look like if there were no bees, what do you think it would look like”?

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Planting bee-friendly plants from seed.

After this was the mission, what could we do together to get more bees in our garden? Having looked at the sites mentioned above and having investigated some simple ways to encourage bees we chose to plant some bee-friendly flowers from seed packets and tied old canes tied together and hung them up in the sun to make a bee hotel. There is a huge wealth of information on the internet and you are all savvy enough to find something but here are some of those sites again.  Bee Conservation Trust, Blooms for Bees, The Royal Horticultural Society, The Honey Bee Conservancy, and Friends of the Earth whose site is packed with ideas of things to do with kids to teach them about bees.

So go for it,

Whether you choose to do a little or a lot, get out in the garden, see if you can see any bees and if you can have a closer look at them, see if you can identify them using the bee identification guide.  Get your children involved in a bee count or just plant some flowers in a pot or the ground that both you and the bees will enjoy.  Our bees are important and it’s important we and our children learn to look after them.

 

Note: I am absolutely no bee expert.  All the pictures used are my own except for the banner picture, that’s Rob’s and I really can’t take credit for that one – it’s particularly excellent I am sure you’ll agree – thank you for letting me use it.  I have tried my own bit of bee identification but please use the proper sources and not my guesswork, it’s highly likely I got them right, but it was fun having a go.  More than anything just enjoy learning a little more about our furry little bee friends.

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