Bee Hotels and Seed Bombs – are they worth it?

Occupied shop-bought bee hotel. You can see the tubes which have been filled with leaves by a leaf-cutter bee.

A few years ago you would have found me at various events at work, helping visitors make bee hotels from wooden boxes and bamboo canes and praising their benefits to solitary bees, or mixing seeds with clay and compost to encourage people to ‘bomb’ their gardens with wildflowers for pollinators. And whilst I did so, I wondered if they really were the answer to saving our invertebrates. There was no doubt that the bee hotels did work, as we had seen many occupied with the holes of the bamboo canes sealed up with mud or leaves. However, there wasn’t any research on whether they were a good idea, at least not that I could find, and the trend grew – there’s now a whole array of insect hotels and seed bombs in most garden centers as well as being found online.

Home-made bee hotel from a mixture of reeds, bamboo canes and a wooden box.

This month, Karin Alton and Francis Ratnieks published a review of these products in the journal Bee World, and considered whether they were beneficial or just another trend. Below I look at some of their findings but you can find the full paper here if you’d like to read further.

BEE HOTELS

Solitary bees, unlike the familiar honeybees, don’t live in social groups. They often nest in either holes in the ground, crevices in the mortar of brick walls or hollow plant stems. The concept of bee hotels is to replicate these niches and provide a habitat to raise their young. However, often these bee hotels aren’t made to their required specifications; many are produced abroad and so the hole sizes aren’t suitable for our native bees, some don’t have a back and act as a wind tunnel, and the length of the tubes aren’t always appropriate. Research has shown that for the species Osmia bicornis when the tube lengths are less than 130mm there is a sex ratio shift towards male bees, and that 150mm tubes are the optimal length.

Mining bee, Andrena sp.

Another issue is that bees wouldn’t naturally congregate in the same densities that can be found in bee hotels – especially the larger ones. Solitary bees can be predated on by parasitic wasps which you may sometimes see scanning the side of your house searching for a masonry bee nest. Bee hotels offer easy pickings for these wasps as once they have found one nest they can go on to predate on the ones near by too – potentially having quite a detrimental impact on the local population of the bees using the bee hotels.

Ruby-tailed wasp, Chrysis sp. is a cuckoo wasp which lays it’s eggs in the nests of mason bees. The young emerge and consume the hosts eggs and young.

Bee bricks which are marketed as being a permanent solution to be added to buildings and developments were also considered in the report and the general consensus was that whilst they aren’t great for bees, they make great (expensive) spider habitats!

An elaborate bee hotel at the Hampton Court Flower Show 2015.

SEED BALLS

So what about seed balls? These can be bought online and aren’t particularly cheap – you can get many more seeds for your money buy buying seed packets. However, the fancy tin and novel idea of throwing the seed balls around definitely has an appeal. But do they work? My daughter was bought some one year, and we found they didn’t’ germinate at all, and the reviews online used in the report suggest the same.

Rusty Berlew, described as a ‘master beekeper’ explains how the sites where the balls are thrown often aren’t suitable for the seeds. When I looked at the ‘Bee Mix’ it lists some of the species which include ‘Birdsfoot Trefoil, Foxglove, Red Clover, Viper’s Bugloss and Wild Marjoram’ – but I know from experience germinating these species from seed in a greenhouse, that viper’s bugloss requires very different conditions to foxgloves, marjoram and clover and birdsfoot trefoil. Foxgloves are woodland plants whereas the others are more suited to meadows and open grassland. So whilst yes, they are all good plants for bees, they all require quite different conditions to thrive.

Bees love foxgloves
Viper’s bugloss on Hove beach. Quite a different habitat to that of a foxglove.

In all, the report really highlights that there is much more research needed to show if any of these products are beneficial to wildlife, or certainly to measure the negative impact they may potentially have on populations.

