Bee spotting and Botanising in Gibraltar

  • By mark patterson
  • 14 Nov, 2016

Mark explores the British Overseas territory of Gibraltar, its history, culture and wildlife.

Many people will be familiar with Gibraltar. Our long standing feud with the Spanish over its sovereignty regularly hits the national press and it has its own TV show ‘Gibraltar –Britain in the Sun’. 

The area is a popular tourist destination with its large population of wild monkeys attracting crowds from around Europe. But there is much more to this British territory than its wild apes as I found out in April when I spent a week there searching for wild flowers and their pollinators.

Before I talk about Gibraltar’s flowers and its pollinators I’ll give a brief overview of the area’s history and geography. Gibraltar is a small British territory (6.8km2 in area) on the southern tip of Spain’s Iberian Peninsula, its affectionately referred to as ‘Gib’ by the locals who mostly identify themselves as being British. It was captured by the British in 1704 and has been a British territory since 1713 despite numerous attempts by the Spanish to re-take it. The area is unique in having a diverse mixture of Afro-European fauna and flora found nowhere else in Europe. The ‘Rock’ itself is a large Jurassic  Limestone formation rising 426 meters above sea level with steep slopes on the West side of the rock and almost vertical cliffs on the opposite East Side.

The rock and its limestone geology are unique in Spain where the main rock type is sandstone and granite. Gibraltar’s rocks belong to the same Limestone formations found across the narrow sea crossing in North Africa. Around 5 million years ago the Mediterranean basin flooded and the rock was separated from Morocco. At this time many African species of plant and animal became trapped and isolated and have since evolved alongside European species. Many of the rocks African plant species cannot survive in the typical European habitats found on the mainland as they are limestone specialists and cannot cope with the acid conditions on the granite and sandstone areas. The result today is a unique mix of Africa meets Europe with assemblages of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world including several rare and endemic species.

I had visited Gib before but on short trips in the autumn and found the entire area to be baked tinder dry and aside from the occasional Autumn Colchium and Amaryllis belladonna there were very few wild plants in flower and even fewer bees. Gibraltar like much of southern Spain is subject to scorching hot summers so many plants and animals go dormant or hibernate for much of the dry season mid-summer to winter. The spring in Gibraltar is quite spectacular though in contrast. Winter rains and a frequent supply of moist air rising up the rocks Eastern cliffs brings lots of moisture in spring transforming the arid rock into a Lush Tropical paradise. The best time to visit to see wild flowers and their pollinators is late March and April, but there is still plenty to see if you visit in May.

I decided to visit the second week of April because I wanted to see flowers at their best but I also wanted to coincide my trip with the peak in spring bird migration. Having the narrowest sea crossing in the western Mediterranean the rock is a magnet for many migrating birds, especially birds of prey such as kites, eagles, buzzards and Vultures which rely on thermals to cover great distance. There's something really special about watching 100's of eagle sized raptors soaring just meters over your boat headed for the mainland.

It’s not just birds which migrate here in spring. Many species of Dragonfly, large Solitary bee’s, butterflies and Hoverfly’s also make the 14km journey from North Africa to Europe. One of the best ways to see these migrations is to take a pelagic boat trip out into the straight. Many tired insect travellers will alight on the boats to rest their tired flight muscles. Migrant hawkers, Chasers, and Darter dragonflies are numerous, Vollucela hoverflies are also common and occasionally clouds of Painted lady Butterfly flutter past. I noted many insect bodies floating on the ocean surface during the boat trip. Clearly the sea crossing is treacherous for insects and many don’t complete the journey – Gulls, Cory’s Shearwater and Black Terns eagerly pick their lifeless bodies from the waters surface. Occasionally a large bee will also buzz past. Another reason for taking a boat trip is to see the numerous whales and dolphins which inhabit the straight alongside sea turtles, Sun fish, Basking sharks, Humpback, Minke and Sperm Whales. The Local Striped Dolphin are among the most social and easiest to approach in Europe and come right along the side of the boats. We had the pleasure of a pod of around 15 adults and a calf bow ride our boat for around 40 minutes.

A pod of Dolphins swims alongside our boat during a 3 hour pelagic cruise

One of the first stops on my trip and a great place to see pollinators is the Alameda Botanic Gardens. Here you can get up close to many of the rocks rare and threatened plants which are being cultivated to conserve the species and to repopulate the upper rock reserve. The gardens also boast impressive assemblages of North African and Mediterranean plants which in April are almost all in flower at once and attract masses of buzzing insects.  The Mediterranean is a hotspot for global bee diversity both in terms of population size and numbers of species found in the region, Spain alone has over 1000 species of bee and identifying them all is not an easy task. At best in the field you can only expect to get to Genus level with most of them as many are hard to identify to species level unless you can capture them for close up examination with a hand lens or microscope. At the Alameda Gardens I saw lots of Flower bees Anthophora sp . Some were a local sub-species of our Hairy Footed Flower bee A.plumipes , they were identical in every way except much brighter in colour almost ginger. Other species of Flower bee I could not identify as they were too fast and wouldn’t stay still long enough to get a good look at them. I also saw lots of Andrena Mining bees similar to our tawny mining bee and a great number of Osmia and Lasioglossum bees. Bumble bees were quite scarce though Bombus vestalis, hortorum and terrestris can be seen. Although most of the common UK bumble bees can be found in Spain along with many other bumble bees not found in the UK they are scarce in the Iberian Peninsula – the climate is probably too hot for their large hairy bodies to keep cool.

