This Year I have been busy recording and documenting the
many species of wild bee to be found in
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in East London.
I live a short distance from the cemetery and for the past 3 years I’ve walked the cemetery on an almost daily basis with my dog Luna. I’ve become intimately familiar with the wild bees that make the cemetery their home, their preferred nest sites and feeding habitats and here I shall share with you some of my findings.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery is quite different from most London cemeteries. Firstly it’s no longer a working cemetery, no graves have been dug there for many years now meaning the cemetery is largely undisturbed with areas allowed to grow wild. Much of the cemetery is secondary woodland but the cemetery also includes numerous ponds, areas of meadow and scrub and artificial chalk grassland. The entire cemetery and adjoining habitats are designated as a site of nature conservation importance.
Early in the year the cemetery is home to one of the best displays of spring flowers to be found in any of London’s parks. Carpets of Snow Drop, Crocus, Winter Aconite, Lesser Celendine, Blue Bell, Wild Garlic and Anenemones cover the ground attracting early emerging bees including the Buff Tailed Bumble Bee, Andrena Nitida the Grey Patch Mining Bee, Andren fulva the Tawny Mining Bee, Andrena Clarkella, and Andrena Scottica The Chocolate Mining Bee. Some of these can see seen flying as early as late February and early March. Andrena bicolor Gwynnes Mining Bee are particularly common in March around the cemetery and can often be seen nectaring on Lesser Celendine blooms. Many of the very early emerging Andrena bees are difficult to identify and require examination under a microscope to tell them apart. By Late march they are joined by the first Early Bumble Bees Bombus pratorum, Vestal Cuckoo Bee Bombus vestalis, Common Carder Bees Bombus pascorum and Hairy Footed Flower Bee Anthophora plumipes . The Hairy Footed Flower bees are easily the commonest of the solitary bees to be found in the cemetery late March to May and are easy to spot as they forage low to the ground favouring Pulmonaria, Blue Bell and Comfrey blooms. I’ve yet to discover exactly where the majority of the Hairy Footed Flower Bees nest but suspect it to be in the decaying mortar of the cemeteries perimeter walls.
Early in the season bees can be found everywhere around the cemetery taking advantage of the early spring flowers but as spring progresses and the canopy closes the best places to find bees become the open grassy areas, glades and wider path margins through the woods which are rich in wild flowers. Another area important for the bees in early spring is the willow woodland around the cemetery’s largest pond. Many of the early emerging solitary bees and bumble bees frequent the willow catkins for nectar and pollen. Ashy Mining Bee Andrena cineria and Grey Patch Mining bee frequent this area.
As we progress into April the open area opposite the education centre becomes the best part of the cemetery to find bees in numbers. The area is open and bathed in direct sunlight for most of the day making it an ideal spot for early rising bees to bask and warm up prior to going out to forage. The numerous grave stones and raised plinths filled with gritty soil also create ideal free draining substrates for many bees to dig their nest burrows in. In April the area is covered in dense low growing carpet of flowering plants including Cuckoo Flower Cardamine pratensis , Cow Slip Primula vera , Primerose Primula vularis and Blue Bells Hycinthoides . This part of the cemetery is home to a great number of mining bees which nest in the free draining raised soils and take advantage of the bounty of flowers. Among the most numerous are the Chocolate Mining bees Andrena scottica which nest in huge communal aggregations. In the cemetery I’ve discovered it common practice for the Chocolate Mining Bees to nest under the old tombs and fallen grave stones. 100’S of the bees will use a communal entrance, often an old mouse burrow but then presumably have their own nest chamber inside the cavity? Associated with these large aggregations of nesting bees you find large numbers of Cuckoo Bees. These are kleptoparasites which sneak their eggs into the burrows of other Solitary bees. Their larva then consume the host bees eggs and pollen provisions. In the Cemetery Park the most common are Nomada Goodeniana the Goodens Nomad Bee which preys upon several solitary bees found in the cemetery including Andrena Scottica , Andrena negroaenea and Andrena nitida the Grey Patch Mining Bee.
