Why do we need bees?
They may be tiny but bees are essential to a healthy environment and healthy economy. We rely on them and other insects to pollinate most of our fruit and vegetables. But bees are under threat and without them so is our food and economy. Friends of the Earth is encouraging people to take practical and political action. You can make your garden, street and community bee-friendly, but it's also vital we persuade government to take action too.
Find out the facts, and how you can join the generation that saves bees.
1. Bees - the perfect pollinators
What did you have for breakfast today? Jam on toast? Fresh fruit? Dried fruit in your muesli or some grilled tomatoes with your fry-up? Maybe fruit juice or a coffee? All of this was brought to you by bees. It’s tempting to think bees just provide us with honey – but in fact they’re behind much of the food we eat, including most fruit and vegetables.
Bees are crucial to our economy – without them it would cost UK farmers £1.8 billion a year to pollinate our crops. In a world without bees, our food would cost a lot more to produce and our economy would suffer.
2. A healthy environment needs bees
When was the last time you noticed a bee buzzing around some flowers? Maybe you find them charming or annoying – either way, bees are incredibly important. They pollinate plants in gardens, parks and the wider countryside, including more than three-quarters of the UK’s wildflowers. Bees are a sign of how healthy, or otherwise, our environment is.
3. Bee-friendly spaces are good for us too
Places that are good for pollinators are good for people too. What’s finer on a warm summer’s day than lying in a park – fragrant with flowers and humming with bumblebees? We share bees’ need for varied, natural green spaces and the essentials such places provide, which we often forget. Wild areas are great for bees and perfect for picnics, but they also help give us clean air and water. They’re important if we’re going to cope with a changing climate – natural spaces absorb excess water and heat, and can offer cool shade.
4. Bees in culture
From pub signs and town names, from Shakespeare to JK Rowling, from beehive hair-dos to phrases like “having a bee in your bonnet” – the bee has been a star for centuries. Pliny referred to honey as “the sweat of the heavens and the saliva of the stars”, while Chaucer was one of the first to use the phrase “busy as bees”.
The bumblebee has always been a source of special delight because of its portly features and furry bottom. Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist and Dumbledore (a Cornish word for bumblebee) in Harry Potter suit their names well.
Bees have also been recognised historically as beneficial insects by many faith communities. Read more about bees and religion & how faith groups can help bees and pollinators.
Image: St Paul's Churchyard, Deptford. Copyright Marathon
5. Different bee species
The Honey bee is probably the best-known bee around, but over 270 species of bee have been recorded in Great Britain. Honey bees and bumblebees live socially, led by a queen and serviced by male drones and female worker bees.
Solitary bees tend to be smaller and their family unit is made up of a single pair. Although lots of solitary bees can be found in one area, they operate alone. Bumblebees are distinguished by their large furry bodies and species include the black and-yellow striped Garden bumblebee and Red-tailed bumblebee. Solitary bees include mason bees, leaf-cutter bees and mining bees. The Wool-carder bee strips hair from plants to weave its nest, while the Red mason bee lives inside hollow plant stems and holes in wood.
6. Bees in decline
Since 1900, the UK has lost 13 species of bee, and a further 35 are considered under threat of extinction. None are protected by law. Across Europe nearly 1 in 10 wild bee species face extinction.
7. What are the causes of bee decline?
We already know enough to do something to help, even if some issues might need more research to be fully understood. Known causes of bee decline include things that affect us too. These include changes in land use, habitat loss, disease, pesticides, farming practices, pollution, invasive non-native plant and animal species, and climate change.
8. Without bees, we're in trouble
The outlook for bees right now is quite bleak – and their drop in numbers is a sign of the plight of the natural world as a whole. Across society, we often undervalue nature and what it does for us. The truth is, if we want an economy that provides for everyone’s needs in the long term, we need to look after our natural environment. Our politicians need to understand the importance of protecting the natural world – and protecting bees as key players in it. We're optimistic we can make a difference - see what you've already helped us achieve so far.
9. We need to act now
We need to take action now, for the sake of people and wildlife. Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause campaign has already secured a National Pollinator Strategy from the Government. But we need to make sure that the strategy is strong enough to reverse bee decline in the UK - including by keeping bee-harming pesticides out of our fields and gardens.