Leaving the Botanic Gardens you can either take a short but quite a steep and physically draining walk up the winding roads of the Western face of the rock or you can take the cable car or a taxi ride to the upper rock reserve. This is the really wild part of Gibraltar, protected as a nature reserve and home to the Barbary Macaque apes.
The Alameda Botanic Gardens
An Anthophora bee visits flowers at the Alameda Botanic Gardens
The upper rock is dominated by a type of wild Olive scrub and dwarf woodland called Macchia. Much of the scrub is evergreen Holme oak, wild Olive, Juniper, Gorse type Genista scrub and patches of wild cut leaved Lavender, Thymes, Rosemary, Wild Sage, Buckthorn with a dense understory of herbaceous perennials. 
A man made fire break among the Machhia scrub and dwarf olive forest

Most of the wild bees inhabiting these areas are arboreal and are difficult to see spending much of their time up in the canopy where they feed on arboreal flowers and burrow into decaying branches to make their nests. One of them is the impressive Violet Carpenter bee – an absolutely enormous solitary bee that makes its nests inside the hollow stems of dead tree branches and tall Umbellifer flowers among the Macchia. You usually hear them well before you see them, they make a very loud humming noise. They are pretty spectacular bees having glossy black bodies with iridescent purple wings the colour of Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate foil wrappings.

A Violet Carpenter Bee

Throughout the macchia there are numerous glades and clearings where you will find Silver knapweed, Centaurea sonchifolia, Cut-leaved Valerian, Centranthus calcitrapae, Thapsia villosa a large yellow cow parsley like flower – often covered in bees and lots of introduced Acanthus Mollis which is becoming a well established pest on much of the reserve. Bees and large pollinating chaffer type beetles were on virtually every flower.

Along the path ways Blue Pimpernel Anagallis arvensis, Rambling fumitory, Fumaria capreolata, Bladder vetch, Anthyllis tetraphylla , wild Fennel, Greater soft storksbill, Erodium chium and the subspecies subcordata of the Sticky Restharrow Ononis viscosa grow in profusion. These were visited by the local honey bees. There is a small charity in Gibraltar which tend the only managed hives in the town. Contrary to claims on their website they do not keep the Scutella Central African race of Honey bee but the local Spanish Race Apis melifera iberiensis. Here is a picture of some of them foraging on Southern Birds Foot Trefoil. Being surrounded on 3 sides by the sea and being less than 7km2 in area it must be a challenging place to keep bees not least to get new queens mated.

One morning whilst visiting the Bird Observatory on the Upper rock reserve I joined the bird ringers to go check their mist nets they use to catch birds as part of their migration studies. In the thick and impenetrable scrub was the remains of a very old vehicle, probably abandoned since the Second World War from the look of it. Inside was a wild honey bee nest with comb hanging from the metal roof.

A local Honey Bee on Southern Birdsfoot Trefoil flowers

The bird observatory has one of the very few ponds found in Gibraltar. Limestone is porous so there are very few natural places where water can collect to form pools. The man made pond at the Observatory is visited by many birds but it is also visited by many insects as they need to drink too. It is the only place where I saw frogs – the rest of the upper rock is too dry for them to survive.

One of Gibraltars more elusive inhabitants is the  Barbary Partridge. This game bird is very similar to the Red Legged Partridge found throughout most of Western Europe. It is widespread across northern Africa and the Canary Islands but is restricted to Gibraltar in Spain. The remaining population is now very small and they are very shy and not easy to see. The video below is one I pilled from YouTube and is not my own footage - sadly I didnt get to see this bird.

A blue Rock Thrush being fitted with a leg ring and having its biometric measurements taken at the bird observatory. Each spring volunteers from the British Trust for Ornithology journey here to monitor the epic bird migration.

One of the best parts of the rock to see wild flowers and pollinators is the Mediterranean steps, a 1.4km hike starting at 140 meters above sea level and climbing to the summit of the rock on its eastern side along very tough terrain involving a steep climb up the Eastern Cliffs. The route starts off on an easy gradient but then climbs very steeply up the vertical face of the Eastern side of the Rock. This part of the climb is not for the faint hearted as there are few safety ropes or rails and a sheer drop should you fall from the stone carved foot path.

Bristley Bugloss growing on the lower reaches of the steps

On the scree slopes along the steps cornfield annuals which are native to the locality grow in abundance alongside Bristly bugloss, Echium creticum of which Gibraltar has its own sub species coincyanum. These plants grow at home in the UK and are often cited as being native but they were actually introduced to the UK by man as weed seeds in the earliest domestic grains brought from the Mediterranean . In the Uk these plants rely on sympathetic agricultural practices to provide the disturbed soil they need to grow. Here in their natural habitat the crumbling limestone cliffs provide the disturbed soil habitats they require to flourish.

Cleopatra butterfly on Bristley Bugloss
Bladder Vetch

Other plants growing out of the thin soils here included Cut leaved and Red valerian, Cut leaved lavender and wild Calendula. This area was covered in Butterflies including the Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina, Cleopatra butterfly and large numbers of migrating Painted Ladies - many of which will refuel at Gibraltar before continuing to migrate into North West Europe reaching the British Isles and as far north as Greenland.

