Help our vital pollinators - join the Great British Bee Count!

The Common Carder Bumblebee is easy to identify - it's a drab gingery brown all over. Photo: Dave Goulson.
The Common Carder Bumblebee is easy to identify - it's a drab gingery brown all over. Photo: Dave Goulson.
You can help save our bees with 'citizen science', writes Paul de Zylva - recording those you spot in your local area to help build up a long term picture of their changing numbers. Today we publish an identification guide to the 'top ten' bees, so you can get started right away. But be quick - the Great British Bee Count 2015 ends on Sunday.
We are lucky enough to have around 250 different types of bee - so get outside and see how many you can spot and do what you can to help these awesome little pollinators.

The buzz of bees is a familiar summer sound across the UK.  But this idyllic scene is under serious threat.

Earlier this year the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] warned that almost one in ten of Europe's native wild bees face extinction.

And this alarming report has been echoed by other studies:

  • The diversity of wild bumblebee species is down;
  • Honey bee numbers are mostly down despite the recent trend in beekeeping;
  • Solitary bees are also suffering with declines in over half (52%) of the areas studied.

Bees provide us with a crucial economic service too. It has been estimated that replacing bee pollination with hand pollination could cost farmers at least £1.8 billion a year in labour and pollen alone.

Pesticides and habitat loss driving bee declines

The causes of bee decline are widely recognised. Loss of habitat especially because of changes in agriculture (including pesticide use) is the main cause of bee decline across Europe.

For example, species rich grass meadows have declined by 97% in the UK since the 1930s, removing an important source of forage for bees. There are other important factors too, such as climate change, pests and diseases.

But despite the Government introducing a National Pollinator Strategy last year, following a campaign by Friends of the Earth, major loopholes in this strategy remain - in particular tougher action is needed to reduce the impact of intensive agriculture.

Of course we can all play a part in helping Britain's beleaguered bee populations. With farmland being a less rich feeding ground for bees than it was, our gardens, schools and parks are crucial for bees. With a little thought and effort these local places can be transformed into bee-friendly habitat.

Planting nectar and pollen-rich flowers, avoiding pesticides and providing a source of water are just some of the things that people can do to help our bees.

Join the Great British Bee Count!

And people can also help by downloading the free app and joining the Great British Bee Count 2015, which runs until Sunday 31st May.

To help you identify the bees you find, we have included a photographic guide to the top ten bees - above right, including seven bumblebee species - captions thanks to Dave Goulson who has this valuable advice to offer:

"At this time of year the queen bumblebees have just come out of hibernation - huge, furry zeppelins of the insect world. If you have bee-friendly flowers in your garden you will see them hungrily feeding, for they haven't had a meal for seven months.

"Once they are replete, you'll see them flying low to the ground - they are hoping to find a hole that leads down to a cosy abandoned mouse nest, their favourite place to build their own nest. Bumblebees are wild creatures, cousins of the smaller, more drab honeybees that we keep in hives.

"Take a moment to watch them and you will soon see that there are different types - we have 26 species in the UK, and you can easily see seven different ones in any garden or park. Learn these seven and you can amaze and amuse (or annoy) your friends by pointing out the different types."

How 'Citizen Science' can help save our bees

As bee populations continue to decline a national picture is needed to help inform scientists and Government policy. The Great British Bee Count aims to provide an annual picture of national bee populations, while also raising awareness of bee diversity.

Citizen science has really taken off in recent years, and armed with just a smartphone or tablet and a free-to-use app, people up and down the country can play a crucial role in monitoring the nation's bees.

Wildlife presenter and BBC Springwatch host Michaela Strachan, who is backing the bee count, said:

"Bees are the most amazing creatures and a lot of people are totally unaware of how important they are. In the UK we are lucky enough to have around 250 different types of bee and a lot of people don't know that. So get outside and see how many you can spot and do what you can to help these awesome little pollinators."

So far over 5,000 people have taken part in the Great British Bee Count, recording over 80,000 bees. And people have also been using the app to send in some fabulous pictures too.

So be bee-friendly, download the app and help Britain's bees.



Paul de Zylva is nature campaigner with Friends of the Earth England & Wales.

See photos, above right, to help you identify our 'top ten' British bee species.

More information: The Great British Bee Count is run by Friends of the Earth, Buglife and Waitrose and ends on Sunday 31st May 2015.

Also on The Ecologist: 'If modern farming can't sustain bees, how much longer can it sustain us?' by Dave Goulson.



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