Bees can be found on every continent except Antarctica and there are around 20,000 known species. We all have preconceptions about bees that have been assigned to all species, yet in actual fact there are seven biological families of bees and they all behave and survive completely differently. So, that fuzzy little guy enjoying your flowers in the summer may actually have very little in common with the bee making the honey for your morning porridge.
To know why bees are so important to the environment, it’s important to first know the types of bees and their differences. Then you will know how they fit in in their environment and what you can do to help them thrive.
What are the different types of bees?
There are seven recognised biological families: Andrenidae, Apidae, Colletidae, Halictidae, Megachilidae, Melittidae and Stenotritidae. Apidae is the largest family of bees, including many of the most recognisable bees like bumblebees and honey bees. Interestingly, many of the facts that you’ll have heard about bees, such as the idea that they make honey or that they die if they sting you, come from the honey bee.
Many other species don’t share these attributes at all. For instance, when a honey bee stings a person with its barbed stinger, the stinger pulls out several of its internal organs with it. This is what kills a honey bee when it stings you. However, a bumblebee has no such issue with a barbed stinger, so it can sting you as many times as it wants. Although if you’re not bothering it, this is unlikely.
The most common types of bees you’ll see in the UK are bumblebees, honey bees, mining bees and mason bees. So, what exactly do these bees do to help the environment?
Pollinate, pollinate, pollinate
If you think back to your school science lessons, you’ll remember that flowering plants need to be pollinated in order to reproduce. This process can happen by wind-pollination or insect-pollination. Wind-pollinated plants produce lots of pollen grains as more are likely to be lost during the process, whereas insect-pollinated plants have sticky or spiky pollen which sticks to the insects when they land on the flower. They then take this pollen with them to the next flower and the next flower, pollinating along the way. Insect-pollinated plants are generally brightly coloured to attract the hard-working insects and they also have nectar and a scent which appeals to them, too.
Again, there’s a misconception that honey bees do a large proportion of the pollination, but actually, because they visit so many different types of flowers, the pollen they leave on each new flower might not even be the right type. Honey bees, usually from managed hives, are responsible for pollinating around 5-15% of the UK’s insect-pollinated crops, which leaves 85-95% relying on wild pollinators like other species of bees, moths, butterflies, hoverflies, flies and beetles.
Bumblebees, for example, are particularly good at pollinating complex flowers such as the ones on legume plants and tend to favour one species of flower at a time, making them much more savvy pollinators. This free service our bees provide is truly vital to us, because if we were to take on this mammoth task ourselves it would cost us an estimated £1.8 billion every year.
How can you help the honey bees?
Although most honey bees now survive in managed hives rather than out in the wild, other bee species are not necessarily so lucky. The European Red List for Bees shows that nearly one in ten species of wild bees are facing extinction in addition to the three bumblebee species that have become extinct in recent decades. So, what can you do to help all the different types of bees?
One way to help is to plant bee-friendly plants in your garden. This doesn’t have to be a hard task, either. Wildflowers are great for bees, and easy to maintain as they require little water and effort once planted, yet they will bring lots of bright colours to your garden. Plus, you can be pretty confident that they will bring bees into your garden and provide those bees with a great source of both pollen and nectar.
Also, if you’re a fan of bee products, you should buy them from companies that are careful to ensure the bees are able to prosper. For instance, our Forever Bee Honey comes from hives that are carefully managed to ensure that the hive is safe and healthy.
Another way to help the bees is to create your own bee hotel for your garden. It’s important to create bee-friendly spaces to restore their lost habitats and to help the bee population thrive. And if you’re really keen, you could become a backyard honey beekeeper!