Spanish Festoon butterfly

There are numerous caves throughout the rock where rain water run off has dissolved weaker parts of the limestone. Many solitary bees excavate their nests in the soft crumbling rock around the cave entrances. Nearby Mallow leaved bindweed, Convulvulus althaeoides rambled through the wild olives etching a living out of the vertical rock face and attracted lots honey bees. To get a close look at any of these bees you really need to come equipped with a long handled net to catch them (I didn’t! and my short handled net was not much use). The steep cliffs, narrow footpath and dense vegetation make it hard to get up close to the wild bees. The heat and humidity also means they are ‘super charged’ and the Anthophora bees in particular are very flighty. It may be easier to get close to bees earlier in the morning when the air is still cool from the mists coming off the sea as the bees won’t be as alert and fast moving.

As I climbed higher up the steeper parts of the rock different plant communities are found. Mediterranean Squirting Cucumber Ecballium elaterium , Doronicum, and Aromatic Inula, Dittrichia viscosa Grow. On more exposed cliffs several rare plants grow in abundance. They include the Gibraltar Candytuft Iberis gibraltarica and the Gibraltar Saxifrage Saxifraga globulifera a species endemic to Gibraltar. An even rarer plant unique to Gibraltar is the Gibraltar Campion Silene tomentosa . This plant was though extinct until a few years ago when a rock climber accidentally discovered a small group of them growing on a very high outcrop. There are only a handful of wild specimens left and their exact location a guarded secret. I unfortunately did not get to see this plant.

One of the most spectacular plants I saw on the sleep cliffs of the steps were Giant Squill Scilla peruviana . The iridescent purple flowers attracted lots of insects including lots of small metallic solitary bees – probably lasioglossum species.

looking down the eastern cliffs from the Mediterranean Steps
Giant Squill
The endemic Gibraltar Candytuft - found nowhere else in the world.

Other parts of the rock good for botanising and looking for pollinators is Europa Point on the southern tip of the peninsula. Here the Botanical society of Gibraltar and the Gibraltar Nature conservancy have done allot of work to restore the native maritime coastal habitats. Here vast swathes of Purple vipers bugloss, Echium plantagineum grow amongst Wild Calendula, Southern Birds Foot Trefoil lotus creticus , Mediterranean Catchfly Silene colorata ,   Italian Sainfoin Hedysarum coronarium and native Chrysanthemums. Gibraltar Sea Lavender Limonium emarginatum also grows here – another Endemic species. Europa point is where allot of the migrating birds and insects first make landfall and many Entomologists and ornithologists gather at the observatory there to look out for and record incoming migrants.

Surprisingly one of the interesting parts of the Gibraltar to look for plants is the old town centre. The narrow streets and steep stairwells are often home to little botanical gems. Many of these are not native but have escaped over the years and makes for an eclectic mix of plants such as Wild Snap Dragon Antirrhinum majus and schiizostylis which grow out of the old lime stone walls. Cape Sorrell Oxalis pes-caprae is common along old walls and is host for the parasitic plant Branched broomrape, Orobanche ramose.

Europa Point
Europa Point

Aside from wonderful wild flowers and lots of bees and butterflies Gibraltar is also a pretty good place to see reptiles. There are many species of lizard, snakes and Gecko found on the Rock, many are easy to see early in the morning as they bask in the sun to warm their bodies. Some are restricted to Gibraltar in Europe being descendants of African species stranded millions of years ago when the Straight flooded.

A reptile I rescued from a drain at the side of the road
An infant Moorish Gecko which made its way into our apartment

I would highly recommend a visit to Gibraltar in April but be warned, there are very few modern and respectable hotels in the town, most of the accommodation options are basic, out dated and costly.

Another word of caution is regarding the Apes. You cannot walk around the Upper rock reserve with food or shiny objects on display – you will be robbed! My travel companion I went on this 5 day trip with was literally ‘mugged’ by a gang of Apes after they spotted the shiny foil wrappings of his sandwich pocking out of his trouser pocket. They also stole his Wallet and souvenir bag – do not under estimate them. I actually saw a troop of monkeys ransack a parked car after the occupants left their windows down. The apes climbed in one side grabbed what they could carry and left out the opposite window. The female passenger didn’t get her handbag back as it disappeared along with the ape over the cliff edge.

A female Barbary Macaque cradles her baby whilst precariously perched above a 400 meter vertical drop. They are Europe's only wild Primate. There are around 16 troops of the Apes occupying the Upper Rock Reserve - treat them with respect!

When climbing the rock and looking for wildlife its best to start early in the morning on the western side. The mornings often produce moisture carrying breezes which collide with the base of the rocks Eastern side and are pushed up the cliffs providing water for plants. This side also receives more shade in the morning so the Climb is easier as it’s not too hot yet. Many of the plants secrete nectar early in the morning before it gets too hot, by early afternoon it can become very dry, the moisture laden fogbank around the base of the rock dissipates and it becomes too hot for many plants to secrete nectar and most pollinators are less active. When you come to climb the Eastern side of the rock which is very steep and physically strenuous the sun will have moved westwards and the rock provides welcome shade from the heat. Temperatures were in the high 20’s Celsius the entire week we were there and on several days reached 30 Celcius.

looking down the steps towards the town of Gibraltar
Climbing the steps to the summit. On the left is the Eastern cliffs-a vertical 400 meter drop and on the right the western slopes smothered in Machhia scrub/forest

Aside from wildlife watching there is allot to do in Gibraltar, the whole town is steeped in history, there are caves to explore, underground museums, an 8th century Moorish castle, Military museum, and Ocean village marina where you’ll find Casinos, shops and restaurants. 

