Keeping Honey Bees in the Garden

Bee on Dandelion

Bee on Dandelion

Since we’ve been planning to keep honey bees, we’ve also been trying to make the garden as bee-friendly as possible. The idea was to plant bee-friendly plants, but still keep the garden looking nice. We wanted it to be a nice place for bees and humans alike.

Sounds easy really, we like flowers, bees like flowers so the two should be pretty compatible. However, the more I learn about bees, the harder this plan seems. We’ve had the bees for a couple of weeks now and they seem to be coming and going pretty well and keeping themselves busy. We have plenty of flowers in the garden too that they should like. Forget-me-Nots, Bluebells, Lilac, Chives, Poached Egg Plants to name but a few. However, we rarely see any of the honey bees on these plants and they all seem to fly off elsewhere.

Obviously we don’t mind if the bees head off elsewhere, as long as they return within nectar or pollen, but if we can help them out by having suitable forage plants nearby then we would like to do so. We thought we had done our best by planting bee friendly plants, so, why aren’t they staying in the garden?

Floral Fidelity

Most bees, butterflies and other pollinators will flit from flower to flower and one plant species to another. Honey bees on the other hand display a trait known as floral fidelity which means that on any one foraging trip they will only collect pollen from flowers of a single species.

Individual bees leaving the hive will head off to different plants, but each one will have a certain goal in mind. Some might be collecting from dandelions, others from cherry blossom, others from the bluebells but each individual only collects from that one species. This is great for the plants as it is more likely to result in successful pollination, but no one quite knows how it benefits the bees.

Nonetheless, floral fidelty has been shown in honey bees and it may even be the case that an individual bee will collect from the same source for days on end. Maybe this is the benefit, each bee ‘learns’ of a suitable source and heads off to that same source on every foraging trip. Maybe knowing where to go, how to get there and what to expect when it gets there make the trips more efficient?

Orange Pollen

Full Pollen Sacs

It is also true that once a bee returns with a cargo of pollen it is stored within the hive in cells containing the same type of pollen. This can be seen whenever we carry out an inspection of the hive. Pollen is stored in the cells and each cell is a distinct colour. We’ve seen that pollen from different plants can vary greatly in colour, but it seems as though bees also store their pollen carefully based on the plants it came from. Maybe an individual bee even has it’s own cell that it stores pollen in? Maybe the bees need certain types of pollen for certain things and the only way to keep it segregated is by floral fidelty during foraging trips. Perhaps this segregation explains the benefits of the floral¬†fidelity¬†trait within the honey bee?

Whatever the benefits to the bees, it does also provide an answer to the question of why our bees aren’t staying in our garden. Although we have bee friendly flowers in the garden, to make the garden attractive to us, we have some here, some there and a wide range of different flowers in any one flower bed. For a bee that exhibits floral fidelty this isn’t ideal. It needs a large patch of flowers all from the same species all within a small area so that it can collect at least two full pollen sacs of pollen from the same species of plant on any one trip.

Maybe our garden isn’t quite so bee friendly afterall – It is great for the bumblebees and other pollinators such as butterflies and there are plenty more of these in the garden this year, but it isn’t ideal for the Honey Bee.

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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