8 things We Learned About Bees and 15 Simple Actions That We Can Do To Help Them

Wild Irish Bee

Wild Irish Bee

Did you know that 100 crops provide 90% of the world’s food? And 71 of those plant crops are pollinated by bees? So if bee species and populations are in danger – and they are – so are humans. We learned this at our recent webinar from The National Biodiversity Data Centre where we heard all about the All Ireland Pollinator Plan. We also learned about how well bees are faring in Ireland and what can we do to help them? Read on to find out some mind-blowing bee facts and the small actions that we can all take that yield BIG results to help these sensational little workers on their way. We also recommend that you listen back this webinar for a treasure trove of fascinating bee-dazzling information!


1. There Are 101 Wild Irish Bee Species.

In Ireland, we have 21 species of bumblebee and 80 solitary bee species. That’s 101 wild bee species. Those 80 solitary bee species are actually the workhorses of pollination.


2. One Third Of Our Wild Bees Are In Big Trouble

Of our wild bees, one third of the species are threatened with extinction from the island. These rare species are disappearing due to the loss of semi-natural habitat, such as our meadows or our native hedgerows.

But our common bumblebees are also in decline. That’s because of how we’re all managing our business sites, gardens, sports grounds and any of the land that we have influence over.

We know all of this information because Biodiversity Ireland is scientifically monitoring their numbers with help from citizen scientists.


3. The Honeybee Is Not Wild And Does Not Need Our Help

By contrast with the 80 solitary bee species and the 21 bumblee species, we have just one species of honeybee – and, while important, these are not technically wild. They are managed pollinators and are doing really well – so well in fact that they may be out-competing the wild bees.


4. What Help Do Wild Bees Need Exactly?

When you try to understand what help bees need, just think about minding a baby. Babies (and grown-up babies in fact) need food, shelter and safety. And so do our wild bees. So all of the bee-positive actions that are detailed in section 2 of this article will be aiming to help with providing  food, shelter and safety. Simple.


5. Bees Are A Proxy Species And A Keystone Species For Biodiversity

There are some scary statistics when it comes to biodiversity loss. (Biodiversity is all living things on earth and includes all the species of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms.) There has been an average decline of 69% in species populations since 1970. So why are bees getting so much attention? The reason so many conservation efforts are focussed on bees is that if we look after bees, we will be looking after a huge array of other species by default. First, the other species need those bees to pollinate them and allow them to reproduce. And secondly, the conditions that make bees happy allow other species to thrive too, including humans!


6. A Bee With A Full Tummy Is Only 40 Minutes From Starvation

Bees are never far from starvation so they need to eat little and often – and that means providing lots of flowers. Queen bees are hungrier still. In early spring, a queen bumblebee needs roughly about 6,000 flowers per day to begin to do her job. Her job is to find a new nest for her workers and to create new bees to populate the colony.


7. Bees Like Convenience Food!

Wild bees forage between 300m and 1km of their nests. An increase in 150m between their nesting sites and food (flowers) can reduce the number of viable offspring by more than 70%.


8. Bees Are Seriously Evolved!

Bees have evolved to have tongues of different sizes and shape – which means that if we want to help them, we need to provide a wide variety of flowers for the different species to snack on.


15 Ways You Can Help Wild Bees?

Wild Native Meadow

1. Do Nothing With Your Grassy Spaces! Well, Almost Nothing!

One of the best ways to help wild bees is to sometimes do very little – if you have a grassy area! Allowing grassy areas to go wild and do their thing is the best and cheapest way to provide food for bees. The grassy areas will start producing the kinds of flowers that bees love and hedgerows will become havens for those bees and provide lots of flowers too.

You only need to cut naturally restored native meadow once a year in September. But you must lift the cuttings (sorry lazy people!). Lifting cuttings REDUCES soil fertility and that helps native wildflowers to thrive. If you leave the cuttings, it allows the more dominant grasses to reseed – which stifles flowers. If you can’t leave lawn areas unmown, can you at least leave verges and just cut them once a year.

When you stop mowing those areas, in year 1 and 2 – you’ll get mostly grasses but after that you’ll start to get species richness and fragile native flowers like buttercups, daisies, clover and dandelions will grow. Later still you’ll get vetches and knapweeds.

If you don’t have a larger area of lawn that is suitable to let go wild, could you leave strips of lawn area or verges uncut? Or dividers in a car park area?


2. Naturally Restored Native Meadow Have Biodiversity Superpowers

A naturally restored native meadow may be subtle when it comes to flowers but it has secret superpowers. Not only will it feed, house and protect the bees, it will also support up to 1,400 species of invertebrate (think insects) as they feed on the leaves and roots of naturally restored native meadow wildflowers.

As for ornamental meadows sown from a packet, while they may seem more attractive to humans with their brightly coloured flowers, they have low biodiversity value and support only about 40 insect species.

These naturally restored meadows have a second super power too! They are carbon sinks, locking that carbon away and quietly fighting climate chaos too.


3.Weeds Are In!

Encourage the following wildflower heroes – even if you were brought up to think of them as pesky weeds – and some of their more cultivated cousins. They are the top 10 food sources for wild bees – and that’s according to the Chelsea Flower Show

  • Dandelion
  • Thistles
  • Knapweed
  • Vetches
  • Heather (garden & native)
  • Bramble
  • Lavender
  • Clovers (red and white)
  • Ragwort
  • Birds-foot Trefoil


4. There Is Nothing Humble About The Hedgerow

Native hedgerows are exceptional for pollinators. Queen bumblebees love to nest at their base in the tussocky grass. And if the hedgerows is managed correctly, there will be food options from spring right through to autumn.

