How you can help save Suffolk’s bees this summer
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
As we approach warmer weather and longer days, there’s no doubt we’ll be spending more time in our gardens and immersing ourselves in nature once again.
And as you venture outside, you’ll certainly notice the abundance of bees that come with this time of year.
Active from early spring through to autumn, bees are arguably the most important animal in our ecosystem – but with their population numbers on the decline, it’s time to take action and help save them.
“We need bees – if we didn’t have them, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” explains Hawk Honey.
A visitor officer at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Lackford Lakes, Hawk understands more than anyone the importance of bees and how crucial of a role they play in our day-to-day lives.
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“Bees, and insects in general, are responsible for 75% of the food we eat. Bees visit flowers and crops, and do a lot of the pollination work,” he says.
Pollination is the vital process that allows plants to reproduce – with many plants relying on bees and other pollinating insects to survive.
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“But in the last 30 years, there’s been a 42% decline in the insect population, so we need to start taking action and rebuilding those numbers.”
Hawk has been working with the trust for nearly seven years, and over the past six years, has developed a keen interest in bees and wasps. When he’s not on the job, Hawk spends his time studying the number of bees and wasps here in the county.
“I catch them, find out what species they are, where they were found, and record it.”
Hawk then reports his findings to the Suffolk Biodiversity Information Service, who keep track of what species are being lost, as well as what new ones are appearing. “In the past five years, I actually found two new species here at Lackford Lakes,” he adds.
According to Suffolk Wildlife Trust, some of the most common bee species found throughout the county include the common carder bee, early bumblebee, red-tailed bumblebee, white-tailed bumblebee, buff-tailed bumblebee, and garden bumblebee. In addition, you also can expect to see the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) buzzing around.
But with honeybee numbers not as strong as they once were in the region, one East Anglian beekeeper is spearheading a decade-long project to help get their numbers up.
Kevin Thorn is a commercial bee farmer and the chair of the West Suffolk Beekeepers Association. He has been keeping bees for eight years, and works with around 100 colonies in Lavenham as a commercial bee farmer, producing honey and beeswax products.
Currently, he is working alongside Essex Wildlife Trust, Essex and Suffolk Water and Colchester Beekeepers to help reintroduce the native British honeybee in and around Abberton.
“The main issue is that the native British honeybee has been in the UK for 10,000 years, since the last Ice Age, but for the last 150 years, beekeepers have been importing other subspecies of honeybee from around Europe.
“Native bees have been pushed into the periphery, to places like Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man and parts of the Scottish Highlands, and we’re trying to reintroduce them here in East Anglia.”
Kevin and his team of 12 beekeepers plan to do this by placing daughter bees from native British queen bees into local hives, in order to produce male bees that will mate with queens here in the region.
“What’s different about honeybees is that the male bees come from unfertilised eggs – so they have a mother but no father. This means the grandsons of the native queens are still pure native, even if their mothers have mated with a local bee.”
Each colony has around 50,000 bees in it, and to create a sustainable population, Kevin and his team are going to need 100 colonies in order to produce five million bees. “We’ve had some interest from a lot of other beekeepers in the surrounding area, so once we’ve built a sustainable population here, we’d like to spread the area further afield.”
Explaining the reason behind the project, Kevin says: “The idea is that the native British honey bee is more resilient to the British climate and potential future climate changes, as they’re used to the variable weather, whereas other honey bees such as the Italian honey bee tend to thrive better in warmer climes.”
While professionals such as Kevin work tirelessly to boost population numbers on a large scale, some keep bees for the sheer joy it can bring – and in the process, are still doing their bit for the planet.
Presenter and journalist Bill Turnbull has been keeping bees for two decades now. The former BBC Breakfast host, who lives in Suffolk, first fell into the hobby after a swarm landed in his garden.
“We called a beekeeper to come take them away - but he did it so skilfully that I was fascinated by it, and thought I’d like to try that myself.”
After a stint in America, Bill came back to the UK and finally immersed himself in the hobby – later going on to write two books about his experiences, The Bad Beekeepers Club and Confessions of a Bad Beekeeper. In addition, when he appeared on a 2008 episode of Celebrity Mastermind, his specialist subject was beekeeping.
Following in the steps of the beekeeper who took away that fateful hive from his home years ago, Bill himself is now a registered swarm collector. “When we’re in swarm season, I usually pick up or two or three extra colonies from people who don’t want tens of thousands of bees around their home.
“Bees are hugely important for the environment though, and should never be seen as pests. We need them very much, and they only bring good to the world.”
After helping save the environment, the second greatest reward for Bill is the tranquillity that the pastime brings him.
“I’ve always found beekeeping to be cathartic. When you dip your head inside a beehive and check how things are going, it really clears your mind from any other concerns you may have. I feel so much better when I come away from the hives having inspected them - as long as I haven’t been stung too much!”
For anyone who hasn’t got their own beehive though, there are still a number of ways you can help bees to thrive this summer.
“The main way to help bees is to feed them, so give them lots of wildflowers,” explains Hawk. “In the UK since the 1930s, we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, and we’re not going to get those back, so it’s up to us as gardeners to start getting the plants out there now.”
Flowers with big, easy-to-access heads are ideal sources of food for bees, with prime examples including sunflowers, daisies, cosmos, foxgloves and ragwort.
“Trees are really good too, and one tree can be akin to a field of flowers. Think horse chestnut, sweet chestnut, hawthorn and blackthorn trees,” adds Kevin.
Hawk also recommends not cutting your grass, as it encourages more wildflowers to bloom.
“If you have bees nesting in your garden lawn, leave them as they’re doing a great job. They’re actually aerating it by digging holes and pulling up the soil from underneath.
"Also, a lot of solitary bees will nest in old dead wood, so why not put up a bee hotel in your garden?”
Solitary bees are those that do not live in colonies, do not have a queen and do not produce honey. There are thought to be over 250 solitary bee species within the UK, according to The Wildlife Trusts.
“Bees need somewhere they can nest, and a lot of solitary bees will nest in old dead wood. Putting up a bee hotel in your garden on a sunny south-facing wall will provide shelter for them. Alternatively, getting an old dead tree trunk, standing it up in your garden and drilling a few holes in it will also work.”
And if you happen to stumble upon a bee who looks injured, the best thing you can do is revive it with sugar water, using a mixture of half sugar, half water. “Never feed a bee honey though, as you could be transferring pathogens.”
If you do however find a large swarm of honeybees in your shed, garage or garden, the best course of action to take is to call your local beekeeper who will advise you on what to do next.
To find out more about bees here in Suffolk, visit www.suffolkbeekeepers.co.uk