Around the southern and eastern perimeter of this area is an artificial earthen bank covered in White Deadnettle, Spring Bulbs, Green Alkanet and umbelliferous flowers. A great number of mining bees nest in the free draining raised soils of the earthen bank. In the old cemetery walls bordering the north of this area Red Mason and Hairy Footed Flower bees nest among the failing mortar. The Hairy Footed Flower bee has its own cuckoo bee Melecta albifrons the Mourning Bee which can often be found close to their hosts nest burrows.
As spring progresses in to Late April and early May more species of bee can be seen. There are 8 species of Bumble bee readily found in the cemetery and by May their workers can be seen busily foraging on the flowers of herbs, shrubs and flowering trees. Some of the best spots for seeing bees in late April and early May include the very large Cherry Laurel Prunus laurocerasus and Canary Bird Rose bushes which grow off the main path through the cemetery. Honey bees will frequent the Chestnut trees, Cherry and Sycamore.
By Late May and June the woodland floor of the cemetery is covered in a waist high thicket of herbaceous perennials including Green Alkanet, Comfrey, Greater Cellendine, Hedge Woundwort and wild geranums. Along the wooded path margins Fork Tailed Flower Bee Anthophora furcate can be seen foraging. These bees begin to emerge just as their cousins the Hairy Footed Flower Bees are coming to the end of their flight period. Unlike their cousins which nest in banks and walls the Forked Tailed Flower Be excavates its nest burrow in decaying timber and this is a commodity that is in no short supply around the cemetery. Andrena labiata a small bee with a bright red Abdomen can be seen visiting Greater stitchwort flowers which forms dense patches in some parts of the wood.
At this time of year the area opposite the education centre continues to be a great place to watch bees. The spring flowers have now been replaced by a dense swaithe of Oxe-Eye-Daisy, Red Valerian, Scabious and Knapweeds. Its now difficult to watch the comings and goings of the ground nesting solitary bees as the dense vegetation makes it almost impossible to locate their nest burrows. There are several Laburnum trees in the cemetery and when they bloom they become a magnet for pollinators. Lasioglossum, Halictus, Andrena, Bumble Bees and Honey Bees will busily work the yellow blooms.
In late spring and early summer the best areas of the cemetery to spot wild bees are the open meadow areas to the south of the cemetery boarding Bow common Lane and Ackroyd drive green link. This area is fantastic for bees as its dry sloping soils make it ideal for wild flowers and it’s bathed in sun for most of the day. Here Wild Marjoram, Mullein, Scabious, Vetches, Birds Foot Trefoil, Sainfoin, Campions and cowslips flourish. Blue Mason Bee Osmia careulescens, Willughby’s Leafcutter Mechachile willughbiella , Patchwork Leafcutter Bees Mechachile centuncularis, Brown Footed Leafcutter Mechachile versicolor and Osmia Leaiana frequent this part of the cemetery alongside wool carder bee Anthidium manicatum. The Wool Carder Bee is one of my favourite bees. This bee is highly territorial and a great deal of fun to observe as the male’s battle it out for dominance over the best patches of flowers which attract the females they mate with. On several occasions I’ve witnessed these small but powerful bees dogfight far larger insects knocking Bumble bees, Butterflies and even small Dragonflies out of the air with swift areal ramming’s.
Other bees less common but occasionally found in the southern part of the cemetery include Melita leporina the Clover Blunthorn Bee. This species is strongly associated with chalk downland but ekes out a living in parts of the city where crushed concrete, rubbles and aggregate soils recreate its chalk grassland habitats. This summer I found males of the species nectaring on wild Marjoram within the chalk maze.
As we move further into summer Green Eyed Flower Bee Anthophora bimaculata become abundant in the cemetery. They can often be seen visiting Bugloss flowers at the southern end of the cemetery, Sainfoin and other legumes. They are incredibly hard to photograph as they seldom stay still for very long. Along wooded paths Nettle Leaved Bellflower attract the Small Scissor Bee Chelostoma campanularum . This tiny bee collects pollen exclusively from hairbells.
Summer is the best time to find Yellow Faced Bees Halictus species in the cemetery. They can sometimes be found on the Red Valerian and scabious blooms opposite the education centre.
As summer passes into autumn bees become more and more scarce. Queen Bumble Bees busy themselves on the last of the summer flowers and abundance of Ivy Blooms. Almost all of the solitary bees have now disappeared, the adults spent but leaving behind the next generation pupating underground or in burrows in hollow plant stems and decaying timber. Surprisingly this autumn I saw very few Honey Bees Apis melifera on the ivy blooms and no Ivy Mining Bees Colletes hedera at all. The Ivy did attract a huge number of wasps, Hoverflies and pollinating Beetles.