In the meantime, if you want to help wildlife, you’d be better off buying a bag of seeds suited to your garden, leaving dead plants and leaves over winter and providing log piles – and they’re all much better for your pocket too!

Lawns for Wildlife

IMG_5282

 

There is an increasing trend towards households having artificial lawns installed. This is a growing business as more and more people are having their lawns replaced, opting for a low maintenance alternative to the traditional lawn. However, whilst artificial lawns may seem like a good short-term solution, there are growing concerns on how this will affect our garden wildlife, as well as the environmental sustainability of such an industry.

Around 87% houses have gardens, which cover approximately 2% of all land. That’s a large area which is becoming more and more important for our wildlife as land use changes continue to prioritise everything but nature. Our gardens are some of the last refuges for many of our animals, including declining yet important pollinator species and our soil-dwelling fauna such as earthworms. In a study earlier this year, 42% of our farmland fields were shown to be deficient or even absent of earthworms, highlighting just how important our gardens are for such creatures.

Cinnabar moth larvae

Species such as this cinnabar moth larvae rely on plants which can be found in grasslands.

In the age of the climate crisis and threat of a 6th mass extinction, with many of our native flora and fauna in decline, it is imperative that our actions are helping not hindering this process. But, does that have to mean getting out the lawn mower and slogging away at the end of a long day at work? Not at all. In fact, a traditional lawn isn’t the ideal option either. There are some fantastic alternatives if a lawn isn’t something you are able to or want to maintain (which is totally fine too, because we’re not all blessed with the time or ability to do so).

Law mowing is such a drag. definitely my least favourite job. Letting the grass grow is great for wildlife but also appeals to my lazy side too!

So, what can you do instead?

Grow a meadow

Embrace the long grass and wildflowers. This option is much less work too, only needing to be cut twice a year; early spring and late summer.Cease mowing and over time your lawn will welcome other plants such as buttercups and dandelions which are incredibly beneficial to nectar-loving pollinators. If you want to add more colour, consider adding some wildflower seeds. I’d recommend native flowers as they also offer other benefits other than just nectar to our wildlife such as being food plants for caterpillars but it’s your garden so if you’d prefer a different mix, go for it. (but never sow non-native ‘wildflower’ seed mixes in the countryside).

lawn

This small lawn was left to grow to see what appeared; lots of dandelions, forget-me-nots, chickweed and even some tulips all appeared.

Low-growing plants

Plants like clover, creeping thyme and chamomile are wonderful as they are low-growing and easy to maintain, making an ideal alternative to grass, whilst also benefiting pollinators.

Meadow (6)

Clovers, medicks and birds-foot-trefoil make great plants to add to your lawn.

Grow a Moss Lawn

Perfect if your lawn is already prone to moss or is on a more acidic soil. Moss requires semi-shaded damp conditions to thrive – and it feels great under the toes!

Lawn

This lawn was mostly moss due to the damp and semi-shaded conditions of the garden.

 

Go lawn-less

Remove your lawn all together and opt for a more varied planting scheme with meandering pathways, richly planted beds and a decked area for seating. Lawn-less gardens can be both wildlife-friendly and low-maintenance. Using raised beds is an ideal way to create a garden if you’re less able to get to the ground to weed or prune whilst still creating an enjoyable space, as well as giving the option to incorporate some herb or vegetable growing.

Veg Patch

Adding a veg patch increases the diversity of your garden whilst also giving you tasty produce too!

 

These are just a few alternatives to lawns which are also wildlife friendly. Have you replaced your lawn?

 

Ringlets

Butterflies like these ringlets require long native grasses to breed.

15 Ways to garden in the climate crisis

There’s been a lot of coverage of the climate crisis over the past few months, and it’s fantastic that awareness is growing. But how can you do your bit in the garden? Here’s 15 ways you can garden more sustainably to help our planet!

How many of these do you do already?

