Sustaining Biodiversity: How to Really Help Bees by Sarah Wyndham Lewis

Sarah Wyndham Lewis is co-founder of the sustainable beekeeping practice Bermondsey Street Bees and author of the bestselling book Planting for Honeybees. She is also a qualified Honey Sommelier and Great Taste Awards Judge.

Sarah will be speaking at a special immersive ‘Bee Mindful’ masterclass that we have created as part of our 15th Anniversary celebrations. The day will encompass Petersham’s core philosophies and will be a wholly sensory experience touching on food, horticulture, style and conservation. Click here to find out more…

Our shopping lists would look very different without the honeybee and her work. Its not just about losing the honey for our porridge as well as the majority of our fruits, vegetables and pulses. Thats just the beginning of many, more profound losses. Bees are at the heart of biodiversity; their pollinations are crucial to feed and provide habitats for so many other key species, from other insects to birds, and mammals.

Hive products (such as honey & propolis) and many bee-pollinated plants also make important contributions to our current medical repertory too, as well as being the basis of research into new drugs, not least for cancer. Natural beeswax is also essential to countless industrial, artisanal and artistic processes.

But honeybees (of which there are only 7 species – out of a total of 25,000 bee species globally) are now in decline across the developed world. There is no one single reason rather, its a perfect storm of different factors. Assailed by disease, pests and chemicals, they are also abused by poor beekeeping and commercial pollination programmes (for instance the monocultural production of almonds and avocados) and their natural forage resources are being destroyed by both modern agricultural practices and urbanization.

In Britain, this lack of bee forage is acute. In the countryside, more than 90% of our heathlands as well as native broadleaf woodlands and hedgerows have been lost to modern farming landscapes since the 1930s. In cities, driveways get tarmacked, gardens get decked and apartments get built on any patch of open ground.

Using the honeybee as a barometer of decline across all bee populations (inc. bumblebees and solitary bees) we see honey yields, recorded over many decades, taking a nosedive. This is a key indicator of a loss of forage and consequently weakened colonies. Beekeeping is no longer the gentle bucolic pastime it once was. Todays beekeepers need to be highly educated (to care for their hives) and more environmentally sensitive than ever, to avoid negative impact on other pollinators.

In Greater London every year, we lose green space equivalent to 2.5 times the area of Hyde Park (Source GIGL.) This is especially worrying when set against the fact that the density of beehives in London is the greatest anywhere in Europe, possibly in the world.

It is also clearly not sustainable, which is why my husband Dale and I (at Bermondsey Street Bees) have always operated a Green Offset policy as part of our broader ethical beekeeping commitment. We will never put new hives into London, for ourselves or for companies we work with, without assuring (and physically planting if necessary) meaningful amounts of forage to compensate for their impact on the environment.

In town and in the country, honeybees urgently need more to eat. Unfortunately, in the past few years, theres been very faulty messaging around what honeybees are looking for so that most people now believe that wildflowers are the most important thing to plant for them. Sadly, thats neither true nor helpful. Honeybees evolved as forest dwellers, nesting high in the trees, and the greater proportion of their nutrition still needs to come from trees, bushes and hardy perennial plantings. No matter how many seed bombs or packets of wildflower seeds are nobly scattered, they cant even begin to help redress the balance.

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So what can we do? In fact, there are plenty of positive actions that any of us can take to help feed honeybees, which, in turn, will also help wild bee species by increasing available forage. Six simple principles will inform any bee-friendly plantings. And if you have literally not even a windowsill, then consider volunteering with a local gardening charity.

1. Think bushes and trees
Honeybees are naturally tree dwellers and feeders and if space allows, bee- friendly plantings should always start with a framework of durable, perennial forage from bushes and trees. A single lime (linden) tree in flower provides the same amount of forage as half a football pitch of wildflower meadow. A bush is, effectively, a small treeso if you cant plant a big tree choose profusely flowering, forage-rich bushes instead of annual flowers. No space? See Point 4.

2. Keep it simple
With shorter tongues than many bumblebees or butterflies, honeybees cant feed from complex flower structures. Showy, highly-bred ornamental flowers often give little or no forage. Generally, stay close to the original wild or simpler forms of flowers where nectar and pollen are easily accessible. So, for example, plant the wild Dog Rose instead of densely-petalled show roses.

3. Bees see blue
The photoreceptors in honeybees eyes see from yellow, blue and green right up into the ultraviolet (UV) light scale. This makes blue, violet, purple and white flowers especially attractive to them.

4. Flower fidelity
Honeybees only visit one type of flower in any one foraging trip. This is called flower fidelity and is what makes them such effective pollinators. By planting large clumps or drifts of single species youll save the bees energy and optimise each of their trips. If you only have a windowsill or small terrace, grow masses of the same type of flower in windowboxes or planters. (Herbs such as oregano, chives and thyme are great for this, but you need to let them flower, not pinch the tops off for the kitchen. )

5. Four season planting
Although March to September are the key months for honeybees, they will fly whenever the temperature is above 10C (50F), even in the depths of winter. This makes early and late flowering plants especially valuable to them and to other pollinators, especially bumblebees , who can fly in even colder temperatures.

6. Mow less and love weeds
Many so-called lawn weeds provide precious forage. Mow lawns but less often and leave some areas to grow wilder. This encourages useful species to grow, such as daisies, trefoil, clovers and especially dandelions.

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For information about honeybees and advice on planting anywhere from a windowsill to rolling acres, read Planting for Honeybees by Sarah Wyndham Lewis (published by Quadrille, 2018.)

For more on pollinator biodiversity, read A Sting in the Tail by Professor Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. (A delightful book in the style of Gerald Durrell.)



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Bermondsey Street Bees provide honey to Petersham Nurseries when our own supply is not sufficient.

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Dale Gibson - Co Founder, Bermondsey Street Bees
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Sarah Wyndham Lewis - Co Founder, Bermondsey Street Bees