In total this season I’ve discovered 46 species of bee in the cemetery which I think is typical of many of the cities larger parks and green spaces. What makes the cemetery so special is that it’s not a huge green space, one can easily walk the entire circumference of the park in 15 minutes. The cemetery is however very well managed by a dedicated team of conservators and volunteers who over the years have improved the habitats to support all the bee species found there. The cemetery is a great example of what can be achieved very close to central London with a bit of appropriate management and encouragement.
One bee I’ve yet to see at the cemetery but has previously been found locally is the rare Brown Banded Carder Bee Bombus humilis. This once common and widespread bee is now increasingly rare and found at just a scattering of locations around the Thames Gateway and Coastal areas of Southern England. Its one I will be looking out for in 2017.
All my bee records from the cemetery park are passed onto the Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) via the iRecord app and sent to the local Biodiversity officer so that they can be used to further our understanding of bees in London and how best to conserve them.
Whilst in Atlanta I attended the Metro Atlanta Beekeeping Associations monthly meeting and lecture. I have a few friends there among the association and whenever I come to town I get invited to attend their meetings, meet their members and exchange beekeeping experiences.
Their October guest lecturer was the internationally known Dr Keith Delaplane MBE from University Georgia. See his profile here: http://caes2.caes.uga.edu/bees/personnel/delaplane.html
Before the meeting my friend Cindy, former president of the association introduced me to Keith who has previously worked on bee research projects in the Uk with current colleagues of mine at FERA/DEFRA. We had a brief chat about the work Keith participated in and my colleagues he'd had the pleasure of working with.
As the room packed out with around 50 people attending Dr Delaplane began to gave his talk on his latest research project which has just been funded by the United States Department for Agriculture.
He started off by explaining some of the background of honey bee social evolution and Honey Bee reproductive strategy and how having a single queen devoted to reproduction within the colony brings benefits to the hive. He went on to explain that having highly promiscuous queens which practice polyandry also brings benefits through the diverse genetic make-up of the colony which enables the colony to brave environmental stressors, be more disease resistant and produce more honey.
His latest project will involve the artificial insemination of a large number of queen bees from various stocks. These queens will be inseminated in 3 groups. One group will be given the sperm of just 10 drones, another group the sperm of 30 drones and the last group the semen of 60 drones. The researchers will then compare the colonies performances against varroa resistant hygiene, Productivity, disease etc. Their hypothesis is that instrumentally inseminated queens with a more diverse package of sperm will produce more productive colonies.
At this point he pointed out that the queens receiving sperm from 60 drones will not burst with semen because they are too full! The sperm from multiple drones is blended together then the same amount of the mixture given to each queen. Apparently he’s been asked if queens burst if they are full on several occasions.
Dr Delaplane explained that within each colony there exists sisterhoods made up of workers belonging to the same drone father. These different sisterhoods made up of super sisters often display a preference or exceptional ability at certain tasks within the hives. Some may be better at foraging, others better at producing wax or comb construction, whilst others may be better at brood rearing and others may be more inclined to swarm. Having a diverse workforce means you have more sisterhoods with task specialisms that are well equipped to excel at a wide range of tasks within the colony therefore the colony can survive and thrive easier.
This is the exact opposite of what happens in most bee breeding programs when beekeepers are selecting a small number of drones to inseminate queens as they are looking for a specific set of desired traits. Dr Delaplane believes that rather than selecting for specific traits we should be aiming for queens which have slept around allot and produce a diverse workforce which in itself produces better bees.
He also explained that among the sisterhoods in the hive there are some bloodlines which are royalty and do not make good workers. These bees when they are larva emit a pheromone which screams out to the nurse bees ‘make me a queen’ and in the event the the colony needs to make an emergency queen cell its these larva which are chosen over others as preferential queens because they are genetically programed to be better queens but poorer workers. As workers these bloodlines are basically social parasites and do little to no work in the colony. This was the first I had heard of royal bloodlines in the Honey Bee and had always thought queens were chosen at random or that the bees somehow can tell which larva are fittest and chose them.
