If there is one thing I am truly grateful for during this extraordinary time, it’s my garden. Not only is it producing harvests for us and reducing our reliance on our over-stressed food system, but it’s somewhere we can step outside and be surrounded by nature, without having to worry about social distancing. 

As a lifelong organic gardener, I am used to the wide variety of other creatures that call my garden home. They are welcome (for the most part!) and when I see something that I don’t recognise I try and find out what it is, rather than instantly removing it.

These days we’re all aware that bees are in trouble, and that we need to be gardening with bees in mind. We might buy a bee-friendly seed mix, or plants labelled as suitable for pollinators, or put up a bee box. Jean Vernon has taken bees to heart, and her latest book – The Secret Lives of Garden Bees* – is a love letter to these delightful creatures.

“I was and still am fascinated by plants and went on to study botany at university. Many plants can’t exist without bees and the two have coevolved together – perhaps that’s the best way to describe how I got where I am today. As a botanist, a love of plants come with bees and all the othe pollinators involved in their lifecycle.”

Jean Vernon

If you’re looking for a new pursuit to help pass the time during Lockdown, then Jean’s book could provide the key. What could be more fascinating than learning about the bees that visit your garden? You may be able to tell a honeybee from a bumble, but did you know that there are about 276 species of bee in the UK? And that’s despite the fact that we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows since the Second World War. 

Only one of those species produces honey, and only 25 or so are bumblebees. That leaves a lot more bees to be discovered – the solitary bees that do not form colonies. Did you know there’s a whole group of “cuckoo bees”, who leave their eggs in the nests of other species for them to raise? 

“Yes, we even get migrants; in the form of bees and other insects, creatures and even plants secretly arriving from abroad. Nature knows no boundaries and perhaps we could or should learn a few lessons from the way she works.”

Jean Vernon

Jean’s book will help you to identify the bees that are visiting your garden. It will also tell you about their habits and idiosyncrasies so that they become familiar friends rather than remaining as elusive strangers. 

bee on cornflower

The write-up for each bee includes suggestions of which plants it likes to feed on, so you can be very specific about the bee buffet you plant in your garden if you want to. The book also contains useful information about flower types and more general gardening advice for anyone wanting to create a bee paradise. And it has a section on the natural dangers bees face, from toxic pollen to predators and parasites.

My favourite chapter is no.8, “Season by Season in the Bee Garden”, which tells you who to look out for at different times of the year, explains what help they might need and lists some flowers that could be blooming. It’s a lot less intensive than the early chapters, so if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with bee identification, it’s an excellent place to start. There’s also a section on citizen science projects and ways to get involved with bees outside the garden in the back of the book. 

“Bees are highly complex and diverse creatures. They are insects and belong to a group of insects called Hymenoptera (ants, sawflies and some wasps are also in this group). Bees evolved from “eat eating” wasps sometime back in the Cretaceous period, around 100 million years ago.”

Jean Vernon

Jean’s passion for, and knowledge of, bees of all kinds is a continuous thread throughout the book. And it’s gloriously illustrated with stunning photos of all types of bees. During this extraordinary time of confinement, The Secret Lives of Garden Bees* not only brings nature indoors to us, but reminds us that the natural world carries on and encourages us to step outside to take a peek.

[Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of the book by the publisher.]

The Secret Life of Garden Bees*
By Jean Vernon, with a foreword by Brigit Strawbridge Howard
Hardback, 208 pages, 100 colour illustrations
Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd
ISBN: 9781526711861

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Bee on sempervivum