 

Be Smart With Seeds

you can save resources and money by keeping the seeds from your flowers such as the cowslip pictured, as well as fruits and vegetables to use the following year. Be sure to dry them out before storing and then keep in a breathable container. If you end up with a surplus of seeds, look for your local seed swap event and see what you can exchange them for.

Cowslip seed head

If you collect seeds from primulas, it is a good idea to scarify them before sowing to speed up the germination process.

Ditch the Peat

Whilst peat is great for growing plants, it comes with a high environmental cost. Peat is extracted from peat bogs, destroying the unique biodiversity of this habitat. Peat bogs are also an excellent carbon store – turning decomposing plants into peat thanks to the wet, anoxic condition of the bogs. When peat is harvested, green house gasses are released into the atmosphere, and once spread onto gardens, further carbon dioxide is released. Ditch the peat for the many equally great alternatives such as the Dalefoot compost pictured, or even better, make your own compost!

Compost

Dalefoot compost is a fantastic peat-alternative, especially their wool compost.

 

Re-Wild your Lawn

Let’s face it, lawns are pretty boring. Biologically they aren’t very diverse and often require artificial nutrients and weed killers to keep them looking lush and green. Converting your lawn into a wildflower meadow not only saves you the time used for mowing but benefits the bees (and other invertebrates) too!

Dandelion and orange tip butterfly

Dandelions are an important nectar supply for early spring pollinators such as this male orange tip butterfly.

 

Garden for Pollinators

Our insects are suffering a catastrophic decline and we need them to survive. You can do your bit by planting nectar rich flowers covering as much of the flowering season as possible (primroses are great early supplies of nectar, whilst Ivy is a fantastic late supply!). Non-native plants can be great for nectar if they are simple open flowers, but the advantage of native plants is that they often support insects throughout their life cycle by providing food for different stages as well as a suitable habitat. You can also install log piles to offer shelter for other invertebrates such as beetles, and leave your garden untidy over winter as fallen leaves and dead stems are the perfect place for insects to hide out during the cold months.

Comma

Gardening for pollinators is more than planting nectar – the larvae of commas feast on nettles before emerging as adult butterflies.

 

Install a Pond

All good wildlife gardens should have a pond. Animals needs water and a pond can provide a watering hole for birds, mammals and invertebrates that visit your garden. They are also essential for breeding amphibians who will soon find your pond (don’t transfer spawn from one pond to another to prevent spreading diseases and invasive organisms). What’s more, many flying invertebrates start of life in the pond and emerge as an adult providing  a food source for bats!

Frogspawn

Monitoring when frogs spawn can tell us a lot about our changing climate. If you want to help scientists then report your spawn sightings using iRecord which you can find online or through an app for your phone.

 

 

Go Plastic-Free

If you’ve gardened for some time, chances are you have a stack of plastic pots somewhere. Where you can, re-use these as much as possible. But when buying new, or looking for containers for seed growing, seek out plastic-free alternatives. You can make your own pots from newspaper, re-use egg boxes and toilet roll tubes for growing on seeds and they best bit is you can plant them straight out in the tubes – which is excellent for root veg!

Pots

You can use almost anything as a pot, just be sure to drill some holes for drainage!

 

Garden Organically

Insects have declined more than 75% in the last 3 decades which is just astonishing. A big part to blame for this is the continued use of pesticides. Whilst you can’t control what happens outside your garden (but buying organic veg does help!) you can control what you use at home. Organic gardening doesn’t have to be difficult. There are many natural ways to deter pests if needed, although creating lots of different habitats means you are likely to attract the predators needed to control problematic species and the garden will look after itself. Another thing to consider is only growing plants which aren’t susceptible to problems such as Lilies.

Bee on chives

Pesticides don’t just target pests – other species such as bees can suffer too.