By manage – again you think low intervention. An optimum hedgerow is 2.5m in height, A- shape profile and is only cut every three years as flowers grow on older wood on native hedgerow. They should be cut in rotation between November and January, outside the flying season.

If you have land, could you either plant a native hedgerow or maintain one? Again, you’ll get bonus points in the fighting against climate chaos as hedgerows also store lots of carbon. Learn more about how to protect or grow a native hedgerow here.


5. Hedgerows Are Like Google Maps For Bees

Bumblebees also use hedgerows as linear flightpaths to protect them from wind, rain and predators.

A native hedgerow is roughly 75% whitethorn and 25% of the following:

  • Willow – flowers March-April
  • Blackthorn – flowers March-April
  • Wild Cherry – flowers April-May
  • Crab Apple – flowers April-May
  • Rowan – flowers April-May
  • Whitebeam – flowers May-June
  • Spindle – flowers May-June
  • Whitethorn/Hawthorn – flowers May-June
  • Guelder Rose – flowers May-July
  • Elder – flowers June
  • Bramble & Ivy –  flowers late summer/early autumn great food sources pre-hibernation.

NB Laurel and beech hedging do not support pollinators in the way native options do.


6. Learn To Appreciate Brambles And Ivy!

Both have a bad rap, but they are actually exceptional food sources for bumblebee queens in late summer before they go into hibernation. And not much else is blooming at this time!  Ivy is also really important for hoverflies which are also key pollinators. And as a bonus, hoverflies eat aphids, so that helps on farmland as aphids eat plants and crops!


7. Lots Of Garden Flowers Are Great For Pollinators Too!

While hedgerows and wildflower meadows might be the best, lots of garden flowers are great too, so striking a balance between slightly scraggy and wild and the tidy and cultivated look is perfectly possible!

The top 10 perennials to plant are: lungwort (Pulmonaria spp), comfrey (symphytum spp.) perennial wallflower (Erysimium spp), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzamtina) catnip and catmint (Nepeta spp and culitavars), lavender (Lavendula spp), sage (Salvia spp), vervain/purple top (Verbena bonariensis), Michaelmas daisy (Aster spp) and hellebore (Helleborus spp).


8. Good Goods In Small Parcels

If your business has no land or you’ve no garden, could you have hanging baskets or plant a small herb garden, moon garden or define a hare’s corner in an overlooked spot in the car park or your garden for example? Every little helps!

If you go for hanging baskets, Biodiversity Ireland recommends the following plants as best for pollinators. Snapdragon (Antrrhinum majus), diascia (Diascia spp), flossfower (Ageratum houstonianum), trailing lobelia (Lobelia erinus), African daisies (Gazania cultvars), Nasturtium (Tropaeolum), Bidens (Bidens ferulifolia), Bacopa (Sutera cordata), marigold – single flowered (Tagetes tenuifolia) and creeping zinnia(Sanvitalia procumbens).

Biodiversity Ireland also has a list of plants for those moon and herb gardens too!

As for the ‘Hare’s Corner’, that’s an old farming expression for the corner of a field or ‘rough

ground’ which was left to nature. We just love that concept!


9. Got Room For A Small Native Orchard?

An small orchard of even five heritage fruit trees is a great way to support pollinators and it looks great too!


10. Buy Peat-free Compost

We can forget that compost made from peat comes from a bog – and it turns out that bogs are very delicate habitats that great places for pollinators to live and feed! So if you only buy peat free compost, which is now widely available, you are protecting those fragile bog habitats! And guess what? Bogs are also carbon sinks too. In fact, they have been compared to the rainforests when it comes to storing carbon. So protecting them has the double whammy positive effect of minding bees and fighting climate chaos.


11. Provide Nesting Sites For Wild Bees – And Again It’s Very Easy!

If you have a south-facing earth bank with vegetation scraped off, you could provide a wonderful home for solitary mining bees, especially if your bank is a bit further away from human traffic. And old stone walls with cracks in them are great for cavity-nesting bees.


12. Invite Bees To Your Bee Hotels

Bee hotels can be a great solution for our buzzing friends. If you are including bee hotels in your garden, choose small compact ones, roughly the size of a small bird box. Larger versions may attract predators or harbour disease. So choose ones that are about the size of a small bird box.


13. Say no to pesticides, herbicides and insecticides

Eliminate pesticides, herbicides and insecticides – or at the very least only spot spray whatever item you are trying to get rid of. The exception to this rule is if you are dealing with some invasive species. You will need to continue to spot spray invasive species in line with Government guidelines. And can you avoid buying plants that have been treated with pesticides?


14. What about a Green Roof or Green Wall?

A green roof can be a great option to help pollinators – but with a few important caveats. They really shouldn’t be any higher than the second floor as only the very strongest of our pollinators will fly above that height. You’ll find a list of great native plants to use here.

So if you’re creating a green roof, be very clear why you’re doing it. If it’s above the second floor, it won’t necessarily be helpful for pollinators, but it may be helpful for climate adaptation by helping hold rainfall or it may be an initiative for human health and wellbeing. Or it might be great spot to grow herbs and vegetables. The same applies for green walls, lovely for humans, less helpful for pollinators.


15, The National Biodiversity Data Centre Ireland Has a Treasure Trove of Other Tips And Top Guides!!

The All Ireland Pollinator Plan has loads of guides and materials full of advice on everything from how to create bee-friendly and pollinator friendly flowering baskets to actions for sports clubs, gardens, golf clubs and businesses. You’ll find these biodiversity resources here. And don’t forget to listen back to our fascinating webinar too!