Why Bees Need Trees

Brigit Strawbridge is a writer and environmental activist passionate about the plight of our bees. We had to share her latest blog post with you – what do trees have to do with bees?

I’ve just returned home from a lovely long walk in the woods on the lower slopes of the Malvern Hills. I walk these woods as often as I can and always take my camera with me. I can pretty much guarantee – from March through till mid September – that the understory, clearings and edges will be ‘abuzz’ with numerous species of bumblebees, honeybees and (on sunny days) solitary bees as they enjoy the foraging and nesting opportunities afforded by this wonderful diverse habitat.

A cineraria close up

I’m absolutely fascinated by bees; from the different frequencies at which they buzz, their purpose in life and the challenges I face trying to identify them – to their life cycles, their behavioral traits and the myriad relationships they have built up over the millennia with flowering plants. I cannot imagine what the world would be like without bees. In fact a world without bees is, quite simply, unimaginable.
 
Bees as Pollinators
 
The unique relationship between pollinators and flowering plants has been evolving for over 100 million years and there are currently estimated to be around 200,000 different species of animal worldwide acting as pollinators. These include beetles, bats, flies, wasps, birds, butterflies, moths and some mammals; but it is without doubt the humble bee that does the lion’s share of the work. 


From a ‘human-centric’ point of view, bees are responsible for pollinating around a third of the food we eat (this includes meat from animals that graze on bee-pollinated clover and alfalfa) – as well as many of the crops we grow for drinks, medicines and textiles. However, bees are important for more reasons than the fact that they pollinate food for human consumption…

Bees also pollinate over 80% of the world’s wild flowers and, interestingly, whilst great attention is always given to the bee’s role as our main crop pollinator, we would do well to note that they play an equally important role as ‘keystone species’ in the planet’s eco-systems. I’ll come back to this in a moment. 

Bee decline
 
There has been a great deal of coverage in the media over the last decade about the Decline of the Honeybee, whose value to the ‘economy’ has been estimated at many £££billions.
But, apart from the fact that honeybees should be valued for more than just their economic worth, it is important to note that:

a) it is not just honeybees that are in decline

b) honeybees our not our only pollinators. In fact, of the 100 or so crops that feed and clothe the world, it is estimated that 15% are serviced by domestic honeybees – whilst over 80% are serviced by native wild bees and other wild pollinators.
 
N.B  By no means am I suggesting that any one species of bee is more important than another. They all have different roles to play and are active at different times of the year/day. Without honeybees there would be very little pollinating going on early in the year and we would have no lemons, without bumblebees out tomato and blueberry crops would struggle and without solitary bees our apple trees would suffer.

Here’s a very interesting list of ‘who pollinates what’ – List of plants pollinated by bees

Setting aside, for a moment, their importance as pollinators of food, medicine and textile crops for humans, I‘d like to come back now to the fact that bees are ‘keystone’ species – playing absolutely crucial roles in sustaining many of the world’s eco-systems.

If you remove a keystone species from any given eco-system, you risk at the very least a great reduction in the biodiversity of that community – and at worst it’s complete collapse.
Eco-systems are incredibly complex; each made up of numerous, diverse, dynamic, interconnected communities.

We cannot keep removing the building blocks that hold these systems together and expect them to survive.

By compromising the earth’s eco-systems we compromise all life on Earth, including, ultimately, our own. Our lack of joined-up thinking and our blinkered human-centric behaviour are, ironically, leading us to neglect and destroy the very systems that nurture and sustain us. I cannot over emphasis the importance of the role bees and other pollinators play in supporting and maintaining the fragile balance that allows ‘life as we know it’ to exist on planet Earth.

A female Halictus rubicundus bee

There are over 25,000 species of bee in the world and around 250 of these species live in the British Isles. British species include the European Honeybee, 24 species of Bumblebee and over 230 different species of Solitary Bee. All are suffering from the effects of intensive agriculture, pesticides poisoning and urban sprawl, which, together, have led to the fragmentation, degradation, and loss of their once rich and diverse habitat. Add to these factors the effects of climate change (which has caused significant problems for bees this year) and a rise in disease and pests – and it’s no wonder our poor beleaguered bee population is on the brink.

(N.B. As well as the alarming decline in honeybee populations, 3 of our bumblebee species have disappeared over the last 50 years, many more bumblebees and solitary bees are severely threatened and there are currently 7 bumblebees and 10 solitary bees on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority list.)
 
To halt this decline we need to take action NOW. Talking, debating, spending millions of £££s on further research to tell us what is already glaringly obvious, writing reports and holding summits on the other side of the world are all very well, but without immediate ACTION these are a complete waste of time.
 
So what has all this got to do with trees and woodlands..?
 
From the trees point of view, most are wind pollinated so they could survive without bees. There are exceptions however; including fruit bearing trees such as apple, pear, cherry and almond which all rely (some exclusively) on bees for pollination.
 
The importance of trees for bees is, however, is an entirely different matter. The fact that most trees are wind pollinated doesn’t preclude them from being incredibly rich food sources for bees and other pollinators – in fact certain species of trees provide an absolutely vital source of pollen and nectar for early spring foraging bees.
 
Honeybees store sufficient honey to feed the colony through the winter, but need to replenish their stocks by early spring. There is very little around in the way of flowering plants during the first few months of the year, so the early flowering willows, especially goat willow, provide them with a lifeline. Willow is also a vital food source for early rising bumblebee queens when they emerge from hibernation. Just walk along any riverbank on a sunny February/March day and you will easily locate the willows with your eyes closed by the sound of bees buzzing in the branches above your head.