10. Bees and neonicotinoids
There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that neonicotinoids, a group of pesticides commonly used in UK farming, harm bees. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared in 2013 that they posed an “unacceptable risk” to bees, leading to temporary restrictions. We want the UK government to support a complete and permanent ban on neonicotinoids – and keep any EU restrictions on bee-harming pesticides post-Brexit. Together we can ban bee-harming pesticides for good so bees can thrive.
11. Easy ways to help bees
You can make a huge difference where you live by doing a few simple things. Planting flowers rich in nectar will really help bees find the food they need. Choosing local, British honey will lend your support to our honey bees and their beekeepers. Encouraging your friends and neighbours to do the same will help create bee-friendly communities. Bees are crucial in the countryside but they’re essential in the city too. A wild window box in the middle of the urban jungle has great value. A whole building covered in window boxes is even more useful and looks fantastic.
12. Plan a bee-friendly garden
If you’ve decided to make somewhere better for bees, the first thing to do is survey your spot. Take a short walk to see what’s attracting bees - are there plants or trees that look particularly popular? Lots of ornamental flowers have been bred to contain no nectar – they might look good but do little for wildlife.
13. Time to start planting
Choose flowers with pollen that bees can get at easily – single-flower varieties for example. Grow a range of plants that will provide a succession of flowers for as long as possible during the year – bees need nectar from very early spring until early winter. The great thing about gardening is that it’s good for you as well as wildlife. Fresh air and gentle exercise improve health and wellbeing. The scale of your bee-friendly growing will depend on your outside space, but it all helps. If you don’t have a garden, plant a window box or hanging basket. You could try:
- Flowering herbs - try marjoram, chives, sage and thyme.
- Low growers - try crocus, bluebell, snowdrop and nasturtium.
- Bushy plants - try hyssop, hebe, rosemary and lavender.
- Trees - try hawthorn, hazel, holly and willow.
- Fruit and vegetables - try strawberries, tomatoes and beans
- Attractive ornamentals - try achillea, allium, angelica, echinacea, foxglove and verbena.
14. Create a mini meadow of wildflowers
Dedicate an area in your garden to wildflowers. They look beautiful and are low maintenance – and you can create a miniature meadow in a container if space is limited. Meadow-seed mixes are available in annual and perennial form – the annual mixes will give you lots of impact straight away. Perennials are slow burners but will gradually produce more colour and wildlife interest over the years.
15. Make a bee hotel
There are more than 200 species of solitary bee in the UK that need individual nests. Some species tunnel into the ground, sandy banks or crumbling mortar. Others use hollow stems or holes in wood. By making things like this available it’s easy to create ideal accommodation for solitary bees. You could provide a bundle of hollow plant stems or a luxurious bee hotel, packed with dry logs, untreated timber and soft, crumbly mortar. The other thing bees need is water – so make sure there’s a source nearby like a bird bath or pond, especially on hot days.
16. Choose local honey
An easy – and delicious – way to help the British honey bee is to buy the fruits of its labour: support beekeepers by choosing honey produced near you. You’ll see all the different colours honey can be – from dark green and deep gold to almost pure white. And it could be an excuse to buy other products like honey beer, beeswax candles and sweet-smelling honey soaps and balms.
17. Inspire your neighbours
Encourage other people to help bees too. You could nudge them to follow your lead simply by showing off your bee-friendly plants. There’s nothing like a bit of neighbourly competition to prompt a flurry of wildflower planting. Bee-friendly growing could be a great way to make your neighbourhood more attractive and to meet your neighbours.
18. Bee-friendly at work
Why not take your experiences to work: tell people what you’re doing for bees, and why. Encourage your work mates to do some bee-friendly planting of their own. Often offices have patches of grass or planters that could be perked up with some pretty flowering plants. Reassure the resident gardener – if there is one – that bee-friendly planting can be both formal and low maintenance. Smart troughs filled with drought-resistant lavender look good all year round, and smell wonderful too. Bee-friendly planting won’t just improve things for pollinators – it’ll make work more pleasant as well.
19. Great British Bee Count
In May and June, why not join our Great British Bee Count - Friends of the Earth's annual bee survey to gather information about bees to help scientific research. It's a great way to find out more about these fascinating insects and get plenty of bee-friendly tips.
20. Support the Bee Cause
Together we can show policy makers we’re willing to help bees, and we think they should too. Friends of the Earth is encouraging people to make their gardens, streets and communities bee-friendly and to take action to get politicians’ support for bees. We want the Government to make the National Pollinator Strategy robust enough to save British bees. If it acts now, it could save us millions of pounds and help secure our food supply.