The blockade started or rekindled a love of nature in many people. The RSPB reported a 70% increase in visitors to its website during the first block. This did not surprise me; trapped at home, without the usual distraction of social engagement, my interest in nature grew. During the winter, he would look up into the leafless trees trying to locate a bird whose loud call he could hear clearly. I even bought a pair of binoculars to get acquainted with some of the local avian population.
But now I have a new hobby. As the warmer weather slowly creeps in, I’ve been looking down at the choppy flower beds and roadsides as well as the rustling in the undergrowth in hopes of seeing my favorite insects. On a sunny day, there is nothing better than sitting quietly next to a patch of billowing flowers or under a flowering tree to hear the telltale signal of a buzzing noise. This quintessential summer sound connects me to the seasons and the natural world, even downtown, and fills me with joy. It’s also a welcome break from staring at a screen all day. I wait in peace, with anticipation and excitement to see different types of bees.
The evocatively named, hairy-legged flower bee is one of the easiest to spot. She throws herself loudly among the groups of pulmonaria (pulmonaria) that I have planted to attract her. Large and round with a velvety black body, it has a distinctive floating motion and flies quite comically with its long tongue, resembling an extended straw, preparing to reach inside the bell-shaped flowers to extract its nectar. When resting on a leaf, the hairs on its fluffy brown hind legs are clearly visible, down to the feet, hence its name.
My curiosity about bees was piqued a few years ago when I had to quit beekeeping after developing an allergy to bee venom. Until then he had been fascinated with the operation of a managed bee hive, but was ignorant of the myriad species of bees that live in the wild.
I had no idea that there were so many and that they came in so many shapes, sizes, and shades. I assumed that all the bees had black and yellow stripes. But with a little patience and field guides for help, my eyes slowly began to open to a whole new world. It was as if I had taken an incredible journey without leaving my garden. Even better, few of these wild bees sting, so I feel perfectly safe watching them closely. And I have found that the simple pleasure of seeing something in nature and learning to identify it is immensely rewarding.
There is a lot of research on the positive impact on our mental health of spending time in nature. Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist EO Wilson believes that humans have an innate and genetically determined affinity for the natural world, a concept he calls biophilia, which literally means love for living things. But our modern indoor urban lives, often isolated from the changing seasons, have stifled it. In his 2019 book Bird therapy, Joe Harkness writes about how ornithology saved his life. He links you to five ways to improve wellness: connect, learn, stay active, give, and take notice. From my experience, they are all equally applicable to melitology, the study of bees.
Research on bees has tended to focus on their role in pollinating most of our food crops, especially those that provide essential vitamins and minerals. Research by Professor Alexandra-Maria Klein at the University of Freiburg in Germany also points to wild plants and trees pollinated by bees that support our health in urban areas through air filtration and temperature reduction between the concrete and glass. But no one seems to have examined the well-being achieved by just stopping and taking the time to watch bees foraging for food.
When you see a bee visiting a flower, you are witnessing a love story that began more than 100 million years ago, when plants developed brightly colored petals and fragrant scents. Their beauty and rich perfumes were designed solely to attract pollinators by advertising the sugary drink that lurked deep within their nectaries. Bees need nectar to fuel their flight (and become honey in the case of bees) and pollen to feed their larvae. In exchange for meeting their dietary needs, bees act as a romantic intermediary for the world’s flora, transporting enough pollen from the male part of the flower to the female to allow them to produce seeds and reproduce. No one describes this symbiotic relationship better than the poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote: “For the bee, a flower is the source of life, and for the flower, the bee is a messenger of love.”
To me, a bee on a flower is no longer just a bee, but now has a name, both common and Latin, which can often provide a clue to their favorite flowers and how they build their nests. Mining bees burrow underground to lay their eggs, leafcutter bees plug their nests with circular pieces of leaves, often cut from a rose bush and leaving it as if it had been attacked with a borer. Carpenter bees make their nests out of wood.
Every year I look forward to seeing a few more of the more than 250 species of wild bees in the UK. Many are small and brown, making it difficult to distinguish them from each other; some are so small that they are barely visible to the naked eye, while others are restricted to rare coastal habitats. According to Friends of the earthAt least 35 are endangered (including a quarter of our bumblebee species) due to habitat loss and widespread use of pesticides. Since 1945, 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost due to intensive agriculture and urbanization. However, some bees thrive in towns and cities where gardens, tree-lined avenues, and parks can provide a rich and varied diet.
I have tried creating Yeats’ “bee glade” in my little urban garden by planting flowers that bloom sequentially, so there is always something for dinner, from early spring to late fall. Bowl-shaped and daisy-style flowers for short-tongued bees and dangling for longer-tongued bees like the garden bumblebee. I love watching it disappear into a foxglove only to reappear moments later wrapped in pollen grains.
You may not be physically active observing these interactions, but creating a suitable habitat for bees provides plenty of outdoor exercise. Under the south-facing eaves of our garden shed, my husband has installed a series of artificial bee hotels (containing hollow tubes where bees can sign in to lay their eggs). Every year, just as our apple tree is in bloom, I hear the buzz of a new generation of red mason bees watching. This synchronicity between the apple tree and its loyal pollinator assures me that all is well in the world, at least in my little corner.
As the summer progresses, I will be captivated by the industriousness of the wool carding bee as it plucks the fibers from the soft leaves of the lamb’s ear plant. She will roll them into a ball almost as big as she is and fly it home to divide and cover her nest.
Since I started my bee journey, I have shared my enthusiasm for these wonderful creatures and my discoveries about them in books, talks, and educational materials. This year, with the help of amazing bug photographer Penny Metal, I am posting bee watcher guides on social media and I have launched a Newsletter with tips for identifying bees and how to help them.
Now that we can start seeing our friends and family again, I will not give up my hobby. I have put my skills to good use by becoming a “bee walker.” As part of a national recording plan led by the Bumblebee Conservation TrustI am identifying and counting bumblebees along a chosen route each month through October. My sightings will be incorporated into a national database to help detect early warning signs of population decline and to inform how the land is managed. I’m also looking for other wild bees along the canal towpath and in the park. On a sunny day, I hope these outdoor spaces are filled not only with people released from confinement, but also with bees. My heart rises at the thought that I can spend the summer indulging my passion for the common good. What could be better for your well-being than that?
Alison benjamin co-wrote The Good Bee: A Celebration of Bees and How to Save Them (£ 9.99, Michael O’Mara). Buy it for £ 9.29 at guardian bookshop.com
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism