‘I’m not a bee-keeper, I’m a bee landlord’

Guest blog by Susan Lee Kerr

I’m not a beekeeper, I’m a bee landlord. In my Grove Park backyard I have two hotels abuzz with bees. Easy peasy, and no worries about swarming, queen bees, swashbuckling hats with nets… or even bee stings. My bees are loners, female and they ‘vant to be alone,’ to quote Greta Garbo. They are solitary bees. Of the 270 kinds of bees in the UK, says Friends of the Earth, only one is the hive-living honey bee, and 90 per cent of the rest are wild and solitary. All of them are important pollinators that keep plants reproducing (and producing fruit and veg).

My first bee hotel (probably from Friends of the Earth) is a ceramic square that hangs on my garden fence, packed with hollow bamboo tubes. While honey bees live in huge complex communal societies (hives), a solitary makes her home in a single hole. In nature it will be in a rotted tree or timber or reeds or, for some species, in the ground.

A birthday present, it took two whole years before any action happened. Maybe the hotel smelled of humans, or of factory (a very nice factory, I’m sure). Or – as I found out from the instructions with my second bee hotel – maybe it faced the wrong direction. It should face east apparently, and mine was west. No worries, it wasn’t hurting anything just hanging there empty. Eventually I noticed a few of the hollow tubes were blocked up at the ends with dried grey-brown grit-looking stuff… occupants! Two further years: full house!


Images above: Susan’s ‘bee hotels’

Bee hotel the second is teardrop shaped, wooden. Actually I’ve decided they are bee tenements, not hotels. Received this Christmas, I hung it on a branch of our bird feeding station in January. I thought that would help to weather out any un-bee smells. It dangles on a rope and turns west-southwest. By 26th April, no takers. Okay, let it bee (sorry, can’t resist). When I looked a week later it had acquired eight lodgers. And on 9th May seventeen of the holes were packed.

Both hotels are abuzz, literally, especially on a warm day. I can stand just feet away, much closer than social distancing, and watch. In they fly, land, crawl into their chosen tube, emerge, fly out. Repeat, repeat, repeat. What are they doing? For food they suck up nectar from flowers and pick up pollen on their hind legs, coincidentally cross-fertilizing the flowers. Aside: we take this information for granted but did you know that it wasn’t until the late 1700s that the sex organs of blossoms and the involvement of insects was discovered?

Solitary bees mash up the pollen and nectar to make a food paste and lay it down in the tube with an egg, which duly becomes a larva. And then another and another until the tube is filled and sealed – that grey-brown grit I observed. The siblings one by one, in reverse birth order, I assume, chew their way out of the tube, reed, earth or wood hole and fly out to repeat the cycle.

Honey bees, in their sophisticated, hierarchical mass production society, from the same ingredients make and store an excess of honey and pollen-product. They produce wax too, to create the familiar honey-comb structure as storage chambers and nurseries.

Simple, old fashioned, easy to grow flowers are the biggest bee attractors in our shaggy, ordinary Chiswick back garden. Right now cranesbill geranium is buzzy with bees. And weigela, too. Catmint (nepeta) is just coming on, and lasts long into the summer – they love it. Lavender is a big draw too. And buddleia, a bit later. Roses and pelargonium attract less attention.

Bees can get you into literary spheres if you’ll only connect with the Chiswick Timeline of Writers and Books. W.B. Yeats was living in Bedford Park when he wrote the Lake Isle of Innisfree, yearning to ‘live alone in the bee loud glade.’ Sounds like a Covid-19 isolation antidote. I’ve yet to write a bee haiku but I have written one featuring a greenfly – and pink lipstick. See susanleekerr.com and, next month, the launch of my haiku retrospective, The Walk Home.

There’s a sting in this tale. You don’t get any honey for yourself from solitary bees. All you get is virtue (yay pollinators) and the effortless pleasure of being a bee host.

The bee in my bonnet started with a pack that included flower seeds, loads of info and a bee identification poster. It makes a great gift, still available at
friendsoftheearth.uk/bees. And, great timing, Wednesday 20 May is World Bee Day, see beescount.org and Twitter @beescount and hashtag #beescount on Twitter, Instagram etc Another good source bumblebeeconservation.org

Susan Lee Kerr is an author, who lives in Grove Park

Read More Stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Garden Centres Reopen

See also: Growing your own vegetables