There are also lots of antique and old book shops in the town centre. 

Almost Everyone in Gib speaks English as a first language, they use the British Pound as currency and you’ll find familiar shops such as M&S, Morrisons, Body Shop, next, Tesco and the Post Office. 

It really is Britain in the Sun!

The endemic and critically endangered Gibraltar Campion Silene tormentosa - sadly a plant I did not get to see as its location in the wild is a closely guarded secret
The endemic Gibraltar Saxifrage grows all over the Upper Rock Reserve straight out of the Limestone rock
By mark patterson 18 Jan, 2018

Are Western Honey Bees Apis mellifera really the world’s most important pollinator?

This is the claim made in a recently published paper in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences 10th January 2018. The authors claims are based upon existing published datasets consisting of observations of bees on flowering plants in natural environments around the globe and based upon the abundance of Honey bees recorded during the study have come to the conclusion that they are therefore the most important pollinator in the world.

The claim that a single species can be solely relied upon or referred to as the most important pollinator in the world has been widely criticised by academics who have been quick to point out that many other recent studies show that wild bees are responsible for a greater proportion of the pollination service previously attributed to domesticated honey bees and that in addition there are many crop plants that can only be pollinated by a restricted number of species not including Honey bees. There are also other groups of pollinators which play a huge role in plant reproduction around the world. Moths have recently been shown to pollinate up to 50% of oil seed rape crops in some studies questioning practices of spraying at night to safeguard day flying honey bees.

Globally beetles are the largest group of pollinators by sheer volume. There are over 400,000 species of beetle worldwide (compared to 20,000 bee species) which help pollinate 88% of the world’s flowering plants. Beetles vastly outnumber bees in both terms of species diversity and numbers of individuals. Beetles pollinate many flowers in tropical and desert regions where it is too hot for most bees to survive, they also pollinate many plants who's flowers open at night or which mimic decaying bodies with strong scents.

It has also been quite obviously pointed out that whilst Honey Bees may be the most numerous flower visitors that does not necessarily mean they are pollinating all the flowers they visit. Honey bees are incapable of releasing the pollen grains of many plants so are ineffective pollinators. There are also many species of flower which they visit only to steal the nectar without pollinating at all.

This claim is potentially damaging and could deflect attentions from wild bees who are of more serious conservation concern than the honey bee (which by the way is in no immediate threat or danger and are actually doing ok globally). Relying on a single pollinator such as the Honey Bee for pollination services is dangerous and the loss of diversity of other pollinator species should be of great concern as it could lead to loss of plant diversity should specialist pollinators disappear.

I am a full time beekeeper and lover of the honey bee but simply cannot support the claim made whilst being aware of the complexities of pollination services and awareness of the myriad of other insects which outperform honey bees in the pollination of so many of our valued crops.

As a reminder of the importance of non-honey bees in production of our Food crops I’ve listed below some of our most valuable crop species and the wild bees which help pollinate them.


Pollination by bees

Bees particularly pollinate 87 (or 70%) out of the 124 main crop species grown globally for human food consumption. This contributes to one third of the food we eat. They don’t just provide us with fruits and nuts and vegetables, bees are also an essential element in the production of meat and other animal products.

Bees are essential for the pollination of many herbs, spices and oils used in baking and cooking.

Fish, Meat, Eggs and Dairy products

Most animal feeds contain plant products which are highly reliant on bees for pollination. Without them Diary, meat and egg products would be much harder to produce and would be significantly more expensive to buy.

Livestock reared for meat and milk don’t just graze on grass and cereals. Alfalfa, Peas and Soya beans are primary ingredients in animal pellet feeds fed to Cattle, Sheep and Pigs. In addition Silage and hay containing Alfalfa, clover and other legumes is also an important feed given to cattle. These ingredients are a source of protein essential for muscle growth and production of milk.

Poultry feeds are largely made up of maize and cereals which are wind pollinated but include Soya bean, Alfalfa and Peas (a more sustainable source of protein than Soya) as a protein source. Many poultry feeds given to laying hens contain Calendula petals, the orange pigment encourages brighter yolk colour.

Many Free Range poultry farms include grazing mixtures high in edible herbs for the birds to graze on. These are pollinated by bees.

Cover crops of Sunflower, Kale and other tall herbs designed to provide cover and seeds for game birds and free range poultry rely on bees for pollination.

Commercially reared fish are often fed on a diet of pelletized foods containing Soya bean, Lupine and Oil Seed Rape all pollinated by bees.

Bees essential for pollination of plants used in Animal feeds include the Alfalfa Leafcutter Megachile rotundata , Alkali Bee Nomia melenderi , flower bees Anthophora species which pollinate autumn sown beans and peas, Osmia bees and Bumblebees which work alongside Honey Bees to pollinate Oil seed rape and brassicas used in cover crops and forage crops.

Calendula used in poultry feeds to encourage strong egg yolk colour are pollinated by a number of solitary bees including Lassioglossum Andrena and Halictus species.

