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The Unbearable Lightness of Bee-ing

June 18, 2012

In the summer of 2008, an adorable bumblebee — whose furry tail looked like it had been dipped in orange paint — took up residence in a wooden birdhouse. Right near the front door.  Once we realised it was a colony of bumblebees rather than a confused singleton, we gingerly moved the house — a family affair ripe with dramatic suspense — down the front steps to a spot our front garden.  The bees weren’t bothered by our coming and goings, but all around, we thought it would be less awkward for everyone if there was a degree of separation between the humans and the bees …

We sat on the grass for hours watching their comings and goings.  We soon learned it was a colony of Bombus lapidarius. We also learned that the old Devonian word for “bumblebee” is “dumbledor.”   (J.K. Rowling attended the University of Exeter and maybe she was a bee-watcher.)  Since then, we have become avid fans of these fuzzy, endearing creatures.  We have aware of the fatal diseases and dramatic declines in their populations.

Worldwide bees are the most important pollinators of flowering plants and crops. Seventy-five percent of everything from peaches and pears to carrots and clover is pollinated by bees.  There are more than 250 known species of bumblebees; our garden is diverse and attracts about half a dozen species.  Sadly the birdhouse has not returned to its former bumblebee condo.  However, we see and hear the bees all of the time. (They are currently crawling all over my alliums.)

This summer, my family and I are walking the Coast to Coast Path across England. Originally just a family adventure, it has taken on new meaning. While creating little books for our kids to ID bugs, birds, plants, and sheep they would encounter on the trail, the idea to use our walk for something helpful was hatched.  We are now walking to raise funds for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust as bee populations across the world are in serious decline.

Changes in agricultural techniques mean there are fewer varied flowering plants to sustain these vital little creatures. In the past, English farms and American prairies had greater floral diversity. Mono-agriculture and pesticides contribute to declines in bee populations, offering less floral diversity and a shorter foraging season.  (Posh gardens with less floral diversity are not as frequented by bees. See this report.)

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust works with farmers and raises awareness of the need for plant variety in our own gardens.  We take our first steps in July and finish, hopefully not too battered and blistered,12 days later.

The Coast to Coast Trail crosses three national parks through some of England’s finest scenery. The 192-mile route begins in — how appropriate! — St. Bees in West Cumbria, on the shores of the Irish Sea, crossing the coastal plain, the Lake District, the Pennines, and the North York Moors, and ends on the North Sea coast at Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire.

If this is a cause to which you would like to donate, here is our JustGiving page! Many thanks.

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