By Stephanie Wakeford 

You’ve probably heard that bees are in trouble. Around the world, populations of these iconic species are declining at an alarming rate. Conditions vary, but factors commonly include a loss of their habitat and intense pesticide use; these two issues are affecting British bees just as surely as they’re affecting American, Asian, and African bees.

If you’re wondering why this matters, that’s easy: Do you like strawberry jam and apple pie? The bee-pollinated fruits needed to make these treats would be off the menu along with 75 percent of food crops worldwide.

Fortunately, there has been some great progress since Friends of the Earth launched its Bee Cause Campaign in the United Kingdom in April 2012.

By building a coalition of more than 70,000 individuals, 200 politicians, and many, many businesses and voluntary organisations, we were able to convince the government to introduce a national Bee Action Plan to help save British bees. Known as the National Pollinator Strategy (NPS), this flagship policy will launch in autumn, and will include government advice and measures to tackle bee declines across the country.

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Following pressure and recognizing the scale of the problem British bees face, the government just launched a public appeal urging people to do their bit to help our national pollinators. This is good news for bees.

But in order to be effective, the government must do more and considerably strengthen the NPS.

In particular, that means the government must do all of the following:

  • Tackle the intensive farming that is harming British bees by addressing the rise of pesticide use and getting the proper support, funding, and independent practical advice to help farmers grow crops in bee-friendly ways. At the moment, they often rely on biased advice from pesticide companies. Seventy percent of U.K. land is farmed, so this is the area with the most potential to save our bees.
  • Improve the way land is developed, including a requirement for developers to create bee-friendly habitats when they build.
  • Develop and execute properly funded action plans, rather relying on voluntary measures.

This summer, our local volunteers are meeting their elected members of Parliament to ask them to call for a tough Bee Action Plan that’s good enough for our British bees. Meanwhile, our campaigners continue to keep the pressure directly on Downing Street.

There’s huge public interest in saving bees. A recent YouGov survey found that the decline of British bees was the biggest environmental concern among people in the U.K., with 85 percent identifying it as the most serious issue — ahead of climate change at 83 percent.

So, what’s the lot on this side of the Pond doing to help save the bees?

Counting Our British Bees

More than 21,000 people have joined our new citizen-science survey, The Great British Bee Count, recording sightings of British bees to help build a national picture of bee health. Using a free smartphone app, people can easily identify and log sightings of bees they spot while out and about.

In the U.K., we have 267 native species of bees, from the hairy-footed bumblebee to the leaf-cutter bee, all playing a vital role in keeping our countryside healthy. The response to our efforts to count all sorts of British bees has been phenomenal, with more than 650,000 bees spotted in the first seven weeks. The data will help show where our British bees are thriving — and where they’re in trouble. At the moment there are big gaps in scientists’ knowledge, which makes it difficult to plan targeted action.

Getting Busy In Backyards

Friends of the Earth is supporting communities and individuals around the U.K. in creating hundreds of “Bee Worlds,” wildflower areas with the right variety of plants to provide our British bees with food and shelter. Ninety-seven percent of our wildflower meadow habitats have vanished in the past 60 years, so these mini-meadows — popping up on roadsides, in parks, and even in pub gardens — are helping to restore the balance.

Raising Awareness of British Bees’ Plight

Our giant bees have been everywhere this year, from protesting in a giant swarm outside the Prime Minister’s house to showcasing a beautiful bee-friendly show garden at Blenheim Palace Flower Show near Oxford. Our TV appeal featuring Honey the Bee has been raising awareness (and money) to help save bees, and it has also reached cinema goers at the U.K. Green Film Festival.

We’ve met all kinds of people who care about bees and want to ensure a healthy, thriving countryside. We know that, without our British bees, it will technically be possible to pollinate some crops by hand — but the bill in the U.K. would run to at least £1.8 billion a year. It’s mad to pay for a service these iconic species supply for free. And our parks and gardens would be pretty barren without bees to keep them blooming.

Wherever you are in the U.K., there are things you can do to help our British bees too. Got green fingers? Try growing bee-friendly plants like lavender and honeysuckle in your window box or garden, and avoid using pesticides, which can harm bees’ health. A bee hotel for your garden can also provide valuable shelter or a nesting site for solitary wild bees that, unlike honeybees, don’t live in hives.

Hope you enjoy saving bees while having fun this summer — let us know how you get on!

Stephanie Wakeford works in the London branch of  the environmental charity Friends of the Earth. Part of the Communications and Media team, she helps raise awareness of the charity’s Bee Cause campaign to protect threatened bees in the U.K.

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