It had for a long time been widely hypothesised that sisterhoods would prefer a supersister to raise as the next queen as that super sister queen would share more DNA with her sisters but this has turned out to be one of the biggest scientific flops of the 20th century with over 100 studies failing to prove this is what happens.
So it turns out some queens are born to be queens – but may never become one and others which are not ‘born to be queens’ just happen to get laid in a play cup and become a queen anyway without any particular desire or choice to become one.
Dr Delaplane thinks his new research project could challenge established practices by bee breeders and queen producers forcing them to re-think the trend of selecting a narrow range of desirable traits which produces genetically limited stock.
My own preference for raising new queens is the miller method or I use a special frame inside the parent colony which then snaps apart into several smaller frames fitting into a mini mating hive populated with nurse bees and I leave the bees to decide which of the larva they want to raise into queens. Its less work than grafting and providing you supply the nuc with a frame consisting plenty of eggs or very small newly hatched larva for the bees to choose from they have plenty of time to feed the larva royal jelly and make good queens.
I find that this method works for me better than grafting or using the jenta cup system which I have also experimented with. I get great queens using this method and I think my results coincide with Dr Delaplanes findings thus far.
Late summer for the bees is one of the most desperate times of the year when they can struggle the most to find enough food to eat. Many people find this fact difficult to believe as the weather is often hot and sunny and presumably great for the bees but it is in fact often one of the leanest times for the busy insects. At this time of year colonies are large with many mouths to feed and as the beekeeper has removed the honey crop the flowers are also diminishing in abundance meaning the bees can struggle to replace honey which has been taken off. For this reason it’s crucial not to be over greedy and take all the honey leaving the bees with no stores for themselves.
Come late summer the majority of our nectar rich native wild plants have ceased flowering and gone to seed, especially woodland and meadow flowers whose flowering period is in rhythm with the closing of the woodland canopy and cutting of meadows for hay. Bramble and all our native trees have also long since finished flowering and are now sporting fruits and seeds leaving little for the bees.
Away from Heather moorland and Heaths, the only real bountiful sources of forage from native wild plants are Greater Willow Herb, Thistles, Ragwort, Bindweed and Hogweed – though many of these are early this year and already going over. Along water courses Purple Loosestrife, Marsh Woundwort, Water Mint and the invasive Himalayan Balsam provide welcome relief but not everyone is in range of such localised sources of forage.
Early summer, June in particular is a time of the year which brings uncertainty for many a beekeeper, and for those in rural areas in particular. June is the beginning of the summer season when the spring flowering plants and trees shed their blooms having been pollinated and now begin to form seeds but the main flow of summer flowering blooms has yet to begin. Beekeepers refer to this period of change as the June Gap.
At this time of year Honey bee colonies are approaching their peak in worker population in readiness for the summer flow, Queens are laying at a prolific rate and colonies have many larva to feed. A reduction in incoming nectar and pollen as the spring flowers cease but the summer flowers are yet to peak can leave large colonies struggling to feed themselves or fill supers with surplus honey for the beekeeper.
Following a very mild
March the forage this season appears to be well advanced of recent springs,
even in comparison to last year’s very mild winter and warm start to the year.
2017 has started cold and chilly but in late March this has warmed up considerably.
So much so that I experienced my first attempt at a swarm during the last week
of March and already the new queens have emerged and unbelievably appear to
have been mated and are laying in the first week of April!!!
During the first week of April many of our true heralds of spring had already begun to flower across the city. Cherry Laurel Prunus laurocerasus an evergreen shrub who’s flowers are a useful source of spring forage have been out in bloom since mid-March 2-3 weeks earlier than last year. Whilst manning the LBKA stall at Ascot race course on the 2nd April I saw many Andrena Mining bees, Honey bees, Bumble bees, Hoverflies, Queen wasps and Queen Hornet nectaring on the blooms of these tall shrubs growing around the car park.
Damson, Plum, Gage, and other stone fruits have largely flowered and gone over already as have crocus, daffodils and snow drops. My flowering currant normally just blooming now is almost over already meanwhile Blue Bells are coming into flower.