Fruits, Nuts and Vegetables

The majority of our fruits and vegetables are reliant on bees to some degree for pollination. Because we grow many crops outside of their native geographical region it is often necessary to introduce honey bees to pollinate them but many crops grown outside their native regions will also be visited and pollinated by locally occurring wild bees. In regions where honey bees are not native ( like the Americas) local crop plants often have their own specialist bee species which will pollinate them.

Members of the Solanum family include Tomato, Potatoes, Yoji berries and Aubergine along with Capsicum ’s like Peppers and Chillies are solely reliant on Bumble Bees for pollination. These plants require sonic vibrations of a specific frequency to dislodge the pollen grains from their tubular shaped Anthers. Throughout Europe millions of Buff Tailed Bumble Bee Bombus terrestris colonies are reared each year to supply poly tunnels and glass houses which grow these fruits. Elsewhere in the world other Bumble Bees are used including the Eastern Bumble Bee Bombus impatiens in North America.

Ericaceous fruits such as Blue Berry and Cranberry are pollinated by a number of bees including commercial managed honey bees. Each year thousands of hives are transported to farms growing these crops but the honey bee is an inefficient pollinator of these fruits. Dense numbers of hives have to be brought in to ensure a good fruit set. Bumblebees are far more efficient at pollinating these fruits and are of significant value. Other bees valuable as a pollinator of Blueberries include the solitary ‘Eastern Blue Berry Bee’ Habropda labriosa .  The Blue Berry Mason bee Osmia ribifloris and Anthophora pilipes. The Eastern Blueberry bee is a particularly efficient pollinator of blue berries. Each female bee will pollinate around 6000 fruits in her brief lifetime.

The Rusty Patch BumbleBee Bombus afinis and Megachile addenda are important pollinators of Cranberry, Sadly the once widespread Rusty Patched Bumblebee is now sadly in steep decline and included on the Endangered list by the American authorities therefore no longer a viable alternative to honey bee in pollination of Cranberry.
In the USA the most important wild bee in Cranberry pollination is a blunthorn bee Melitta Americana , the females of this species collects pollen exclusively from Cranberry flowers and like bumblebees have evolved the ability to ‘buzz pollinate’ the flower. They are among the most numerous wild bees on large Cranberry farms.

Raspberry are pollinated by a number of short tongued Bumble Bees, Osmia Bees and Honey Bees. In the UK the Buff Tailed Bumble Bee Bombus terrestris , Early Bumble Bee Bombus pratorum and Tree Bumble Bee Bombus hypnorum are important pollinators.

Blackberry are pollinated by a huge variety of insects including bees. Much of London’s honey comes from Bramble as the plant grows along the cities railway sidings and brownfield lands. Aside from Honey Bees other species to pollinate Blackberry include Bumble bees Megachile bees, Andrena Bees , Lassioglossum, Halictus, Hylaeus, Osma the Blue Carpenter bee Ceratina cynea and Xylocopa bees.

Strawberry are widely pollinated by Honey bees and Bumble Bees. The Bumble bee provides more efficient pollination of commercial strawberries leading to larger more uniform fruit set and are also easier to maintain inside poly tunnels and glass houses where Strawberry plants are grown under cover to encourage early cropping. In the open Strawberries also attract Lassioglossum, Andrena, Halictus, Osmia and Nomada bees.

Currants are pollinated predominantly by Queen Bumble Bees since they flower very early in the season.

Gooseberry are pollinated predominantly by Honey Bees but also pollinated by Early Bumble Bee and solitary species such as Andrena fulva .

Orchard Fruits rely heavily on both Honey Bees and wild bees for pollination. Honey bees are brought into orchards in large numbers to ensure saturation of the area with bees and a good fruit set however honey bees are fair weather creatures and only fly in warm conditions. Many Solitary bees and Bumble bees will fly in cooler conditions either earlier in the day before temperatures have risen or during cooler weather when honey bees are reluctant to fly. Evidence shows that the presence of bumble bees and solitary bees alongside honey bees ensures a greater fruit set with larger more uniform fruit developing.

Osmia or Mason bees pollinate many orchard fruit crops. Osmia lignaria  and Osmia rufra are commercially important pollinators of Cherries, Apples, Almonds, Plums Prunus species. Osmia lignaria   is so much more efficient at pollinating Apples that just 300 female bees can perform the pollination role of 90,000 honey bees. Osmia cornuta pollinates Almonds and Osmia cornifrons pollinates Apples and Pears. This bee is important as an important orchard fruit pollinator in Japan where it is responsible for pollinating ¾ of Japaneese orchard fruits and has been spread to the USA to pollinate orchard fruits there. Bumble Bees also visit Apples, Plums, Pears Quince and Medlar. Andrena Cineraria the Ashy Mining Bee can be a notable pollinator of Cherries.

Citrus fruits like Orange, Tangerine, Limes and Grape fruit rely on Honey bees and bumble bees for pollination. Whilst some varieties of citrus are self-fertile and capable of pollinating themselves without bees, fruit set and yields are greatly improved by the presence of bees.

Cucurbits include Melons, Courgette, Pumpkin, Cucumber and Squash. In Europe they rely largely on commercial Honey bees, Wild Bumblebees, Anthophora bees and Halictus bees for pollination.

In addition to these there are Squash Bees of the Peponapis and Xenoglossa genus found in North America. These bees are squash and Pumpkin specialists only collecting pollen to feed their offspring from Pumpkin and Squash plants. The name Peponapis in greek means ‘pumpkin bee.’

