BY JEAN VERNON
Hardback 191 pages
ISBN 978 1 52671 186 1
Published by Pen and Sword/ White Owl Books. Foreword by Brigit Strawbridge Howard
Photo from my garden. White-tailed bumble bee on Echinacea White Swan.
Last spring and early summer, we woke every morning to the glorious sound of bees. From dawn till dusk, bumble bees buzzed around the bedroom windows – flung open to welcome warm weather. There is nothing more soothing that waking up to the low hum of bees. We revelled in the sound. We lay there and just listened. There seemed to be nothing more important in the world than listening to ‘our’ bees. And we watched them too. We tried to count them. There were too many to count. Our bees made a nest in the eaves of the house. And they thrived. At one stage we thought we had a swarm. Their fairly relaxed comings and goings suddenly turned frantic. We fretted. What was wrong. Had we read Jean Vernon’s new book – The Secret Lives of Garden Bees – we would have realised our colony was the Tree Bumble Bee, (Bombus hypnorum). And we would have realised their behaviour was perfect normal. They were not under attack, or ill, or annoyed! The sudden frantic behaviour with bees apparently “boiling” out of the nest was perfectly natural. The sudden melee was caused by hundreds of hopeful male bees looking to mate with the newly-hatched queens. Jean’s beautiful book would have been a reassurance. If our bees return again this year we will be armed with more knowledge and will be able to enjoy them all the more.
In Jean’s book we learn that the Tree Bumblebee is a relative newcomer to the British Isles, first appearing here in 2001. It’s a common bee now, making nests under house eaves and in garden bird boxes. It’s an early-emerging bee, with overwintering queens first appearing in February. If nests are disturbed, the Tree Bumblebee can create a real buzz and bees can sting anyone nearby, giving them a bit of a reputation for being aggressive. We had no trouble with ours, but, on the other hand, we didn’t interfere with them, respecting their space and keeping away. Occasionally some would get stuck on this side of the glass, but they were easy to shoo out of the window.
Photo: my i-phone pic of Jean’s photo in her book. The lovely Tree Bumblebee. A relative newcomer to the UK.
Jean’s book gives tips on identifying our garden bees. There are, apparently “cuckoo bees” that look just like the bee species they affect. Cuckoo bees lay eggs in their host bee’s nest, who unsuspectingly raise the cuckoo bee’s young. Luckily, our Tree Bumblebee doesn’t seem to have a cuckoo species that affects it in the UK, but in Europe there is one, Bombus norvegicus.
Hints and tips on helping bees include which plants to grow; plenty of summer flowering varieties, and not forgetting plants that flower in late winter and autumn too. For our Tree Bumblebee, Jean suggests putting up a nest box about 3 metres high in a sheltered place.
Photo: Bumble bees can be trapped in acanthus flowers. Photo from the book by Jean Vernon.
Jean’s book is split in to eight chapters, covering types of bees, bee behaviour, bee food, good plants to grow, and also plants that are deadly for bees. I had no idea acanthus flowers can become a trap. Bees climb inside the flower attracted by the nectar flow, and cannot escape. Late-emerging queen bumblebees caught in this way will deprive the garden of a whole generation of bees. A sobering thought.
Generally speaking ‘good plants’ to grow would be vipers bugloss (echium vulgare) lavender, foxgloves, and other long tubular flowers such as penstemons, comfrey and salvias. Members of the pea family, vetches and birds foot trefoil are also recommended.
Photo: perennial borage loaded with nectar. Photo in the book is by Martin Mulchinock.
Photo: bee look-alike, common drone fly. Original photo by Martin Mulchinock.
There’s plenty of surprises in Jean’s book, including news that we have a bumble bee that looks like a panda – the black and white Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria). Who knew?
We have tiny bee mimicks called bee flies (Bombylius discolor), which look totally adorable. I’ve been very fond of these fluffy creatures all these years. There’s a thriving colony of them in the garden. However, I am horrified to read they flick their eggs into the nests of poor unsuspecting Ashy mining bee and parasitise them. How could anything so cute be so deadly. I shall look at them in quite a different light from now on!
Meanwhile, I’ll read and enjoy the detailed growing section focusing on phacelia, cosmos, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, currants, borage etc. Luckily I have all those growing this summer for my enjoyment, and now I’ll also be reassured I’m looking after bees as well.
Do you see many bumble bees in your gardens at all? Please leave a comment below and the publishers will randomly select a name to send out a free copy of Jean’s book. I enjoyed every page. It’s a joy to have something as wonderful as bees to focus on. It’s a beautifully-written and well-illustrated book. And there was a message for me. Bees are under attack from poisons, predators, disease. And us- destroying their natural nesting sites. And yet they persist. We must do the same. Thank you for reading the blog. Please keep in touch. Karen.