My friend and colleague Jean Vernon’s first book, The Secret Lives of Garden Bees, has just been published (by Pen and Sword), and how timely it is, as spring is warming up and the sounds and sights of bees in the garden begin to rev up (@TheGreenjeanie & @addictedt2bees on insta).
And the best news is that our gardens – the whole mosaic of 270,000 hectares of them – are where a lot of the bees feed, nest and reproduce – incidentally pollinating many of our garden plants! It is not surprising that given Jean’s twin loves – bees and plants – there are several chapters covering how plants and bees co-exist, setting out the best plants for bees, and offering a season by season fly-by of what is happening with the bees and flowers in the garden.
It is always wonderful to have natural sounds in the garden and through Jean’s lively and informative writing I have found a way into understanding just who the buzzing characters are in my garden. In her introduction Jean says it is not a textbook, and yet it is full of facts and stories about the secret lives of garden bees. I love the headings and crossheads that grab your attention as you read… and that most of the headline facts are highlighted in yellow boxes.
I loved learning that honeybees are the only bees that make honey in the UK. They visit 2 million flowers and fly 50,000 miles to produce one pound of honey and it takes 12 of them to make one teaspoon of honey… think about that as you add a teaspoon to your lemon tea or spread honey thickly on toast!
Jean says we usually just think of honeybees (just one of some 276 UK species) or bumblebees (25 species in that larger number). So what about all the others?
Well, like me, by the time you have got a few pages into this book you will probably feel that you have been introduced to a host of great personalities at a splendid Bee-list party. They are all, in the main, good at practising social distancing, unless grievously provoked!
Fortunately Jean explains the steps to take to avoid bee stings (mainly treating bees with respect and care), which bees are doing the stinging and how to deal with stings, especially if you are allergic and go into anaphylactic shock… get emergency medical attention swiftly is the main advice.
Early on in the book you can get to grips with what a bee is and how to sort out any ID confusion you might have: yes there are imposters and mimics…. bee flies, drone flies and even cuckoo bumblebees who look like their host and are in fact bees too.
Chapter Two sets the scene and, starting with garden bumblebees, including the common carder bee, moves through to specialist bumblebees, solitary bees, mining bees and ground nesting bees (I experienced these on my allotment last year). Aerial and cavity nesting bees are covered, including scissor bees and the leaf cutter bees, whose meticulous cutting out of leaves, has always fascinated me. I never thought of them as pests and now that I know even more about them, I will be thrilled when I see the notches they take out of leaves… the female bee uses her own body as the template that she cuts around… and then flies off with the piece of leaf to seal her egg chambers.
Shapes of flowers are important factors when you are choosing plants that will support your resident bee population. Open single flowers of species and wild roses or poppies are good as they protect the pollen and are more accessible for the bee. Umbels are good, as are flowers with central cone-shapes, such as echinacea. Knapweed and eryngium, all thistle-like, with multiple small flower clusters are great for bees.
In this ID section, many bee species are outlined, and Jean offers guidance on their behaviour and how to spot them, as well as details about how you can help to provide a better habitat in the garden for them.
For me as a herb lover it is great to know that many of the plants I enjoy so much in my kitchen herb garden are also great value for bees. Marjoram, rosemary (a-buzz with bees at the moment) and thyme are among the top of the bee herb chart.
In the last chapter, Season by Season in the Bee Garden, Jean suggests plants that will offer best step-into-spring treats for the bees, including pulmonaria, dandelions (yes you are bound to have a few that you have not managed to eradicate), borage and hellebores among them.
And if you see a bee in distress in early spring you can come to the rescue with a small sugar syrup solution, one-part sugar to one-part water… I was able to offer this to a bee in my garden and it was sheer delight to capture it on video and hear it supping before flying off invigorated.
With Jean’s voice coming direct from the pages of the book I feel sure that you and I will have great bee adventures ahead during the year. Get to know the bees that live in your garden and help them thrive. We need them!
Thanks to Jean for identifying this group of bees that have made a great noise in my garden over the years: they are all bumblebees (red-, buff- or white-tailed).
The Secret Lives of Garden Bees is published by Pen and Sword (£20) under the White Owl imprint. Author signed copies at £20 plus p&p available from Jean’s website Addicted to Bees. Jean and her husband Martin Mulchinock took many of the photographs, and Jean’s friend and fellow bee enthusiast Bridget Strawbridge Howard wrote a delightful intro for the book.