Squash bees are solitary and nest in underground burrows often among the crop plants they feed upon. Tillage practices can cause significant damage to their underground nests and non-tillage farming practices have been shown to triple the number of these bees on pumpkin farms. A good population of Squash bees means the farmer can avoid having to bring in Honey bee hives at cost to pollinate his crop. These bees are active very early in the morning from 4am onwards when squash and pumpkin flowers are newly opened and before they have begun to wilt. This habit makes them more efficient at pollinating pumpkin than honey bees which are not active until the sun is up and has warmed the air temperatures. In addition the male Peponapis bees sleep often communally inside Squash flowers where they pick up significantly more pollen than the females do on their brief flower visits. This makes the male Squash bees particularly efficient pollinators of Pumpkin and Squash.


Many tropical fruits are commercially grown outside of their native range and are pollinated by managed honey bees. These fruits include Lyche, Longon, Jujubes Avocado and Guava and Passion Fruit . In Vietnam many of these fruits are pollinated not by western Honey Bees but by the smaller Asiatic Honey Bee Apis cerana. Apis cerana reportedly account for 84-95% of pollination in Jujubes and Longans.
Pawpaw or paypaya fruit are pollinated predominantly by nocturnal moths but honey bees contribute to their pollination. Many tropical fruits are also pollinated by Stingless Meliponini bees and Carpenter Bees Xylocopa .

Pineapple do not require pollination to set fruit but they do to set seed. They are predominantly pollinated by Hummingbirds.

Tamarin is a tropical Legume producing long pods containing edible seeds with a pulpy texture. They have many culinary uses including as an ingredient in Worchester Sauce. They are pollinated primarily by the Giant Honey Bee Apis dorsata .

Coconut grow in the tropical regions and are pollinated by native stingless bees of the family Meliponini as well as introduced Honey Bees.

Almonds are pollinated by Honey bees, Bumble Bees and Osmia Bees such as Osmia cornuta . Almonds are the single biggest export of the state of California which grows over 810,000 acres of the crop in vast orchards in the Central Valley. Each year 81 Billion honey bees from 1.6 Million hives pollinate over 2.5 Trillion Almond blooms in what is the largest insect migration on the Planet. Beekeepers truck these bees in from all across the United States on 6000 Lories. Due to the scale of the operation, seasonal nature and lack of alternative forage sources around the Almond groves  Honey Bees are the only realistic option for pollination of this crop.

Brazil Nuts are pollinated by colourful Orchid Bees Euglossini species. The females of these bees pollinate a variety of tropical plants as they collect pollen to feed their offspring. The males pollinate Orchid flowers which they visit to collect scented secretions they use to attract the females hence the common name Orchid Bees. Only Euglossini and larger Carpenter bees Xylocopa species can access the flowers as a robust body is needed to force entry into the tightly lipped flowers.

Peas and Beans are members of the Fabaceae plant family. Calliopsis, Protoxeae, Colletes, Caupolicana, Osmia, Anthidium, Megachile, Eucera, Florilegrus, Anthophora and Bombus bees all work alongside honey bees to help to pollinate Beans and Peas globally.

In the UK Beans and Peas are pollinated mostly by Bumblebees, Megachile and Osmia bees. The Hairy Footed Flower Bee Anthophora plumipes is commercially important in the pollination of early flowering peas and beans sown in autumn in regions like East Anglia. It is a hardy bee active very early in the season before Honey Bee colonies are very active and it has a very longue tongue to access the nectar of beans unlike the Honey Bee and short tongued Bumblebees which often damage bean flowers to steal the nectar without pollinating the crop.

Vegetables don’t require pollination to develop the parts of the plant which we harvest and eat but in order to grow them in the first place we need viable seed to sow and bees are essential for this.

Brassicas include Cabbages, Mustard, Oil seed Rape, Turnip, Kale, Cauliflower, Broccoli and Sprouts are pollinated by a wide range of insects including Anthophora Bees, Honey Bees, Bumble Bees and Osmia Bees.

Carrots, Fennel, Parsnip and Parsley are pollinated by many small solitary bees from Andrena, Colletes, Hylaeus , Nomada and Lassioglossum species. Hoverflies and pollinating beetles also play a significant role in pollinating these vegetables. Larger pollinators like Honey Bees and Bumble bees are poor pollinators of these crops. The Carrot Mining Bee Andrena nitidiuscula is solely reliant on Carrot for pollen to feed its offspring.

Onions. Allium flowers are popular bee forage and visited by a wide range of bees. In the US a small mining bee called Andrena prunorum is one of the most efficient pollinators of commercially farmed onions whilst in Europe the Onion Yellow Faced Bee Hylaeus punctulatissimus collects its pollen exclusively from onions and . This species is sadly thought to now be extinct in the UK. London appeared to be the species last stronghold in the UK prior to its extinction and the last specimen was seen foraging on cultivated onions in a Chelsea garden in 1827. Celery is pollinated by many Solitary bees as per carrot.

Beets include the sugar Beet, Beetroot and Leaf Beet or Chard. These are all pollinated by Honey Bees and many solitary bees.

Potatoes belong to the Solanum family and are closely related to Tomato. The part of the plant we eat is the tuberous root and not a pollinated fruit as with other Solanum crops but bees are necessary to breed new varieties of potato unless they are hand pollinated. Like other Solanums Potato have flowers bearing cylindrical pollen holding apparatus which very few bees can access. In order for the flowers to shed their pollen they must be sonically vibrated at a specific frequency. Bumble bees and a select few solitary bees have evolved the ability to do just this by revving their flight muscle out of gear vibrating their bodies.

