These are strange and unsettling times, for sure. But with all of us spending more time at home in recent months, any outdoor space has been an absolute blessing. So many people have enjoyed getting up close and personal with their garden wildlife during this exceptional spring. And what could be more comforting, now that July is here, than the timeless sound of summer, the gentle buzz of bees lulling you to sleep as you snooze in the garden on a warm afternoon?
We decided to catch up with author and wildlife gardener Jean Vernon to find out more about the wonderful bees in our gardens. A former wildlife correspondent for the RHS Journal, Jean writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph, and in her new book, ‘The Secret Lives of Garden Bees’, she reveals the secrets and fascinating lives of the bees that live and breed in your garden.
Even better, we have a copy of Jean’s new book to give away, together with a few planting tools to help you get planting some bee-friendly flowers this summer.
You’ll find the giveaway details below, but first, let's get the low-down on those beautiful buzzers.
Jean, how did you get into gardening?
I’ve been fascinated by plants since I was very small. I had my own patch of garden at my childhood home and I helped my mum on our allotment as soon as I could walk. Gardening is in my blood really; plants are amazing and deserve our respect and admiration.
You’re into both herbs and unusual edibles – what will you be growing this year and why do you love it?
I’m a big fan of perennial vegetables, partly because they are fairly low maintenance which suits my chaotic lifestyle, but also because some of them are fascinating and very productive plants. Some of my favourites are Taunton Deane Cottagers Kale, which is also a delicacy to our local deer that leap the garden wall and feast on its lush, green leaves. I pick the leaves young and add them to salads. Babington Leek is another great plant; it’s native to the UK and a mild soft neck garlic that is very prolific. Again young leaves and stems are great in salads, but can also be used instead of garlic to bulk out many menus.
How did you tune into the world of the bees?
Bees and plants evolved together over millennia, you can’t have a love of plants and be unaware of these magical creatures. Our plants need pollinating to produce fruit, seeds and nuts and the vital role that bees and other pollinators play is part of that magic. But it was a chance experience at Kew Gardens that really made me see that the relationship between pollinators and plants is an extremely evolved process that in some cases beggars belief.
I had the great privilege of a summer vacation job at RBG Kew during my degree in Botany. Every lunchtime I ate my sandwiches in a different glasshouse or part of the garden. One day I bumped into the curator of the Alpine glasshouse and he showed me some of the plants within the collection. A small, unassuming little plant that I would have walked past in ignorance had such a fascinating story and the power to virtually change my life.
The Australian trigger plant is botanically called Stylidium. These are rare plants but there are actually over 200 different species in the group, which all use this quite bizarre interaction with their insect pollinators. I’m not entirely sure which species was growing in the Alpine House at Kew Gardens that summer, but it was a low growing, compact form with pretty pale pink flowers.
With the help of a pencil end, which was gently touched into the centre of the flower to mimic a feeding bee, the central trigger, like a tiny pad, whizzes across the flower and hits the visiting bee, either in the rear end or between the eyes, depending which way around the bee is facing and the species of the plant. It’s fast and fascinating. It’s a bit like poking a Venus flytrap to activate the traps, but much, much faster – more like boxing the bee in the rear end. There’s a clip on YouTube if you want to see it, because of course you can’t go around poking plants in botanic gardens. What’s even more fascinating is that the plant can reset itself over the course of ten to twenty minutes. And of course the reason for this mode of action is pollination. Just how this has evolved is beyond me and just proves that plants are far more complicated and evolved than many people think.
The trigger is first bestowed with anthers and pollen and when activated it dusts the bee with the pollen. The anthers deliver pollen to every insect that visits to sup its rich nectar and when the pollen has been distributed, then the surface of the trigger plant develops a sticky pincushion of stigmas; the female parts of the flower. Now when an insect stops to drink at its nectar source the trigger cushion, when activated, smacks the bee in the same place, picking up any pollen that has hopefully come from another trigger plant growing nearby. This facilitates pollination bringing the pollen and stigmas of the trigger plants together and forming the seed.
The trigger takes about twenty minutes to reset, but in hot weather when the bees are more active it can reset much faster. Every time I think about that encounter and that plant I am totally overwhelmed by the way the plant interacts with its pollinator.
