A couple of weeks ago I had a day off while Tommy was at nursery. Time to myself! Trying not to feel guilty, I went to a ‘Pollinator day’ on 20th July at Kew.
The day involved lots of talks by bee experts, along with display tables to visit, a chance to flutter between honey tasting to a nest of bumblebees to seeing hand pollination in action. My favourite honey was made from coffee flowers, a rich dark honey. You can see tweets from the day by looking at the #pollinatorday hashtag on Twitter. Kew were running a Twitter competition asking people to guess how much honey the average honey bee produces in her lifetime – as beekeepers reading this will know, it’s a tiny 1/12 of a teaspoon.
Bee hotels talk
An expert from the University of Reading gave a talk on creating solitary and bumblebee hotels. I learnt new things at this talk and was happy to hear people with gardens asking for advice on how to attract bees. We were advised that garden centre solitary bee hotels often use bamboo tubes that are too big. The tubes should be between 4-10mm in diameter to attract British bees, although there is one British species that will accept tubes up to 12mm in diameter.
Solitary bees have interesting life cycles. Each species is slightly different but their eggs are often laid in tube-shaped cavities which solitary bee hotels replicate – in the wild this might be holes in wood or dug in the ground. The females are laid first, as they are most valuable, followed by the more expendable males, which are laid closer to the entrance where predators are most likely to attack. The growing eggs are provided with food in the form of pollen and then each little chamber is sealed up by their mother with a wall of mud or chewed leaves. There might be 7-8 eggs inside each tube.
The adults only fly about 150 metres to forage, so having a good supply of flowers in that area is really important. The males hatch first and hang about the nest site waiting for the females to emerge. As soon as the poor females hatch out they are jumped upon by the eager males. Most of the females then stay in the area and lay eggs which will survive over the winter and hatch out the next spring. However around 30% of the females go into a ‘dispersal phase’ and fly further away to start nests in a new area. This presumably helps prevent in-breeding.
It was surprising to hear that the cocoons can survive a bleach bath! Indeed they can survive most conditions apart from being squashed. At Reading university the bee team clean solitary bee cocoons to remove parasites and then put them back into the wild (you don’t need to go this far with your own nests if you don’t want to!).
We were also given advice on creating bumblebee nests. Avoid most of the commercial bumblebee nests as they don’t get used. You can make your own using polystyrene and soft hamster bedding within a terracotta flowerpot. Bumbles in particular need to avoid moisture building up in their nests. Unlike honey bees they never collect water, as their nests create lots of condensation. They need somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight to nest but not somewhere damp or soggy. Their nests only last between 16-20 weeks.
- How do I provide nesting sites for bumblebees? – A Bumblebee Conservation Trust easy guide to building nests.
- How to make a bumblebee nest – a video by bumblebee expert Dr Dave Goulson
- How to make a solitary bee hotel – Daily Telegraph article taken from The Wildlife Gardener by Kate Bradbury
Bee myths: Busted
I liked these snazzy postcards produced by the University of Reading, who had provided lots of the resources and displays available on the day.
I managed to spot plenty more pollinators on the way home – here’s a little bee bottom poking out of himalayan balsam.