In the USA Anthophorula and Exomalopsis bees work alongside Bumble Bees to pollinate Potato and other Solanum crops.

Sweet Potato are members of the Morning glory ipomoeae family and pollinated by several bees in the Melitoma genus but one bee in particular is important as an efficient pollinator of these plants, Wild Sweet Potato Bee Cemolobus ipomoeae . This bee is the sole species in a unique Genus of bees with unique adaptations to pollinate Ipomoeae flowers. Once common and widespread across North America it is now in rapid decline and threatened with extinction.



Most of our common culinary herbs are pollinated by solitary bees and Honey Bees and short tongues bumble bees. These include Basil, Coriander, Oregano, Sage, Mint, Thyme, Lavender, Chives, Rosemary and Bay Lorrel.


Saffron the most expensive herb comes from an autumn flowering crocus Crocus sativus . They are pollinated by bees which visit them to collect pollen to feed to their offspring.

Vanilla comes from the fruiting pods of a climbing tropical orchid which is pollinated by several species of tiny stingless bees of the Meliponini genus. These bees are social forming a large colony not unlike a Honey bee and also produce honey. Stingless bees are valuable pollinators throughout tropical America. Outside its native range Vanilla is commonly grown in Madagascar where it is largely hand pollinated.

Cardamon is pollinated by Honey Bees.

Allspice Pimenta diotica is grown commercially and pollinated by Honey Bees however coming from the west Indies and Central America where Honey bees are not native they are likely pollinated by the native solitary and stingless bees.

Nutmeg comes from a tropical tree in the magnolia family. Magnolias are ancient forms of flowering plant and pollinated by primitive pollinators the Thripes, Beetles and Flies.

Star Anise Illicium verum is pollinated by Beetles.

Coffee comes from 2 species of plant. Arabica Coffee is a self fertile plant but pollination by Honey Bees improves yields and fruit set. Coffee robusta is an inferior coffee and dependent upon bees for pollination. 33 species of wild bees pollinate coffee beans.

Tea comes from an evergreen bush in the Camelia family. Its flowers are pollinated by bees.

Chocolate comes from the fruit of the Cocoa plant. Cocoa plantations support a wide variety of bees but appear to be mostly pollinated by tiny midges.

In addition to food crops wild bees pollinate many of our wild plants in the wider environment and also plants important to man for use in the manufacture of fabrics, and clothing like cotton.

By mark patterson 02 Jan, 2018

This month’s forage blog takes a different direction. There’s not much to write about in terms of seasonal forage for bees in the depths of winter when little is in flower and our bees are dormant so for a change my blog takes a look at what we can do to make our gardens better environments for bees all ear round going forward into a new year.

Create Habitat for bees

Bees need places to forage and find pollen, nectar, water and propolis and this can be done by planting the right types of flowers for them and incorporating a small water feature into your garden where bees can gather water.

Another sort of habitat bees need is nesting habitat where they can raise their offspring. For Honey bees this is a hive but for other bees this can be piles of decaying logs for them to excavate a nest burrow, a patch of sandy soil or clay bank for mining bees to dig out a nest tunnel or bundles of hollow plant stems and cardboard tubes for the likes of mason and leafcutter bees. These nesting habitats can be conveniently catered for in the form of the many pre-fabricated bee nesting boxes available from garden centres and online shops or you can make your own – see my guide ‘how to make homes for solitary bees’ here:

Other ideas you could try include making a nesting cylinder for ground nesting bees. You need to invest in a sheet of perforated metal sheeting which you bring together at the ends and fasten together with nuts and bolts to form a cylinder. This is then filled with sand and or free draining soil to provide a medium which bees can burrow into. This design allows bees to nest in the top of the planter by burrowing downwards but they can potentially also excavate lateral burrows entering through the many perforated holes in the metal sheet. Try using soft and sharp sand, cactus compost or John Innes loam based soil with added sand. You can plant drought tolerant flowering plants in the top too to provide cover as some bees prefer some vegetation cover near their nests whilst others prefer a more open aspect.

Lastly the final habitat that bees need is over wintering habitat. For bumble bees this is often a shallow hollow excavated in dry soil beneath tufts of grass or piles of decaying vegetation, compost heaps or for solitary bees hollow plant stems. Try not cutting back all your herbaceous perennials in autumn and leave some stems intact for insects to hibernate inside the hollow stems. Many solitary bees over winter in their nest chambers.

Plant useful things in your garden

At Apicultural our gardening mantra is either the bees can eat it or we can. If a plant can’t fulfil either of these two requirements then it doesn’t get a look in! Of course most of the things that we can eat are also beneficial to bees and other pollinators as the majority of vegetables do also flower and the fruits we eat need the bees to pollinate them.

