Bees at Gardeners' World Live

by Richard Jones

Ordinarily, I expect the NEC at Birmingham is one of the most sterile places on the planet. [...] But for one week of the year it is transformed...

Bee on a leafOrdinarily, I expect the NEC at Birmingham is one of the most sterile places on the planet. Acres of concrete, tarmac, glass, steel and close-mown grass are the nearest we get to desert conditions in the UK. But for one week of the year they are transformed by the arrival of tonnes of imported topsoil and a bewildering rainbow of garden plants, for Gardeners' World Live.

Whilst I was there I was asked to research and create a container of plants to attract wildlife, and despite the rain, it looked great when we'd finished. It was a good work-out too, carrying huge terracotta pots, compost, bricks, stones, logs and plants halfway across Birmingham.

It only took half an hour to put everything together, but even before we placed the first log for the base, a bumblebee flitted down to investigate the lavender and sage. It did not stay long though. Unfortunately for our photographer, it was doing what bumblebees (and honeybees for that matter) do best - showing precise flower fidelity.

Although we'd carefully selected some pretty and nicely scented nectar sources, the bumbles were ignoring us, zooming past to visit the foxgloves less than a metre away. It was not that our flowers were poorer quality, or less nectar-productive, it was just that the bumblebees had adopted a fixed mindset and they were continuing regardless.

Of course, it is precisely this quality that makes them supreme pollinators. On a given forage trip from the nest, they visit blooms of just one chosen plant species, passing all others by. They may spend the whole day in this fixed forage pattern. The plants benefit from having their pollen carried directly from male to female of the same species, without having it splashed wastefully over aliens. The bees benefit from targeting a known and fruitful nectar and pollen source, synchronized for their advantage.

A visible manifestation of this behaviour is the bright colour of the pollen cake, carried on the special long hairs of the bees' back legs. It is not the dull dark grey you get by eventually mixing all the colours of the plasticine together, it is the bright unblended colour of a single pollen type. The foxgloves were producing pale orange pollen cakes today. I had a quick look at the poppies of the Highways Agency garden. No bees. A shame, poppy pollen can be a striking jet black.

PS - Whilst we were planting up the container, we were careful not to trample the mole hills nearby. I had thought they could have made something of an added wildlife interest to the scheme, until I realized that they were designer molehills, small piles of carefully arranged topsoil, made by the Highways Agency gardening team to augment their plot.

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Gardeners' World Web User 15/06/2009 at 11:36

Morning, Help, please! One of my compost bins (rigid plastic) is infested with ants! Anyone any ideas as to what to do to get rid of them, please? I know they are making the most beautifully fine compost - but there are limits! Thanks a lot Jane P

Gardeners' World Web User 15/06/2009 at 13:18

We have a bumble bee nest inside our compost bin. When I tap the side it buzzes really loudly so there must be hundreds in there. What should I do?

Gardeners' World Web User 16/06/2009 at 08:41

my school is looking to build a bee area any ideas for plants?

Gardeners' World Web User 18/06/2009 at 09:45

A honey bee colony is very demanding and may not be appropriate for a school as they need expert attention during the holidays. I suggest you investigate making bee homes from bundles of short canes (see BBC bee homes) and growing lots of bee friendly plants.

Gardeners' World Web User 18/06/2009 at 11:43

I planted white broccoli late last year, it hasn't produced any veg yet, shall i scrap it? Also, do hedgehogs eat lots of worms as well as slugs (and snails?), I'm contemplating getting a rescued hedgehog for my garden!

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