Brigit Strawbridge of Shaftesbury’s Bee Group is hoping that their February workshops will create a buzz around town. Many locals have been trying to help bees thrive by avoiding pesticides and growing pollen-rich plants.
ThisIsAlfred’s Keri Jones joined Brigit for a tour of Shaftesbury’s ‘bee hotels’ and heard what the group hopes to achieve at next month’s meeting. “We would love to be able to shout from the rooftops that this is a bee friendly town,” said Brigit, one of Britain’s most knowledgeable bee experts.
During this winter, while the bees have been hibernating, Brigit has been staying indoors in her Shaftesbury home, writing her latest bee book, ‘Bees, Trees and Herbal Teas’. “It’s more a narrative. It’s got lots of information but it’s also got stories about bees that I know, bees that I’ve fallen in love with and lots and lots of information,” she said.
Now that her new book is almost ready to go to press, Brigit is focusing on bee- related community activities here in Shaftesbury. Naming Shaftesbury as a ‘bee friendly town’ seems to be a positive goal. Brigit says there’s no official body that decides whether or not we can use that term – there’s no accreditation.
“At this stage, it’s really flagging up the fact that we are aware that bees are in decline, that they need help and that there needs to be policies in place. Gillingham actually has a pollinator strategy. We haven’t got a plan yet here, other than a bunch of people working with the Council to plant more bee friendly plants around Shaftesbury. But we’re getting there. Shaftesbury has done a lot,” said Brigit.
There are many different types of bee in Britain, perhaps more than you might think. “Everybody knows about honeybees. Most people know about bumblebees but we have about 280 different bee species in the United Kingdom and most of them are solitary bees,” Brigit enthused.
And there is are some species that play a particularly important role in nature. “One single red mason bee in an apple orchard would do as much pollinating in one day as 120 honeybees. They are really big pollinators. It is to do with the way they collect their pollen,” said Brigit. “They are very messy. Honeybees are very neat and tidy and they put the pollen into pollen baskets. But the mason bees and the leafcutter bees just carry it all over hairs underneath their abdomens, and they drop it off all over the place.”
Brigit says bees need suitable places to live. “Important pollinators need holes to nest in. So bamboos, or drilled holes, things like that make really good nesting boxes.” And that’s where the Bee Group has stepped in. You may have seen these small bee hotels on walls or fences around the town.
“The bee hotels, or bee nesting boxes, are providing habitat for solitary bees. They are totally different to bumblebees. They are ‘single parents’ as opposed to living in social colonies,” said Brigit. “By putting these nesting boxes up on south facing walls they are in the sunshine. They provide habitat for red mason bees, blue mason bees and lots of different leafcutter bees to come and make their nests.”
The Bee Group received grant money for the bee hotel project. “The Town Council gave us £700 and we were able to get lots of nesting boxes to put up in community spaces like the Westminster Hospital gardens, the Gold Hill Museum garden, in The Potting Shed in Swan’s Yard and down at Shaftesbury Homegrown. You can remove the side and there is a piece of perspex underneath where you can see what’s going on inside. You can see a row of red mason bee cells or a row of leafcutter bee cells.”
Brigit says it’s easy to identify which bees have been nesting in the bee hotel boxes. “All mason bees use mud to block off their cells. They will go into the back, fill it with pollen, lay an egg and then block that cell off with mud. Leafcutters use bits of leaves instead of mud.”
You may be able to see whether Leafcutter Bees have been at work in your garden. “If you have leaves in your garden, especially rose leaves, and they have tiny little oval or perfect circular cut-out pieces, so that the leaf looks a bit like a paper doily, then a leafcutter has used the leaves to line the nest,” explained Brigit.” If you look at the ends of the nesting boxes, you can see some of them are blocked off with soil and some are blocked off with bits of leaf. Some are blocked up with what looks like pesto. The mason bees chew up leaves and block it off with that.”
Brigit led me to one of the bee hotels on a wall in the hospital garden. It’s a lovely setting, overlooking Park Walk. She said it should be safe to look into this nesting box because these bees are unlikely to sting. “They have got the capability to sting but because they don’t store honey they have no reason to have a stinging mechanism and so they’re very safe for children. You can get really close.”
Brigit slid the side off one of the wooden boxes to reveal a cross section of the nest. It was like one of the wormeries we had in school science lessons. “You can see here the materials, leftover pollen,” said Brigit. “These are all fully-grown adult bees wrapped in cocoons waiting until next April or May, when the flowers that they prefer come out. Then they will all emerge and the whole life cycle starts all over again.”
During the Bee Group event at The Town Hall on 24th February, locals who have taken and put up bee hotels will be encouraged to share their experiences and have their questions answered. “I think we gave out fifty of them. People are so excited by this. I have a friend called Sarah who has an allotment down in St James’s. Hers is packed. There’s no room left in hers,” she said. “And there are other people who haven’t had any bees visit them at all. So maybe they’re in the wrong position. Or they haven’t got the right plants nearby. When people bring them back to us, we’ll be able to do a map of Shaftesbury to see which have been taken up”.
The workshop on Sunday 24th February runs from 10am to 1pm and there will be a repeat of the morning session between 2pm and 5pm. Brigit has been guiding the Bee Group with fellow enthusiast Julian Pritchard and she’s hoping that more interested locals come forward and help.
“I feel we’ve made a really good start, but it needs to be not just about Julian and I driving it. The thing with all of these schemes is that you need more people involved. It needs to be driven, from the community and the Council, not just a couple of people.”
And Brigit says she really needs the services of a volunteer who is good with admin. “Stick me up in front of a load of people and I will talk for England about bees but I can’t do the emails to organise and coordinate working days. If I could find someone who is prepared to do that, or a bunch of people who are prepared to take that on, we could really go forwards,” she said.
Brigit says she doesn’t necessarily want a committee. She’d rather find people ready and willing to get on with the work. “To take on responsibility for little plots of open spaces in Shaftesbury, like the Queen Mother’s Garden or Park Walk. Just to say that ‘I will keep this place hand-weeded’ and make sure that that the plants in this area are specifically planted for bees.”
In the future, our resident bee expert may offer walks and talks to share what has been achieved. “We already have a fantastic Tree Group in Shaftesbury and there are tree walks happening. We could do the same with a bee walk. Or maybe I could lead a bumblebee walk or something like that,” smiled Brigit.
If enough people express an interest and attend February’s workshops, it looks like Shaftesbury’s Bee Group will soon be busy place.