Deforestation has been occurring in the British Isles since the arrival of Neolithic man and has reached the stage where, today, less than 14% of the UK is still wooded. Crucially, less than half this area is planted with native trees (the rest being planted with non-native conifers) – and only 2% of the land area in Britain is still covered in ancient woodlands. Given how little of our ancient woodland remains, it beggars belief that in the last 10 years 648 ancient woods have come under threat from unnecessary or insensitive development.

Add these figures to the fact that we have also lost 98% of our wildflower meadows and grasslands since the 1940s… and it is no wonder our pollinators are in trouble.

Add these figures to the fact that we have also lost 98% of our wildflower meadows and grasslands since the 1940s… and it is no wonder our pollinators are in trouble.

Habitat decline has impacted enormously upon our once diverse wildlife and we simply cannot afford further losses….of habitat or species. So many species of bees and other insects, not to mention small mammals, amphibians and birds, are now teetering on the brink – and what remains of our ancient and native woodlands provides an absolutely vital source of habitat and forage for many of these remaining species and populations.
 
Whilst the media and the ‘powers that be’ continue to bang on endlessly about the economy, time is gradually ticking away. For every single moment that their focus remains on the perceived importance of rebuilding the economy rather than addressing the very real importance of the imminent breakdown of our eco-systems, we are coming closer and closer to a sixth major extinction scenario. It really is quite bizzare that these seemingly intelligent people are so blind to this fact!
 
We need to address both issues of ‘habitat loss’ and ‘pesticides’ (which I haven’t gone into in this article but have written about in detail here) urgently and simultaneously.
 
What can we do to help?
 
Whoever you are and whatever your circumstances and skill sets will determine the part you have to play in helping to halt the decline of biodiversity. You may like to plant more trees, hedgerows and/or flowers; write to your MP about these issues; join a local wildlife group; support the amazing SAVE OUR WOODS campaign; stop using pesticides; ask your local garden centre to stop selling pesticides containing neonicotinoids or send a link to this article to a friend!
 
Anything you do is better than doing nothing. Doing nothing is not a good option.
 

Bombus pascuorum, the Common Carder-bee enjoying alkanet

N.B. Do please check out this site, packed with stunningly beautiful photographs, to find out more about the amazing world of Woodland & Hedgerow Bees
 
TREES FOR BEES
 
Willow (NP) Pear (P) Apple (NP) Cherry (NP), Crab Apple (NP) Medlar (NP) Quince (NP) Sweet Chestnut (NP), Acacia (NP), Field Maple (NP) Mountain Ash (NP), Alder (P) Blackthorn (NP), Horse chestnut (NP), Hawthorn (NP), Crab apple, Lime (N), Whitebeam (NP), Sycamore (NP) Hazel (P) Holly (NP) Bramble (NP)
* N = nectar; P= pollen

Excellent website for wildlife gardening

Thank you for reading this.
Much love,
Brigit x

Read Brigit’s regular blogs and find out more about her bee awareness workshops and talks here: http://beestrawbridge.blogspot.co.uk.

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
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12 Responses to Why Bees Need Trees

  1. Susan sharma says:

    Very informative article. Would share with our club members at http://www.IndianWildlifeClub.com
    Susan Sharma

  2. Pingback: https://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/why-bees-need-trees/ | Abeilles sauvages

  3. Great article Brigit. I will share with the communities I’m in too. We’re also in the process of developing an e-learning module called Harvesting the Sunshine which is about bees and other pollinators and which is aimed at Key Stages I & II children and their teachers. I will consult with you soon on this. Keep up the good work, and we will continue to help you spread the word about this.

    • Brigit Strawbridge says:

      Thank you for your comment Denise, and for sharing with your communities.

      Your e-learning module sounds really interesting – I look forward to you getting in touch.

  4. Pingback: Why Bees Need Trees | Lets Go Green! | Scoop.it

  5. Jan Miller says:

    very good article; but you don’t make enough distinction between the domesticated honeybee, which is the only one suffering from the varoa mite colony collapse disorder, and the 250 or so British wild bees that are not suffering this disorder; these are the ones we should be concentrating on restoring habitat for. They are actually more important for the pollination of our food crops than honeybees due to different plants needing pollination by insects with different shaped mouthparts (see Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment Volume 142, Issues 3–4, August 2011, Pages 137–143)
    you can find out more in my book ‘Gardening for Butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects’

    • Brigit Strawbridge says:

      Hi Jan,

      Thank you for your comment and for pointing me towards your book, which I have already read. I have also read the recent research from Reading University on native wild bees being more important as pollinators than domestic honeybees – and Prof J. Ollerton’s research which draws the same conclusions.

      I actually spend most of my waking hours explaining to people (in talks, articles and campaigns) how very important bumblebees and solitary bees are as pollinators – and as keystone species within our eco-systems. In fact I am usually criticised for not talking enough about honeybees…so you are preaching to the converted here!

      I have to say that I thought I HAD communicated the particular importance of wild bees as pollinators in the above article by saying…..

      a) it is not just honeybees that are in decline

      b) honeybees our not our only pollinators. In fact, of the 100 or so crops that feed and clothe the world, it is estimated that 15% are serviced by domestic honeybees – whilst over 80% are serviced by native wild bees and other wild pollinators.

      I feel I should also point out that whilst this article was not one in which I wanted to address either CCD or the varroa mite issues (have just re-read it and don’t think I even mentioned them) it would have been a very strange thing indeed to have completely ignored the existence of the domestic honeybee when talking about ‘bees’!

  6. Pingback: Bee boulevard: How to turn an urban corridor into a haven for native pollinators | Grist « Mental Flowers

  7. Pingback: Why Bees Need Trees | 100 Acre Wood | Scoop.it

  8. GaiaBird says:

    Excellent post. I’m absolutely fascinated by bees and I’m deeply concerned about their plight. We need more people like Brigit Strawbridge in this world.🙂

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