A bee-friendly garden will help honey bees and the environment. The Irish honey bee population tends to fluctuate from year to year. This is often due to weather conditions in a given year. In good years beekeepers can increase their numbers in bad years they can, on average, lose as many as forty per cent of their colonies. But of course, as we all know at this point weather is not the only factor that honeybees have to contend with in Ireland.
Honeybees have received a lot of attention in the media in recent times as a result of their struggle for survival and the catchy term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that was given to the mysterious and sudden disappearance of huge numbers of bees often putting very successful beekeepers out of business in the U.S.
CCD is not as common as people may at this point be led to believe. Their biggest struggle these days is against invasive pests, poison and habitat destruction.
What can you do to help honeybees?
Actually, there is quite a lot you can do to help. You could join a beekeeper association and learn about them. This will give you a lot of information about what you can do to help, but here are some pointers.
- Establish one or two hives in your back garden.
- Make your garden bee-friendly.
- Tell your friends to do the same. Lobby politicians to take steps to protect pollinators in general.
- Help the environment in general.
Establish one or two hives in your back garden.
At the time of writing this article, keeping bees in your garden (in Ireland) is not illegal, but it is best to check with your neighbours first. They may have someone in the family who is allergic. Many of the usual objections can be overcome with a promise of some honey from the hive every year that it is there.
Of course, keeping bees is not for everyone. Many people are actually afraid of them and would not want to have so many bees so close to their home. Understandable given that many people cannot tell the difference between a bee and a wasp and would likely run for the can of insecticide at the site of one.
But bees are much less likely to sting you than wasps. Bees tend to be far too busy foraging for pollen and nectar to bother with the affairs of man or even the food of man. So if see a black and yellow striped insect competing with you for your sugary drink or that gooey snack that you know you shouldn’t be eating anyway, the chances are that it is a wasp. The wasp will very likely be near the end of its days and looking for some comfort food in the form of high sugar treats like fruit, but when it comes across your high sugar foods will go for them instead.
Anyway, back to the hives. One or two hives will not take up too much of your time, though you may be surprised to learn that new beekeepers tend to spend too much time with their bees going through their hives and disturbing their bees’ routine and slowing down their honey production.
The best way for beginner beekeepers to get started is to join a Beekeepers Association. You will get all the information and encouragement there that you will need. The four most important things you need to get started are a bee suit, a smoker, a hive and a hive tool. At today’s prices, you should be able to get started for three to four hundred euros, not counting the bees themselves.
One of the advantages of having bees if you are a keen gardener is that your garden will greatly benefit from the attentions of your bees as will your neighbour’s gardens and crops. Small scale beekeepers are absolutely important to the well-being and probably to the survival of the honey bee population, so get a little help and go for it!
You could join up with another beekeeper in your area. Most beekeepers are very willing to help other newcomers get started. Many have been beekeeping for years and will welcome a strong set of arms to lift honey supers and bee hives. Be prepared to work hard as you learn and ask questions.
Make your garden bee-friendly.
Of course, you do not need to be a beekeeper to help support your local population of bees. You can make your garden a haven for pollinators of all sorts by planting the right flowers, trees or bushes. Just three steps are all you need to take to make your garden bee-friendly. 1. Plant well 2. Avoid poisons in the garden and 3. Delay mowing the lawn until the dandelions are finished flowering. Poisons include insecticides, weed killers and slug pellets etc. Many of these can end up in the flowers and then in the bees that forage on them.
The world is full of flowering plants and trees etc. and bees like flowers so you may think that having every square foot of your garden packed with them will do the job. That is not necessarily so. Not every flower will be attractive to bees. There are many reasons for this and perhaps the main two are nutrition and taste. There are very few flowers in Ireland that are harmful to bees but not all of them provide a good source of nectar and good quality pollen.
Not all pollen is the same. The amount of protein and the type of protein varies from flower to flower and bees, like us, require a balanced diet containing a variety of types of nutrition. This is known to be one of the reasons for the decline in wild bee and kept bee populations in areas with highly industrialized farming practices where there are vast areas with nothing but a single crop and that crop may or may not supply nectar and pollen. Just imagine living on cabbage and nothing else. Not very appetizing and not very healthy either. You wouldn’t last too long on it and neither can bees.
These are useful documents on helping and planting for pollinators:
First of all are the wildflowers, the ones that wild bees favour anyway and will probably grow in your garden if you go nothing, i.e. dandelions, clover, celandines, buttercup, brambles (they make wonderful honey) and primroses. Keep a little corner of your garden for the wild ones if you can. But, many gardeners pull these up on sight so we recommend the Biodiversity Ireland professional planting recommendations.
Tell your friends to do the same.
Encourage your friends to follow your example and make their gardens bee-friendly too. You could help each other out in each other’s gardens and learn from each other. This is especially useful if you both keep bees. You can help each other and pool resources.
Beekeepers tend to be quite environmentally aware and become active in their community in pursuit of the interests of the bees and other pollinators. So you can join their campaigns and activities. If you have any influential friends and acquaintances you might contact them to encourage bee-friendly practices in their area whether it is national government, local government, business or any other organization. You would be surprised what you can do when you try.
Help the environment in general.
Beekeepers tend to be much more environmentally aware in general than most people since they need to be aware of many things to look out for their bees. E.g. bees tend to be easier to handle in sunny weather than in cloudy weather, watching out for crops being sprayed in case their bees are poisoned, is there a good variety of plant life in the area to keep them fed etc.
Something that many people appear to have lost sight of in recent centuries is that we are part of the environment and we cannot survive without a healthy one. It is widely recognized at this point that honey bees are important pollinators and that the variety in our diet would be greatly reduced without them.
What is not as widely recognized is that there are many other pollinators who are also in trouble and struggling to survive. They are just as important as the honey bees. These include bumblebees, carpenter bees, hoverflies and even butterflies to name a few.
There are only a few insects that cause problems for humans, most are beneficial, but we have been systematically eradicating all insects from the planet. Who knows how many unknown species’ we have made extinct before we even knew that they were there through our widespread use of dangerous pesticides and other poisons.
The good news is that more and more farmers are using an environmentally friendly approach these days and along with our beekeepers are at the front of the battle to save our planet. Yes, it is that serious. The planet will continue without us but we cannot continue without our planet. If we lose the diversity we have even now, we will find it difficult to survive in the “new planet” we have created for ourselves where there is a great shortage of food and either much higher or much lower temperatures.