Blue bells may be visited by Honey bees and can produce a honey crop but they are also popular with some of the longer tongued solitary bees and Garden Bumble Bee Bombus hortorum . Most of the Blue Bells found growing in our gardens and sadly in many of our wilder places are the larger invasive Spanish Blue Bell Hycinthoides hispanica and not the native English Blue Bell Hycinthoides non-scripta . You can tell the two species apart by the way that the individual bells hang on the flower stalk. In English Blue bell the bells all hang on the same side but in the Spanish Blue Bell they hang at different angles all around the stalk. They also have green to blue pollen whilst English Blue Bells have a creamy coloured Pollen. Blue Bells frequently hybridise and these offspring can be difficult to differentiate.
March is officially the first month of spring for us in the UK, though in London it has felt spring like for several weeks now.
Already the first of the spring flowers are putting on a colourful show of yellows, purples and shades of white. Snow drops are starting to go past their best having flowered in numbers since Late January. The early flowering species crocuses are currently looking at their best across most of London and the later flowering large flowered Crocus varieties are just starting to join the display too.
These and other spring bulbous plants including Winter Aconite, Anenemone blanda, Squill and Muscari are valuable early sources of pollen for bees.
2017 has started off quite differently from last year’s exceptionally warm January. Last year in the first week of January I participated in the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s annual New Year’s plant hunt and found 76 species of plant in bloom during an 8 mile walk around East London. In contrast on the 3rd of January this year I found just 9!
January 2017 has seen a return of the more usual cold winter temperatures and from what I can tell so far the return towards more normal timings of the seasons and emergence of spring plants and animals. The recent cold weather has meant that late season flowering plants have ceased blooming before Christmas and not persisted through winter as they did last year meanwhile spring flowers have remained doorman and not yet begun to emerge.
Despite the weather being generally cold with some particularly harsh ground frosts there have been occasional mild days when the bees will fly to cleanse their bowels and look for food. Despite the cold there are a select few flowers in bloom which they can take advantage of.
Few native plants are yet in bloom but several exotics flourish in late winter through to early spring providing a bounty of forage for the few insects brave enough to venture out and take advantage of them.
Mahonia or Oregon Grape grows in our towns and cities in abundance and flowers throughout the winter providing nectar and pollen for bees. In southern towns and cities Buff Tailed Bumble Bees Bombus terrestris are increasingly continue to be active throughout the winter surviving largely on this plant. Around 75% of winter flower visitations by bees are to Mahonia. The variety ‘winters sun’ is particularly attractive. Bees taking advantage of Mahonia blooms in winter have few other insects to compete with and can fair better than some colonies active in summer. On the 12th December I discovered an active Buff Tailed nest in west London beneath a Pyracantha hedge. I’ve been monitoring it all winter and whenever there is a warm day the workers can be seen busily coming and going from a large stand of Mahonia shrubs across the street from the nest. The blooms will only last a few more weeks so hopefully an equally good source of forage will come into bloom nearby to ensure the colony has sufficient forage coming in to enable it to produce new queens and drones by spring when the nest dies off.
Viburnum shrubs include a number of deciduous and evergreen species which flower during the winter months. They are relatives of our native Guelder Rose Viburnum opolus . Some of the most popular Viburnums with our bees include the evergreen Viburnum tinus who’s sweetly scented cream blooms flower from November through to March and Viburnum bodnaatense whos pink flowers bloom from around Christmas to March.
Winter Heliotrope Petasites fragrans is a relative of our native Butterbur but flowers much earlier. Its not a UK native and can be quite invasive when established in the wild but is a great garden plant for bees in late winter. The flowers are shaped like a toilet brush and pink in colour.
Clematis . Several Clematis species are useful forage sources to bees in winter. Clematis amandii and Clematis cirhossa both have creamy white flowers and bloom in winter. Honey and winter active bumble bees will visit them for pollen.
Hellebores include the familiar ‘winter rose’ with its large white blooms ‘ orientalis ’ and its many cultivated hybrids and the native Stinking Hellebore helleborus foetidus .
Winter Flowering Cherry Prunus subhirtella flower from late November to February producing pale pink flowers. I’ve very rarely seen any bees on the blooms but have often seen flies on them. In the absence of better forage like Mahonia bees will visit the flowers.
Sweet Box Sarcococca confusa is a short growing evergreen shrub which produces extremely fragrant blooms (reminiscent of hyacinths) from late winter into early spring. It’s one of those plants that you almost always smell long before you see it.