Apart from your garden writing, have you ever been able to combine your love for wildlife with your job?
My first job in horticulture was another summer vacation placement at East Malling Research Station, which specialises in fruit. On my first day I was sent out into the apple plantation with a clicker counter to count leaves on apple trees! I must admit I did wonder if it was a new employee initiation ceremony to start with! To be working outside in nature, with the birds singing around you and other wildlife within sight and sound of your work place is a wonderful experience. These days I am more office bound but I do volunteer work for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, helping to survey for bees and spread the love for these amazing creatures.
We have an image of bees living in colonies, happily making honey – is this the exception, rather than the rule?
Every time I tell someone I have written a book about bees, they tell me they know a beekeeper. I absolutely love honeybees and they are rightly revered, but they are just one of the 276 species of bees that we have in the UK. Just one. Granted they are the only UK bee that makes honey, but they are also the only bee that has a club in every town programmed to keep them alive. It’s our wild bees that are in trouble, big trouble. Some of our wild bees also live in colonies and collect nectar to sustain their activity. These are the bumblebees; we have 25 species of bumblebees in the UK. The other 250 species of UK wild bees are what are rather uninspiringly called Solitary Bees. These are what I call the Indie bees, the single mums of the bee-world who, once mated, spend their time building nests to cocoon and protect their eggs and larvae. They never get to see their offspring and die before the season is out.
How many species of bee are likely to visit our gardens?
There are many bee species that you could find in your garden. About seven of the bumblebees are regular garden bees, there’s even one called The Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) – how lucky are we to have our very own bumblebee? We also get a real mixture of solitary bees that feed on our garden plants. Many of these are mining bees, which nest in the soil. But there are other cavity nesting bees which you might find nesting in your insect house that are fantastic garden bees, like the leaf cutter bees, the wool carder bee and the mason bees.
Tell us your favourite bee fact!
Solitary bees are better pollinators than honeybees, often because they are very messy bees when collecting the pollen. One mason bee can do the work of 120 honeybees so if you want better pollination of your orchard, don’t get a honeybee hive, instead improve your plot for the wild bees.
What can gardeners do to make their gardens more bee-friendly?
Gardeners need to grow more bee-friendly plants, and more of them. Choose plants with nectar and pollen that is accessible and avoid double flowers. Plant swathes of these so that there is a good patch of flowers in one place. It allows the bees to feed more efficiently. But the biggest thing you can do is to STOP using all pesticides in your garden, even fungicides and weedkillers. Bees concentrate minuscule amounts of nectar and pollen in their nests and if there are any traces of pesticides in there then these will be amplified and have shown to have sub-lethal effects on bees.
But it is also important to consider nesting sites too. Mining bees need bare, compacted soil, usually in a sunny site. Lawns are often a chosen place for them to nest. Mow after dusk when they are not flying. Live and let live, if you have a bumblebee nest enjoy it. The nest will finish its life cycle by mid to late summer and the bees don’t reuse old nest sites.Fall in love with weeds, many are great bee plants, especially the early flowering dandelions. But more than anything enjoy them, spend time outdoors watching them, engage the children. Solitary bees don’t really sting, so they are great for kids, bumblebees will only sting if their nest is under threat and male bees can’t sting at all.
Visit Jean's website Addicted To Bees. All images on this page © Jean M Vernon or Martin R Mulchinock.
We have a copy of Jean’s book ‘The Secret Lives of Garden Bees’ to give away to inspire you to get up close and personal to the bees in your garden this summer. And to help you get planting lots of pollinator-friendly plants, we’re throwing in an RHS-endorsed compost scoop and a set of cell tray trowels too. So whether you’re growing from seed or planting a pot, you’ll have the tools to make it easy.
In total the prize is worth £50, so enter now to enjoy a busy, buzzy summer of bees!
How to enter
To win this prize and get to know the bees in your garden, all you need to do is leave a comment on this blog. Scroll to the bottom of this page to comment (your email address won't be published). You’ll also need to be a subscriber to our monthly email newsletter to be a winner, so if you're not already signed up, fill in your email address in the grey band right at the bottom of this page. You can unsubscribe at any time if you don’t enjoy our monthly updates.
The small print
'The Secret Lives of Bees' prize draw, 2020