That buzzing you hear in the garden this spring is the sound of industry. Bees and hornets are coming out of hibernation, while queen wasps are waking up to build their nests to hatch a new generation of workers. Farmers and clever gardeners know that these black and yellow beauties are vital to the cycle of plants through their pollinating and control of pests that would otherwise destroy your hard work. The government Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has gone as far as valuing the work of pollinating insects to our agriculture and food production industry at a massive £500 million a year. That’s a natural resource worth protecting.
British Beekeepers Association and other bee-friendly organisations have put considerable effort into raising the positive profile of their favourite insects. The importance of creating the right habitat for these prolific pollinators has been widely publicised. Simple changes make a huge difference. Councils are no longer cutting grass verges but planting them with bee-attracting wildflowers, and letting dandelions and clover grow in parks and other public areas.
While the average gardener can differentiate between honey bees and bumblebees, they probably couldn’t identify any other types. Melitollogists and apiculturists, that is, bee experts and beekeepers, know that the UK has over 270 different species. Of these, around 250 are solitary, with females creating individual nests in protected nooks and crannies. You can make your garden extra bee-friendly not only with the plants you grow but also by creating bee hotels and nests with a few simple items.
However positive these changes are, bees and other pollinators are threatened by the widespread use of pesticides in farming and, to a lesser extent, gardening. A reduction in their habitat, pollution and the effects of climate change also affects their ability to reproduce. As the result of long-term campaigning from organisations like the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the use of harmful neonicotinoid pesticides is getting closer to a total ban, following a precedent set by European countries in 2018.
Wasps and Hornets
Although the message is getting out about the importance of bees, wasps and hornets are still painted as garden villains. The lamented question “what’s the point of wasps?” will be heard in gardens around the country this summer. Before you reach for the wasp killer, consider these two points:
- Wasps are pollinators. They may not spread pollen as widely as bees but they transfer it as they move from plant to plant.
- Wasps are efficient organic insecticides. Adults feed their larvae protein-rich caterpillars and greenfly caught in your garden.
When you look at it that way, wasps seem like the best gardening tool you can have!
Hornets get a bad rap. Bigger and scarier looking than the common wasp, to which they are related, hornets are big softies. They live in colonies in woodland, parks and gardens with lots of trees, making material for their nests by chewing wood to a pulp. They catch a wide variety of insects to feed their young. Although there are more than 7,000 species of wasps in the UK, only one type of hornet, the European Hornet, is native to the UK.
You can become a bee’s best friend by growing bee-friendly plants in your garden, in pots and window boxes. Leave the lawnmower in the shed until the dandelions and clover have finished flowering. Create a simple insect hotel to give them a safe place to nest.
They may be great in the garden but no one wants the headache of wasps nesting in their shed. Tips to avoid this include:
- Seal any holes in your shed and, if you have a large sheltering overhang, use mesh to block the underneath off.
- Don’t plant bee-and-wasp-attracting plants nearby or hang flowering baskets from the roof, but do plant strong-smelling herbs like mint and thyme.
- Spray or wipe the exterior of your shed with a diluted solution of essential oils. In addition to mint and thyme, wasps hate clove, citronella, lemongrass and geranium. A few cotton balls soaked in these oils will also help deter any wasps who make it inside your shed for nesting. Just keep the oil out of reach of pets and children.
- Harvest fruit plants before the fruit falls and rots – this is an adult wasp’s favourite food. If you keep your bins by the shed, make sure the lids are always on securely.
- If you find an old and empty wasp nest, clear it away. Wasps don’t reuse nests but they often build next to them knowing that it’s been a good place to nest before so it will be again. Alternatively, use their territorial instincts and deter them with a fake nest.
By making a few simple changes and looking at bees, wasps and hornets as welcome visitors instead of annoying intruders, your neighbourhood pollinators can help you create a garden to envy.