Why are bee levels in Cheshire on the decline?

Buff-tailed bumblebee © Jon Hawkins/Surrey Hills Photography

Buff-tailed bumblebee © Jon Hawkins/Surrey Hills Photography - Credit: Jon Hawkins/Surrey Hills Photography

The buzzing of bees is a familiar part of our gardens in spring and summer, yet with each passing year it’s a sound that’s been diminishing as these charming little pollinators fall further into decline, writes Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Gemma Sproston

Gardening for wildlife © Tom Marshall

Gardening for wildlife © Tom Marshall - Credit: Tom Marshall

The biggest threat to our bees is loss of habitat, principally the loss of the wildflowers that bees depend on for pollen and nectar. It has been estimated that we have lost 97% of our flower-rich grassland since the 1930s, due to increasingly intensive agriculture.

Where suitable habitat remains, it is often fragmented, making it more difficult for bee populations to expand and colonise new areas.

We know that bees are vital to our food supply and our economy so it makes sense for us to do everything in our power to save them.

Honey bee © Richard Bowler

Honey bee © Richard Bowler - Credit: Richard Bowler

Why are bees important?

It is well-known that bumblebees are great pollinators, and therefore play a key part in producing much of the food we eat. Through the pollination of commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries, insects are estimated to contribute more than £400 million a year to the UK economy and €14.2 billion a year to the European Union economy. If bumblebee and other insect pollinator declines continue, the extremely high cost of pollinating these plants by other means could significantly increase the cost of fruit and vegetables.

Bumblebees also help to pollinate many wildflowers, allowing them to reproduce. Without this pollination many of these plants would not produce seeds, resulting in declines in wildflowers. As these plants are often the basis of complex food chains, it is easy to imagine how other wildlife such as other insects, birds and mammals would all suffer if bees disappeared.

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Bees in decline

The decline of honeybees has been well documented by bee-keepers. Part of the reason for the decline is the parasitic Varroa mite, which first arrived in the UK in 1992 and spread rapidly, infesting colonies all over the country.

Unless controlled by bee-keepers, infested colonies usually die out within two or three years. But disease is not the only factor affecting honeybees. Pesticides are also believed to be detrimental. Of particular concern is a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, widely used by farmers and gardeners.

How can you help?

Gardens are increasingly important as a home for bees and other pollinating insects, and it is easy to turn your own garden into a bee paradise. At its simplest, grow a range of bee-friendly flowers, rich in pollen and nectar, and aim to have flowers in bloom from spring until late summer.

Different bee species like different flowers, so growing a variety of flowering plants will cater for as many as possible. A recent survey found the best flowers for bumblebees are meadow cranesbill, borage, green alkanet, sage, lavender, runner bean, marjoram, foxglove, raspberry, red campion and sedum.

Avoid using pesticides wherever possible – even if not directly targeted at bees they can be harmful.

Find out more

For more information about helping bees in the garden download the ‘Bees in your Garden’ factsheet from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust website, where you can also find out more about the Wildlife Friendly Garden Award scheme.

Aimed at those who already welcome wildlife into their garden, as well as those who would like to, the scheme offers an award for including wildlife friendly features in your plot, no matter how big or small. For a small charge you’ll receive a Wildlife Friendly Garden Award plaque to display on your gate, front door or a post in your garden.

You can also play your part in contributing to a Cheshire ‘Bee Atlas’. Record – the Local Biological Records Centre for Cheshire, Halton, Warrington and Wirral – is looking for volunteers to record a selection of bee species which regularly visit gardens or allotments. Details of the species concerned, their identification and recording form, and details of how you can help are available from the Record website, www.record-lrc.co.uk.

Or why not attend one of the Trust’s many pollinator themed events over the course of the year – whether it’s a ‘Bee ID day’, or a guided wildflower walk, there’s lots of opportunities to learn more about pollinators, and the work the Trust do for them on reserves such as Swettenham Meadows, near Holmes Chapel. For more details go to the events pages at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/whats-on