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Wild and Free: Bees in Your Back Garden
If you grow premium fruit, beans, almonds, hazelnuts or willows, flowering plants of any kind, or just have an abundance of wildflowers in your garden, you’ll already have bees as visitors, so keeping a hive or two of honey bees would seem like a great idea. However, while my main interest is honeybees, my first advice to gardeners considering beekeeping is to first spend some time addressing the needs of other wild pollinators, especially bumblebees and solitary bees.
It may seem romantic to have thousands of honey bees buzzing around your flower beds, but the reality is that they are not entirely without problems. If your garden is small and urban, you might want to think twice before placing a box of fifty thousand insects equipped with stingers near your neighbor’s territory. Pets, children and the elderly should be considered. Maybe you should think about how you use the space in your garden and how your activities – like sunbathing, eating in open or simply hanging laundry – can interfere with their flight path, which can sometimes make Heathrow seem like a quiet backwater.
I am not saying these things to discourage you, but to encourage you to think carefully about what your real reasons for wanting to ‘keep’ bees might be.
Chances are that the flowering plants you grow are already fairly efficiently pollinated by wild bees and other insects, and unless you’re growing such crops on a large scale, adding honeybees to the mix will only have a marginal effect on yields. Exceptions to this may include areas where neighbors routinely spray with insecticides—resulting in drastic reductions in wild insect numbers—or places where wild bee populations have suffered for other reasons, such as heavy pollution or habitat loss. Unfortunately, in these cases you are probably in the wrong place to keep bees.
Compared to most livestock, honey bees require little attention, so they can be added to a garden, homestead or small property without fear of them taking up a lot of your time. However, like any other creature in our care, someone has to give them the right kind of attention at the right time, at least to ensure that they are comfortable, well-stocked, and disease-free. Honey bees are – and always will be – wild creatures, unimpressed by our attempts to domesticate them, so ‘keeping’ them is really a matter of providing them with suitable housing and allowing them the freedom to roam. Additionally – especially if you have honey in mind – you need to consider the degree and style of ‘management’ you will be trying to apply.
Addressing the needs of other native bees first will help you avoid creating an imbalance by flooding the area with honeybees until the local bumblebee population is optimal. How exactly this can be assessed has yet to be fully determined, but if bumblebees are currently infrequent visitors to your garden, it may be too soon to add a hive.
One of the most important considerations is the availability of food during the bee flight season, and this is where the gardener can apply his special skills to ensure biodiversity and adequate species diversity. There is considerable overlap in the varieties of flowers visited by different species of insect pollinators and each has specific preferences. For example, comfrey, red clover and foxglove are preferred by bumblebees, while honey bees are more commonly found on heather, white clover and apple blossoms. Of the ‘imported’ species, Buddleia is known to attract butterflies, moths and many bee species, and Himalayan Balsam provides a welcome late-season boost, particularly to bees and hoverflies.
Of course, many – if not most – would-be beekeepers are tempted in this direction by the prospect of having their own honey ‘on tap’. Honey yields depend on three main factors: the number of colonies kept, the extent and variety of food available, and – most of all – the weather. Of these, only the first is fully under your control, as bees can forage within a three-mile (5 km) radius of their hive. If most of that territory is flower-rich meadows and hedgerows, organic farmland or green, uncultivated wild countryside, you’re probably in a good position to keep at least half a dozen hives if you so choose. Beekeepers in small and large cities are increasingly finding that their bees are healthier and more productive than those they keep near arable farmland, and the explanation for this is becoming increasingly clear: our agricultural system is a heavy consumer of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, which known to be dangerous for pollinators. Much attention has recently been focused on the insidious destructive power of systemic neonicotinoids, including imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which are known to be highly toxic to bees in the laboratory but are licensed for use in the field. They are usually applied as seed coats, finding their way into the cellular structure of plants as they grow and making the entire plant – from roots to pollen and nectar – toxic to anything that comes near it. Concerns about their potential toxicity to humans have also been widely expressed.
If you decide that you want to introduce honey bees into your life, you have to make a choice early on between ‘conventional’ beekeeping, using variations of the Langstroth hive with frames and foundations, and so-called ‘natural’ beekeeping, which is mainly based on variations of the top slatted hive. The route you follow will depend on your philosophy, your priorities and your pocketbook. The conventional approach requires significant initial investment in equipment, constant dependence on purchased supplies and the possibility of higher honey yields; while the natural route can be followed at minimal cost, with generally lower but more sustainable yields and a minimal carbon footprint. Before choosing between them, you should first look for opportunities for direct, hands-on encounters with live bees massively.
It should also be noted that not everyone is temperamentally suited to working with bees, and it’s good to establish this one way or another before you find yourself with tens of thousands of them in your yard.
There are some things all gardeners can do to help all bees and other pollinators, other than taking up beekeeping.
The most important thing anyone can do is learn how to control pests using biological methods that do not require the use of toxic chemicals. About 98% of all insects are useful to us in some way, but most insecticides do not distinguish between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’.
The next most important thing you can do is improve the habitat for bees by planting native, wildflowers – the kind that bees have evolved over a hundred million years. There are lists of bee-friendly plants available online, and there are also some plant nurseries that specialize in them.
If you have space in your garden, letting part of the garden run wild to create a safe haven for bees and other insects is a great idea. Landscaped gardens are not so wildlife friendly. Small piles of branches and leaves and piles of stones are useful for many species.
Aside from the practical reasons why you might be considering keeping honey bees, they are an interesting species that we have a lot to learn from. Beekeeping is a fascinating and enticing activity that has the potential to enrich your relationship with the landscape and its untamed inhabitants.
And simply having more bees of all kinds can add greatly to your enjoyment of your garden.
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