After an unusually cold and damp spring, like all the experts, I was really concerned about population decline this year. Bees, including solitary bees, are vital for pollinating our food crops. In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of food crops and 80% of Britain’s wild plants are dependent on insect pollination. But despite our initial fears it actually turned out to be an exceptional summer for bees, at least judging by the number of filled tubes in my Bee Hotels. It just goes to show that creating new nesting sites is really important and that it’s often the simple ideas that work best.
As I looked at the filled tubes, I remembered what our beekeeper had told me about the life cycle of these lovely, gentle garden residents. The females started “booking” rooms in the hotel quite soon after emergence in the spring, filling them with pollen and eggs. When the adult females die in early summer, they do so in the knowledge that the sealed nest tubes have around 10 tiny eggs in each tube, safely sealed into individual compartments. The eggs, barely 1.5mm long, hatched in the summer and the larvae have spent all this toasty summer weather feeding on the pollen stored in the cell. In late summer the larvae pupate, spinning a cocoon around itself about the size of a coffee bean. Eventually they become adult bees and will remain in the tubes wrapped up in this protective blanket for the winter. When the air starts to warm up around March the new adult bees will leave their hotel rooms and the whole process of reproduction and pollination starts again.
This made me think about next year’s generation as there appear to be many more full tubes than this time last year. I discussed this with our beekeeper, Robin Dean, who expects that each full tube in our Bee Hotels across the country, as well as the ones in my garden, will have at least 3 or 4 females. This means that there will be intense competition for nest tubes next year, suggesting that next spring could see a bee housing crisis.
If there is a shortage of suitable nest sites the female solitary bees won’t reproduce to optimum levels but we can all help to make a difference if we have outdoor space. As part of our ‘Give Bees a Home’ project we’ve just published easy to follow instructions on our website for people to make a number of simple Bee Hotels, as well as tips about bee friendly plants to grow in your garden or allotment.
It’s also a genuinely fun family activity to make Bee Hotels – while in the garden I got both of my girls involved in making juice carton Bee Hotels to add to our growing solitary bee real estate. It may seem like an odd thing to be doing now, when all the eggs have been laid, however if we leave it until the first signs of bees hunting for nest sites in March it’s likely to be too late to have an impact. Now we’re ahead of the game and my little buzzy friends will have some new homes to move into next spring. I even grabbed a few minutes out of one of my days in the office this week to go outside and assemble a Bee Hotel to show my colleagues… it’s really that easy.
My girls’ enthusiasm for homes for bees is shared by our farmers and growers. A few months ago we assembled our suppliers for our annual conference and I took to the stage on the day to talk about our ‘Give Bees a Home’ project. We have over 100 Bee Hotels on our stores, with the number growing all the time, and I was blown away by the positive comments and interest from those in the room.
We’re delighted to be already working with a number of them to help them create their own solitary bee projects. For example, this year Sainsbury’s was voted the top retailer of UK sourced apples for the fifth consecutive year so it’s fitting that we’ve also been working with our top fruit producers. In August, our chief executive, Justin King, attended the opening of a new pack house in Kent belonging to one of our apple growers, AC Gotham & Son. They have wholeheartedly embraced our project and Robin made them ten really smart Bee Hotels so they can help to boost the number of solitary bee habitats in their area.
We all have a really big opportunity now to play a part in helping to reverse decades of solitary bee decline. It is really easy to get involved. Just visit our website for the instructions and it’s practically a given… if you build it, they will come!