Winter Heather/Heaths Erica species produce tubular blooms in shades of white to pink throughout the winter. They are coming to the end of their flowering period now but still providing forage for bees brave enough to venture out.
Winter flowering Honeysuckle . Several Honeysuckles flower during winter. Some are climbers other are shrub forming. One of the best is Lonicera fragrantissimima .
As we progress beyond February into March the usual array of spring blooms will begin to appear. Their arrival is not far off, already a few brave Daffodils, Snow Drops and Winter Aconite have made an appearance. They will be joined by Crocus, Muscari, Sweet Violets, White Deadnettle and Pulmonaria.
Firstly lets start with wasps Beekeepers in America like those the world over have a hateful relationship with wasps. Here in the UK we have about half a dozen species of wasp which can pose problems for our bee colonies. These are mostly social wasps which build paper nests but there is also one solitary wasp – the Bee Wolf Philanthus – which hunts almost exclusively on honey bee workers which it buries underground and lays its eggs on after paralysing the bee. Most of these wasps are little more than a nuisance, few can actually cause any real damage, and when they do it is usually already weak colonies which are effected. Reducing hive entrances to make the colony easier for the guard bees to defend is usually all the intervention needed. In the US they have a whole different range of native wasps which predate bees as well as common Wasp, German Wasp, Tree Wasp and European Hornets which have been accidentally introduced from Europe. In total they have around 20 species of social wasps which all, to some degree prey, on honey bee colonies.
Honey Bees are not native to North America so have few defences against the native wasps which must have delighted at their arrival in the 1600s. Among the most common social wasps which can cause problems for US beekeepers are the Yellow Jackets. These are very similar to European common wasps which are the scourge of picnic tables in late summer and sometimes rob our honey bees. Yellow Jackets almost always nest underground among thick undergrowth. In 2013, I was the victim of a vicious Yellow Jacket colony which went on the rampage after an innocent bystander accidentally stepped on their nest during an event in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. 100s of wasps came pouring out of a small hole in the ground – probably an old mouse burrow and flew straight up my shorts stinging my groin. My friends were stung on the face, arms and legs. The stings were extremely painful and burned intensely. They were far more painful than any bee sting and I would not want to experience it again. There are several species of Yellow Jacket which all look very similar. They are the Eastern Yellow Jacket, Western Yellow Jacket, Prairie Yellow Jacket and the Southern Yellow Jacket. All the Yellow Jackets are in the genus Vespa which is the same Genus that our common wasps and European Hornets belong to.
By now the vast majority of the UK’s 277 species of bee are well tucked away for winter. The majority of our bees are solitary and the most of these bees die in late summer leaving behind their offspring entombed deep inside underground burrows or imprisoned inside hollow plant stems or decaying wood. These bees will either overwinter as a pupae, pre-pupae or as a fully mature bee but they will not vacate their birth site until spring.
Bumble bees colonies die out in autumn and only the queens survive winter by hibernating. In autumn the queens feast on pollen and nectar to fatten up for their long sleep.
In the south of
the UK, particularly in towns and cities some of these bumble bees may remain
active all year round. The Buff Tailed Bumble Bee is our most winter hardy bee, they are large and furry, can
regulate their own body temperature and regularly fly on cold days when other
bees are nowhere to be seen. They will even fly in snow.
In southern towns and cities Buff Tailed Bumble Bees are increasingly starting to found new colonies in late autumn rather than going into hibernation. The abundance of exotic winter flowering shrubs in urban areas and lack of competition from other pollinators means these bees can thrive during the winter months. Mahonia is particularly important to winter active bumble bees, 75% of flower visitations by bees in winter are to this plant alone. There are numerous varieties of Mahonia but my favourite is ‘Winter Sun’ which is popular with the bees.
