Thursday, July 09, 2015

Thursday Talk time: Bee Aware

PHS editor, Harlequin Historical author and long time  beekeeper Michelle Styles explains the importance of bees and why we individually need to do more to help them.

Bees are a theme through out man’s creative endeavours reaching back to the beginnings of time. One of the first paintings ever discovered was of a man gathering honey. Bees have been all around humans ever since, but generally quietly working in the background.

Think of bees and mostly you think of honey or possibly wax (besides candles, beeswax is used in many cosmetics). Honey is proving more and more useful in the fight against disease as it does have certain antibacterial properties. While both of these products are excellent, they are hardly life-changing. Bees actually have a much more important role to play.   Bees are responsible for much of the pollination of our food stuff, particularly fruit. Life on this planet would be very different if the bees were not there to do their job.

 HOWEVER, the bee population has declined significantly in recent years (along with the butterfly population).  One reason has been loss of habitat and another reason has been the chemicals we spray on plants, in particular a group of chemicals called neonicatiniods (neonics for short). They have been implicated in the decline of bees and butterflies.  Gardeners may think they are just killing pests, but they are killing the beneficial insects as well. It is very easy to fall for the need to have the roses looking good without any thought to what is actually happening to the planet. Equally it is easy to plant exotic flowers which are sterile hybrids. If a flower is sterile, there is no food for the bees. Without food, bees starve. 

Without bees, we starve.

So what can the average person do? What can one person do?

Simple Actions to help save bees (and butterflies)

First  consider the use of chemicals in your garden. Read the labels and refuse to use  any containing  acetamirid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid  or thiamethoxam. A recent study from Harvard showed that these chemicals do harm bees. Monsanto's roundup has been implicated in the disappearance of the Monarch butterfly. The website has a list of US popular brands which contain these chemicals. Let your hardware or gardening centre know that stocking products that contain neonics means they are contributing to the decline in the bee population. has a campaign to get Ace Hardware and True Value to stop stocking these products. 

Second consider planting bee friendly plants, rather than sterile hybrids. Bee friendly plants set seed.  One plant that is often overlooked is the  fuchsia in lists about what to plant for bees. A little fuchsia nectar adds a certain depth to honey – one of the premiere beekeepers in the UK told me this when I was starting out beekeeping and I have no reason to doubt her word. Fuchsias, particularly hardy fuchsias, are great plants for bees. Sunflowers, penstemons, cone flowers, sweet peas, alliums, wild roses (the kind that give rose hips) are also great. Butterflies love buddleia  and lilacs. Herbs such as thyme, rosemary or chive are also good with the added bonus that you can use them in the kitchen. Fruit trees such as apple, pear or cherry (not ornamental)  Honeysuckle however is not useful to bees, despite its name. It is pollinated by moths and butterflies.  You want flowers, rather than ever greens. So consider have a mixed border. Swathes of closely trimmed green grass is not helpful in the least. Clover though is a good bee plant when it flowers. When beneficial insects thrive in gardens, gardens thrive.

Third try to buy raw or local honey. Most of the honey you buy in the big supermarket is ultra heat treated. This is often little better than sugar water. Ultra heat treatment preserves the honey but at the expense of the pollens and other antibacterial qualities. Local raw honey can help fight against allergies and can help to keep colds at bay.  Supporting your local beekeeper means that bees are more likely to be in your area. A healthy bee population means more flowers and fruit in your garden as plants need to be pollinated. And as the population of wild bees (including bumblebees) decreases, we need the domesticated honeybee more than ever.

Finally consider keeping bees. Beekeeping was traditionally done by men.  Among the reason they gave were that women were unclean and therefore unfit to collect the pure wax that was in church candles. For many years they didn’t realise that bee hives were 90% female.  Women can keep bees  just as well as men. There can be some lifting involved when you are removing supers but nothing that is heavier than say lifting a large sack of dog food.  Hives, if properly sited do not cause any trouble. The bees get on with their thing and you look at them about once a week. There is a sort relaxing pleasure looking after  bees. You have to slow down. At various times of the year, you take the honey harvest. Some beekeeping associations run schemes where they match people who want to keep bees but have no space with people who have space but don’t want to fiddle about with hives etc. Generally the beekeeper pays in honey.

If lots of people take  little pieces of action, positive change can come about. We need bees. Our planet needs bees. Albert Einstein predicted without bees, our planet would be dead within four years. For more information about what you can do visit

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances in a wide range of time periods. Her latest Summer of the Vikings was published in June 2015. You can read more about Michelle and her books on  She has kept bees since 2000.


  1. Michelle, thanks for this important message about bees (and butterflies). I enjoy hearing the humming as I garden. Plant selection was made with bees and butterflies in mind, an ongoing process.

    I also like to buy honey directly from beekeepers: as you described, it's less 'treated' and therefor has more flavor and beneficial properties. The Romans, who didn't have sugar, sweetened everything with honey.

    I've been to a beekeeping exhibition which also featured skeps from straw, even in the shape of a patron saint!

    Oh, and in a very interesting lecture on animal behavior I once heard that bees don't just communicate where honey can be found but they also have color memory and form maps in their minds to relocate places they have been to before. Who said only dolphins or monkeys were intelligent? :D

    I hope everybody who reads this will think about helping out their own local bees and beekeepers!

    1. I am pleased you found this informative.
      Sugar is a New World commodity. It first comes from sugar cane and then they learn how to make it from beets.
      Bees were v important. It is isn't until the 19th century that they work out how to do moveable frames. Before that it was skeps and having to destroy colonies to get the honey. Skeps are still great for catching swarms.