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How can it bee? Fewer bees seem to be visiting our gardens this summer

by Drucilla James

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credit: acidpix

Despite the grey weather, when you have been able to get out into the garden, are you missing one of those sounds of summer – the buzzing of bees?  Although the picture is variable, gardeners and bee-keepers are reporting smaller bee numbers this summer.

Honey Bees

Although it is still too early to report the full picture of the national situation, ”With regard to honey bees, colony losses have indeed been reported to be higher than usual,”says Jason Learner Technical Advisor- National Bee Unit. Losses appear to be due tothe prolonged bad weather last year and the prolonged cold this winter.

In Wales, where there are estimates of about 25% of honey bee colonies being lost over the winter  – compared to the usual 10%, Lilian Llewellyn of the Welsh Beekeepers’ Association reports that it is “generally accepted that there have been high colony losses in most parts of the country for honey bees. “. She does however suggest, ”It is possible that losses have not been as high in towns and cities as opposed to the countryside where there are often seasonally extended supplies of pollen.”

Welsh beekeepersare also wondering whether the unseasonably cold weather has caused additional loss of hives in March and April– with foraging bees caught out far away from the hive when the sun and the temperature have dropped.

Bumble Bees

It could be that bees are simply putting in a late appearance this year. The London Beekeepers’ Association (LBKA)Foraging Officer has found that there are fewer bumble bees around for the time of year “as most bumble bee colonies were late starting up as queens emerged from hibernation much later than usual. With better weather and more plants in flower, hopefully we should start to see more.”

Welsh beekeepers too have noted fewer bumble bees around than usual at this time of year. They believe there are fewer surviving bumble bee queens and therefore nests or the nests are as yet poorly developed and there are fewer workers flying. Bumble bees may have suffered for similar reasons to honey bees – lack of forage and flying time in the autumn, a long cold winter and poor spring weather when they have emerged from hibernation.

However not all is doom and gloom

Wally Shaw, Technical Officer for the Welsh Beekeepers’ Association says that, “the extreme weather conditions over the last year (July 2012 to May 2013) have been profoundly unfavourable for most species of pollinating insect. However, because of their reproductive strategy, most of the wild species have considerable powers of recovery (not for this year but next year). For example, a successful bumble bee nest will produce say 10-20 queens at the endof the summer and only one of which has to survive and establish itself next year to maintain the status quo – anything better than this will result in a net increase in the population. Honey bees of course have a much slower rate of (natural) recovery but then they have beekeepers who can (hopefully) accelerate the process.”

Better picture for solitary bees

It also seems possible that solitary bees may not have suffered so much as other types of bee. Their active period is over by the end of June and the pupae then develop and over-winter which makes them less susceptible to unfavourable weather conditions. Emily from LBKA commented that, “I’ve noted lots of solitary bees about still. Hairy-footed flower bee, red mason bee, and tawny mint bee.”

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