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Get Buzzing - 20th May is World Bee Day

Updated: Jun 16

In 2018 the United Nations designated the 20th May World Bee Day to raise the awareness of the importance of bees and other pollinators in the ecosystem. (

So what better day have a look at some bees and why they are so important.

A saying often attributed to Einstein, although apparently he never actually said it (go to for some interesting research on the matter), is that: ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’ Whether or not he said it is in some ways irrelevant, because this misquotation has probably done more to bring the subject to the attention of the general public than any other article, book or learned paper could ever have done.

There is no doubt that bees and other insects are vital for the pollination of a whole range of plants and consequently are crucial to the survival of a vast network of flora and fauna, including mankind, which feeds on those plants. The majority of plants need bees or other pollinating insects in order to reproduce - only 12% of plants are wind pollinated – so we would be somewhat scuppered without them.

There are some 20,000 species of bees worldwide, and in the UK alone, there are more than 250, and of those, over 90% are solitary bees. Solitary bees are what their name implies – each nest comprises the work of a single female bee. Although solitary bees make up the vast majority of bees they are not as conspicuous as their cousins, the social bees - bumblebees and honeybees - so the chances are that if you were to see one you might not recognise it as a bee anyway. The picture is a photo I took of a first day cover ‘Celebrating Bees’ – which shows a mixture of bumblebees and other bees.

Solitary bees comprise mainly mining bees which excavate their own nest, and cavity bees, (including mason bees, leafcutter bees and carder bees) which nest in existing sites, such as hollow plant stems. Solitary bees overwinter on their own to emerge the following year to mate and produce offspring to continue the line.   

Bumblebees and honeybees are classified as social bees because they form colonies.

There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, although only 7 are widespread. Queen bumblebees nest in sites which are capable of housing her small colony – think old mouse burrows or grass tussocks. After emerging from winter hibernation and getting herself fit by feasting on pollen and nectar, she will begin the task of laying her eggs in her new nest, after which she will die. Only new queens, which have mated before hibernation, will overwinter to start the cycle again next spring.

Honeybees are different in that they form a colony which overwinters. It is for this reason that

they produce honey which they feed on during the winter months. The queen can live for up to 4 years or so, tended by her ever-changing entourage of sterile female worker bees. Surprisingly, there is only one species of honeybee in the UK.

So that’s the kinds of bees we have in the UK, but why are they so important as far as pollination goes?

Pollination isn’t the raison d'être of bees’ existence: it is a by-product, as it were, of the bees’ food foraging activities. Other than water, bees need two things in order to survive: pollen and nectar. In a nutshell, at the same time as they gather pollen and nectar for food, they also carry the pollen to the next flower that they visit, and - hey-presto! – the flower is pollinated and much of our food source is secured. So, from our point of view, it is vital that bees and other pollinators don’t just survive, we need them to thrive.

Many commercial crops depend on bees for pollination, but that whole area is outside the remit of my blog! Let’s concentrate more on how we, as gardeners, can help our buzzy friends. The simplest way is to provide them with food – ‘let gardens grow, where beelines end’ as Carol Ann Duffy says in her poem ‘Virgil’s Bees’ (1) 

So here is an unashamed plug for my latest book The Little Book of Plants for Pollinators: A Gardener’s Guide which is a handy resource for finding out what plants to put in your garden to attract and sustain a whole range of insect pollinators, not just bees.

And as a bonus, if you quote BLOG10 at the checkout you will get 10% of the price of the book and all other items in my website shop. Click here to go to the Shop.


1 Duffy, Carol Ann (2011) The Bees, Picador, London.

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