The Christmas Wreath
Christmas wreaths predate Christmas and Christianity by several thousand years. Originally ancient Britain’s and other northern Europeans would have made loose hanging wreaths (basically just a bundle of greenery tied at the top and hung from the walls of their home) as a means to warn off winter spirits. It is only later with the rise of the Christian churches that Wreaths adopted a circular shape mirroring the crown of Christ. Our ancestors believed that evergreen plants were magical because unlike other plants they didn’t die back and shed their leaves in winter. Additionally many evergreen plants like Holly produce long lasting berries which were a symbol of life and fertility. Plants like Ivy who’s berries persist long into winter as well as being evergreen climb and entwine representing matrimony and togetherness. Strongly scented sprigs of conifer would have hidden the foul odours of winter (no fridges back then so perishable foods would not last long even when dried and salted and would produce a pungent smell)
Key items used in wreaths include Holly Ilex aquifolium which is pollinated by Honey bees and Andrena mining bees who’s short tongues are well equipped to manipulate the strongly scented but visually insignificant flowers. Ivy flowers are pollinated by a wide variety of insects and are a valued autumn forage source but has its own special pollinator the Ivy Mining Bee Colletes hedera which only collects pollen from Ivy and times its emergence to the opening of the Ivy flowers.
One of the things I have been very interested in during my travels throughout the United States was investigating how different urban areas compare to London in terms of forage availability. To begin my comparison we first need to understand what we have here at home in London.
Here in London we have very high hive densities in some parts of the city. According to 2016 figures from the National bee Unit Greater London has around 5000 hives and around 1400 beekeepers. The exact number is unknown as it is estimated that 25-30% of beekeepers do not register. With this in mind the actual number of managed hives in Greater London could be as high as 6200. NBU data also shows that in some central London areas hive density is as high as 13 hives per square kilometre – greater than many rural areas. Unlike many rural areas which have vast swathes of agricultural crops which provide a limited variety but seasonal super-abundance of nectar, London has less abundance of forage but a greater variety due to the wide range of exotic plants grown in the city’s parks and gardens. What this means for bees and beekeepers in London is that our bees have a much more balanced and varied diet offering them a wider range of nutrition but our honey crops generally fall 30% short of the UK national average. According to the BBKA honey survey results for the past decade London has consistently been the lowest yielding region in the country in terms of average volumes of honey produced. The exception to this trend has been 2015 and 2016 when national averages plummeted due to the cold, wet and windy spring weather but London yields remained the same (due to our microclimate and more stable weather patterns)
London is 61 percent green space by land area. Of this 14% is domestic garden green space, 38.4% is public green space and the remaining is made up of commercial green space, railway sidings, brownfield land and green roofs according to data from Green Space Information for Greater London (GIGL), The General London Assembly (GLA) and the 2012 World Culture report.
London also has an abundance of trees with tree canopy covering 21.87% of the city. In 2003 London had around 7 million trees – almost as many trees as there are people and there are targets to increase this by 5% by 2025. Under the Mayors RE:LEAF initiative 75’000 new trees are planted in the City each year. On the surface London is a pretty green city but when we look more closely at the available data we begin to see that some parts of the city’s green areas are little more than green deserts. According to Kew Gardens around half of London’s half a million street trees are sterile London plane trees, as are many of the trees in central London parks. These sterile hybrids offer no pollen or nectar for pollinators and much of our parks these trees grow in are also largely short cut grass with few flowers for bees. Increasingly urban planners are planting birch and alter trees because they grow rapidly, take up little space and are low maintenance and tolerate the poor, dry urban soils. These trees offer no pollen or nectar for bees.
Generally speaking the green spaces closer to the city centre tend to offer less foraging opportunities than those further out which are often more wild and rugged and contain more wild flowers. Further out we have more large habitats including heaths and commons which are less intensively managed. Also further out into the London suburbs more of our railways are above ground and lined by thickets of Bramble, avenues of trees and more of the road verges include green buffers. There are exceptions, the gardens at Buckingham palace for example are known to have a rich diversity of flowering trees including wilder areas. For some time there has been a growing concern that in some areas of the city we may have reached saturation point where numbers of hives has reached the limits of what local forage can support. It is this concern which is leading many organisations including LBKA to promote the planting of flowers and trees for bees. There are now a number of initiatives such as river of flowers and bee lines project which aim to create landscape scale bee friendly corridors of suitable flower habitat through parts of the city to link up pollinator populations and help provide forage for bees. On the whole though London is a good place for bees, and is by no means a bad habitat for bees but as I discovered on my travels there is much room for improvement and some of the US cities I visited put us to shame when it comes to providing habitats for pollinators.