With many of us now unexpectedly confined to our homes, our priorities are changing fast. The absence of a daily commute and a desire for fresh air means that gardens and balconies have taken on a new importance, in that overnight, they have become the only truly safe and accessible outdoor spaces for many people.
Even for those who don’t have their own outside patch, a daily walk (alone or with a member of one’s household, while maintaining a safe social distance from others!) will reveal new growth in hedgerows and borders and even patches of wasteland.
And when we pause to look up, tiny blossom buds on tree branches are determinedly pushing their way through. This week, many of us will suddenly find ourselves noticing, and taking comfort in nature in a way we haven’t perhaps had time to do in years, especially those trying to find activities to occupy their children.
Which begs the question, if nature can do so much for us, what can we, with enforced time on our hands, do for it?
NRI’s pollinator experts, Dr Sarah Arnold and Professor Phil Stevenson, have shared their thoughts on what to look out for and how to make our outdoor spaces even more attractive to bees and other beneficial insects.
“In our gardens right now”, Dr Arnold explains, “we should see good populations of the charming hairy footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), which are quite distinctive once you start looking. The males are gingery-brown all over, while the females are black, with tawny-brown legs and you’ll see them around flowering plants like Aubrieta, Pulmonaria (lungwort) and Symphytum (comfrey).”
Professor Stevenson says of the hairy footed flower bee: “They’re very round in shape and always appear to be very busy bees with a powerful controlled hover and long-tongue. Also coming out around now is their “cuckoo” bee Melecta albifrons, which lays its eggs in the nests of Anthophora species. It’s a slow and slightly ungainly bee, mostly black with a pale tufted face and characteristic white knee patches.”
Dr Arnold says that at this time of the year we should plant early flowering spring plants like Pulmonaria (also known as lungwort), Crocus, Symphytum (comfrey) and Cerinthe (honeywort). All of these will produce beautiful spring flowers and provide plenty of nectar for pollinators to make use of.
If you happen to see an oversized bee, and let’s face it, they’re hard to miss, then don’t be alarmed; it’s probably a large queen bumblebee looking for a nest. Common species like Bombus terrestris, Bombus hypnorum, and their cuckoo bees all scout around in the early spring looking for a safe haven to make their nests, whether an abandoned mouse hole or even a bird box!
Dr Arnold says we should also keep a careful lookout for the tinier species: “Smaller bees are now coming out too, such as the red mason bee, Osmia bicornis, which is a big user of ‘bee hotels’, man-made structures in which bees make their nests. There’s a new settler in the UK, Osmia cornuta, which is becoming increasingly common around London and south-east England. A similar but rather unusual species that I really love is Osmia bicolor, which makes its nests in empty snail shells!”
A particular favourite of Professor Stevenson’s are the mining bees, which he says are out in force: “there are various Andrena species, small or medium-sized, mostly brown bees that nest in warm, dry soil, but one very characteristic species is the tawny mining bee Andrena fulva, which is bright orange and is usually responsible for the little ‘volcanoes’ in people’s lawns.”
There are some very basic things we can all do to help our gardens encourage the pollinators to proliferate this spring. Dr Arnold warns against over-mowing our lawns, tempting as it may be after such a long and wet winter. “It’s so important to pollinators”, Dr Arnold explains, “that we don’t cut the grass too short too soon and let some of the weeds like daisies and buttercups flower. If possible, try and leave a few dandelions here and there, as they are great for the early spring solitary bees.”
“Also, if you can”, adds Professor Stevenson, “try and leave a bit of sunny soil bare and undisturbed for those bees that like to nest underground. Obviously, pesticides should be avoided as they tend to kill not only nuisance pests, but good insects too.”
And we mustn’t forget that bees are not the only group of pollinators to look out for at this time of year. Hoverflies are growing more abundant, and these harmless flies are good at helping to control garden pests like aphids, and you may also see a beefly moving quickly from flower to flower, hovering briefly to drink nectar through a very long, slender proboscis.
With outdoor public spaces and the National Trust and botanical gardens like Kew shutting their doors to the public to help stop the spread of Covid-19, this is a great time to really take a good long look at our own green spaces and think about how we can improve them for wildlife. As free access to our physical world shrinks temporarily, we can take this opportunity to expand our natural world and help it thrive.
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