 

Garden for Birds

Feeding birds using a bird feeder though winter can help them survive when food is hard to find, but you can also make your garden bird friendly by adding plants which also provide food such as a native hedging plants; hawthorn, blackthorn, holly, guelder rose, trees such as Rowan and fruit trees and Ivy which provides food late in the season. Hedges, trees and climbers all give birds somewhere to nest and roost in, and by growing plants for insects you’ll be providing food for insectivorous birds too!

Blackthorn

Birds love the sloes from blackthorns – if you’re lucky they’ll leave you some to make a batch of sloe gin in time for xmas.

 

Shop Sustainably

Where do you buy your garden supplies from? Are they making positive changes to combat climate change? Do they use peat, or pesticides? Are their plants grown locally or imported (and risking bio-security issues)? By choosing where you shop you encourage businesses to do better.

BWFP

Local nurseries by their nature of being smaller will have a much lower environmental impact than bigger companies, and they are usually much friendlier too. I love visiting British Wild Flower Plants in Norfolk!

 

Buy Local and Connect with Neighbors

Buy local where you can. Often local nurseries take more care growing the plants, and you can usually find some interesting varieties too. Buying local also reduces transportation impacts. Local selling pages are a fantastic place to offload excess plants or gardening equipment as well as picking up a few bargains yourself!

Walnut Tree Nursery

Walnut Tree Nursery in Norfolk is a great place to find some unusual varieties of more common plants.

 

Grow Your Own Food

If you can, try growing you own food. You don’t need a massive garden to do this as there are lots of patio varieties of different fruits and veg which can be grown on balconies too. If you don’t have much space, you could always consider an allotment. Not only does growing your own organic food reduce your environmental impact, it’s delicious too!

Grow you Own

I’ve started using straw as a substrate in our veg patch as so far so good! This year I’m adding compost from the chickens too.

 

Compost

Food waste has a massive impact on the environment and not all councils collect it so some still heads straight to landfill. You can prevent this by composting your own food waste and there are lots of options to do this. You can have a basic plastic bin which works well over time, an open compost bin like the one pictured (though more suited to garden waste than food) or even a wormery! There are new hot compost bins which are ideal for small gardens as they require less space and make compost much quicker than a traditional bin. Using your own compost reduces the need to buy in compost from elsewhere too.

Compost bin

This bin was made from 4 pallets, the one at the front cut into sections which can be slid into the front as needed. Perfect for garden waste or areas where you don’t have rats.

 

Get Your Own Chickens

Animal agriculture comes with a high environmental impact. If you eat eggs, having a couple of hens is a great way to produce eggs for your family and they are much nicer than mass produced eggs too. One of the issues with current farming methods is that the rainforests are being cut down for soy plantations for animal feeds – so if you do have your own hens, make sure that the feed is soy-free!

Chickens

There’s nothing quite like a fresh egg from a spoilt and happy chicken!

 

Garden for your Local Climate

Hose bans will become more frequent as water supplies dry up. It is predicted that some areas of the UK will suffer regular water shortages within the next 25 years so the idea of watering your garden will be a thing of the past. To avoid excessive water use, plant species which are adapted to our climate, or even more drought tolerant ones, and avoid planting in the dry seasons so there’s no need to regularly water.

Sedums

Sedums require little watering and can be great for ground cover or for green roofs – as well as being a good nectar supply for pollinators.

 

Green Your Roofs

Green roofs can come in many forms from a small sedum roof on your wheelie-bin cupboard to a whole garden on top of a city building. They can help reduce energy costs by absorbing heat and acts as insulation for buildings as well as cleaning the air around us. When roofs are greened in cities, they help mitigate the urban heat island effect which may be more important than ever in the next few years. They also provide a habitat to our wildlife, including birds and pollinators and like this one seen at the Hampton Court Flower Show in 2015, they look stunning too!

Green Roof

There are no limits to green roofs, except the load bearing of the structure! To find out more head to livingroofs.org

 

Thanks for reading! If you loved this content, then head over to Facebook and Instagram and follow for more.

x Larissa