Honey bees are in trouble. Not only because of the destruction of their habitats and the over- use of chemicals but last year’s strange weather pattern with spring being almost a month behind in some parts of the country, meant that fruit trees were late producing their blossom. Pollinating insects rely on this early source of nectar and pollen and Honey bees need this to feed their developing broods. This year has also been unusual with June seeing unseasonable amounts of rain during the month and a mini heatwave at the end. When the weather is cold and rainy Honey bees cluster in their hives to keep warm and will not be out foraging meaning that starvation is a possibility if the bad weather is prolonged and they have used up their honey stores. How can we help when they are feeding? Even a small garden can provide food for bees if the right plants are grown. Herbs that are attractive to bees, such as chives, marjoram, rosemary and sage can be grown in pots, as can lavender and it’s good to leave a corner where wild flowers can grow. Early spring nectar rich plants include the crocus and snowdrop while autumn ivy flowers provide late food when many other plants have died down. Double flowering plants may look lovely but are no good for Honey bees which can’t reach the nectar with their short tongues. When the weather is very hot Honey bees use a great deal of water which they evaporate by fanning their wings to keep the hive cool. Creating a water source for the bees will also benefit many other insects. If you use a dish it’s best to put stones in the water to provide a landing place where the bees can safely drink without falling in and water lilies in a pond will also help them; insects will use the leaves to rest on as they drink.
Larger gardens can have flowering hedges such as Hawthorn and Blackthorn and can also accommodate fruit trees and a pond but, of course, whatever the size of your garden, please avoid the use of toxic chemicals. In spite of the EU ban on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in 2014, one in five samples of British honey have been found to contain this chemical. It is thought that there is no risk to human health but that it could have an impact on Honey bees. It’s possible that oil seed rape is the culprit as Honey bees are attracted to this crop and traces of the chemical could still be in the soil, and therefore present in the plants, from when neonicotinoids were used before the ban. These pesticides are still in use on cereal crops which are exempt from the ban.
We’ve known for a long time that bees can count. Experiments were carried out which involved placing three identical artificial landmarks, with a source of food after the third, and then moving the landmarks and the food closer to the hive. The bees still worked out where the food was, namely after the third. To eliminate the possibility that the bees could smell the food it was removed but the bees still went to the place where it had been, after the third landmark. It has also recently been discovered by an Australian and French team that the bees struggle to remember a number greater than three. They put some food next to two dots then repeated the experiment with two lemons and the bees found the food easily. Then they increased the dots and lemons to three; the bees again found the food. But when they used four dots and lemons they didn’t find the food. So it was deduced that bees can count but only up to three.
Still about in August is the beautiful day-flying Six spot burnet moth. The bright colours of this insect act as a warning to predators that their meal will have an unpleasant taste; the moth contains cyanide. This accumulates in the body from the food plants, Bird’s foot trefoil and vetches, eaten when the moth is still a caterpillar; the caterpillar is also brightly coloured and therefore avoids being eaten. Once a bird gets the taste of the cyanide it remembers that vivid colours mean ‘don’t touch again!’ All three stages of the Six spot burnet’s life are colourful even the middle stage, the cocoon which protects the pupa, looks gold plated. A very lovely moth found in wild flower meadows, roadside verges and woodland edges.
Another vetch which is attractive to moths, butterflies and bees is Tufted vetch. Like other members of the pea family this is a nitrogen fixer so it is a useful plant which enriches the soil; as with Common vetch it uses its tendrils to climb up other plants.
Ben from Wroxham, who has written to me before, has been observing flies. His cat left a dead shrew in the garden; although cats can’t resist hunting them they don’t eat shrews because they have glands on the sides of their bodies which make them taste bad. Ben saw that flies were quickly attracted to the little body and has emailed me to ask how flies are able to find their food. He wonders whether their huge eyes means that they have much better eyesight than humans. In fact flies have very different eyes from ours, they are ‘compound’ rather than ‘simple’ like human eyes. The compound eye has thousands of lenses, each one working independently enabling the fly to have a 360 degree view of the world but it cannot see very far, no more than a few yards; however, it is able to detect movement much better than we can. So if the fly doesn’t rely on vision to detect a meal, how does it find it? The answer is scent. Flies have an extraordinary sense of smell and can find a little body like Ben’s shrew from a great distance. They don’t have noses but they do have scent detectors on their antennae. Once found they don’t eat their food like we do – they don’t have teeth – but spit their digestive juices onto the meal then suck up the dissolved mess! Pretty revolting to us but delicious to the fly! Then they lay their eggs on the corpse for their larvae to have a good meal.
Now for something more appealing. Every year Butterfly Conservation organise ‘The Big Butterfly Count’ which involves fifteen minutes of your time, on a sunny day, to log all the butterflies that you see in that time in your garden, a park, wood or field. For details visit www.butterfly-conservation.org
Things to do in August include: