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Helping honey bees in urban areas

Award-winning Sheffield-based writer and poet Rachel Bower shares an update on the Rotherham honey bee swarm and tips on how we can do our bit to help.

Bees with honeycomb
Boba Jaglicic

Last year, I wrote about a swarm I collected in Rotherham, after a family got home from holiday to find thousands of honey bees tightly clustered in an ornamental tree in their front garden.

I’m happy to report that these bees are now doing very well indeed! The colony turned out to be very prolific – the queen laid copiously in a beautiful solid biscuit-coloured pattern on the comb; and the workers harvested an incredible amount of pollen and nectar. This meant that the colony expanded very quickly over summer and into autumn.

Winter is a treacherous time for bees though. Many colonies don’t make it – usually because of starvation or damp (rather than cold) – but often because they are weakened by the varroa mite, and vulnerable to viruses and disease.

Beekeepers
Rachel Bower

Varroa is a parasitic mite of adult bees and brood. The European honey bee doesn’t have natural defences against the mite (although there are some interesting cases of feral bees developing resistance). For now though, varroa can overwhelm a colony if left untreated – usually you’ll see shrivelled wings and patchy brood, and the bees will die within 2-3 years.

I’m always grappling with the dilemma about how much to intervene. As I’ve said before, I see ‘beekeeping’ as ‘keeping the bees going’ – attending closely and responding as responsibly and naturally as I can. This year, I decided to treat my hives with the appropriate chemicals for varroa though, after losing two colonies the previous winter when I tried to depend mainly on natural methods.

Happily, the Rotherham bees came through winter very strong and healthy, which led to a rapidly expanding colony in spring, and more drama!

On a warm sunny day in early May, the bees decided it was time to go! Bees reproduce by swarming – it’s a natural process. When the bees are doing well, the old queen leaves with the flying bees to look for a new home.

Despite all my efforts, I didn’t manage to prevent the swarm, so they did indeed go for it – a roaring mass in the sky! They settled into a cluster quickly though and, after a battle with a privet hedge, I managed to scoop them out and into a box and they’re now safely re-located away from residential properties. We do have a problem in urban areas as there are so few habitats left for honey bees – they need hollow trees for their nests.

But the good news is that the swarm I collected last year is now two healthy colonies of bees – out in the fields south of Sheffield!

What can we do together to help bees?

Plant flowers. Let weeds grow. Learn to identify bees. Buy organic, if you can afford it. Let your garden get a bit messy. Plant herbs in window boxes or pots and let them flower. Campaign on behalf of trees, plants and insects.

We are living in a moment of absolute ecological crisis and many insects are at critical risk of extinction because of the loss of habitat and use of insecticides. Intensive farming and urban development have led to the destruction of meadows, woodland, hedgerows and verges, leaving some areas with few wildflowers and little shelter.

I think we all have a responsibility to try and live in a way that is true to this crisis. Honey bees are just one of the crucial pollinators (butterflies, wasps, bumblebees and small flies) that are endangered.

Gardens provide absolutely brilliant forage for honey bees and other pollinators. At their best, gardens offer varied sources of nectar and pollen, all year round, and a corridor between nests and sources of food.

As the Wildlife Trust points out, ‘the UK's gardens provide more space for nature than all the National Nature Reserves put together’ – so we can definitely do something about the problem!

We’re in the ‘June Gap’ at the moment – when many bees die of starvation. People are often surprised to hear that bees starve in summer – but the June Gap is a phenomenon of recent years when there’s a sudden reduction in the availability of pollen and nectar for honey bees in the UK. It’s connected to the loss of cover crops like white clover and phacelia in farming.

But you can do a lot with a tiny patch or even a pot or window box. The British Beekeepers Association website has some brilliant information about what you can do to help, including the top ten flowers you can plant for honey bees (with lots of well-known plants, like snowdrops, crocuses, lavender and foxglove).

Beekeeper
Rachel Bower

There are also loads of fabulous community gardening projects across Sheffield – just look online for the closest one to you.

The cat mint in my end-terrace garden is fizzing with bees at the moment. The more we plant, the less distance bees have to fly between the nectar source and the nest, and the less energy they use.

Trees are also amazing sources of nectar and pollen, so it’s crucial to plant and protect the right trees in the right places. Check out the Wildlife Trust’s brilliant list of actions; the Woodland Trust’s tips for supporting pollinators; and RHS’s excellent ‘Wild About Gardens’ resources.

How can we support the Sheffield bee community?

The best way to support the beekeeping community is by supporting bees.

Report swarms to your local beekeeping association via their website (not to Pest Control). Move struggling bees off the pavement and give them a drop of water or sugar water. Don’t use pesticides.

Educate yourself about bees and learn to identify them. As well as honeybees there are around 24 species of bumblebee and over 240 species of solitary bee in the UK. The British Beekeepers Association has a great guide (with pictures) that helps you identify bees.

Keep an eye out for Asian hornets – with their distinctive yellow legs – and go online to BeeBase (the National Bee Unit) if you spot one. The hornet preys on honey bees and significantly alters the biodiversity of an area if it becomes established.

Buy honey from a local beekeeper, not from the supermarket. Some recent research in Sheffield found ten times more pollen in a local beekeper’s honey than in a cheap supermarket version, which is often diluted with sugar water.

Spread the word. I recently listened to Jay Griffiths reading a brilliant piece on insects, where she powerfully points out that ‘insecticides kill insects.’ It’s that simple. We need insects to keep us alive – killing them makes no sense. Spreading the word about this might be one of the most important things we can do.

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