Plant the best plants for bees

Not all flowers are equally attractive or beneficial to bees and other pollinators. Attractiveness and benefit to pollinators varies a great deal with some plants being 100 times more attractive and useful than the worst. To complicate things not all plants are equally beneficial to all insects due to the shape and morphology of the blooms which may prevent all but a few dedicated visiting bees whilst others contain toxins which only certain species of bee are immune to the effects of. Great examples are the foxglove Digitalis Purpurea , Comfrey Symphytum officinalis and Everlasting Pea Lathyrus latifolia which are among the top 10 UK plants for Sugar content in their nectar and the amount of nectar produced per hectar (kg of sugar/ha/year). These 3 plants should be a magnet for all bees having the greatest rewarding nectars among British Plants. However Fox Glove and Comfrey are plants with deep tubular flowers which prevent all but the longest tongues from accessing their nectar meanwhile Everlasting Pea has both a deep nectary and tightly lipped flowers which require a long tongued bee with a robust body to enter.

Bulking up your gardens by planting the most attractive and beneficial plants for a broad range of insects will provide the most benefit to pollinators whilst adding plants which are attractive or of benefit to only a small number of species helps provide food for more fussy specialists. There are many bees which are not generalist and will only feed their offspring pollen from a small number or a single species of plant. Plant a mixture of broadly attractive and specialist plants and choose plants which will offer flowers over a long season or plan a succession of flower types throughout the season.

By mark patterson 13 Dec, 2017
On Tuesday and Wednesday this week the European Commission will meet to hear evidence and discuss the consequences of Neonicotinoid pesticides usage on the natural environment.

Four years ago amid growing pressure and mounting evidence that neonics posed an unacceptable risk to bees and other insect pollinators the commission voted to implement a Europe wide ban on several  widely used neonics used on flowering crops. At the time there were political rallies and marches across the EU and here in London I was present at several of them. Dressed in my beekeeping suit and armed with a giant sunflower and Bee Puppet I was parading outside parliament in support of the ban. I was featured on several news programs that evening.
By mark patterson 13 Dec, 2017

As we progress through December the vast majority of the UK’s bees are well tucked away for winter. 

The majority of our bees are solitary and the most of these bees die in late summer leaving behind their offspring entombed deep inside underground burrows or imprisoned inside hollow plant stems or decaying wood. These bees will either overwinter as a pupae, pre-pupae or as a fully mature bee but they will not vacate their birth site until spring with the advent of warmer weather. 

This year many seasonal species of bee have been spotted on the wing and visiting garden flowers well into autumn. These Include Andrena scotica, Andrena haemorrhoa, Andrena nitida . These are spring species which have either been disturbed resulting in early emergence or they have been tricked into emergence by the deceptively warm temperatures in the Autumn. With the arrival of hard frost and prolonged snow these will have now perished and won’t be seen again until their proper time of emergence in early spring.

By mark patterson 03 Dec, 2017

Whilst enjoying your Cranberry sauce this Christmas spare a thought for the plight of this little chap, Bombus affinis - the Rusty Patch Bumble Bee.

An important pollinator of Vaccinium including Cranberry and Blue Berry, the Rusty Patch Bumble Bees form large colonies with up to 1000 workers per nest - far larger and longer lived than other bumble bee species meaning a single colony can facilitate more pollination than other species.

Cranberry and Blueberry like other members of the Vaccinium family are poorly pollinated by most bees including Honey Bees. Growers have to ship in lots of Honey Bee hives to saturate the crop in order to guarantee a good fruit set. Rusty Patch Bumble Bees along with other Bumble Bees and a handful of Solitary bees including the Cranberry Blunthorn Bee Melitta americana have evolved to perform buzz pollination and are important pollinators of these plants. These bees can sonically vibrate their bodies by revving their thorax muscles to shake pollen loose from the flowers. Flowers in the Vaccinium family are reluctant to give over their pollen grains to other types of bee as similarly to Solanums the pollen is held inside cylindrical apparatus which does not yield pollen freely.

Sadly the Rusty Patch Bumble bee is now facing extinction.

In the last decade its numbers have plummeted by 95%. Once one of the most common bees in the mid-west and Eastern United States and Canada its range has been reduced by an enormous 80% and is now found in just a few tiny pockets of habitat. European Bumble bee diseases such as Nosema bombi are thought to be the cause behind their decline – this and other European bee diseases were accidentally introduced to North America on imported Buff Tailed Bumble bees from Europe which were used to pollinate tomatoes in glasshouses. Being a naive host to European Bee pathogens the Rusty Patch Bumble Bee was quickly overwhelmed. Scientists believe that due to the speed with which this bee has declined the cause can only be due to an extotic pathogen. Even populations in mountain forests far away from pesticide treated crops have been badly affected.

In 2015 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommended that the Rusty Patch Bumble bee be added to the Critically Endangered Red List. 

There is now an ongoing battle with the Trump Administration to see through protection measures necessary to ensure the species survival. Right Wing US politics have the potential to compromise conservation measures.

The decline of the Rusty Patch Bumble Bee serves as a reminder of the consequences of living in a global society filled with international trade and the movement of plants and animal materials around the world which peaks around Christmas time.

By mark patterson 03 Dec, 2017

The Christmas Wreath

Christmas wreaths predate Christmas and Christianity by several thousand years. Originally ancient Britain’s and other northern Europeans would have made loose hanging wreaths (basically just a bundle of greenery tied at the top and hung from the walls of their home) as a means to warn off winter spirits. It is only later with the rise of the Christian churches that Wreaths adopted a circular shape mirroring the crown of Christ. Our ancestors believed that evergreen plants were magical because unlike other plants they didn’t die back and shed their leaves in winter. Additionally many evergreen plants like Holly produce long lasting berries which were a symbol of life and fertility. Plants like Ivy who’s berries persist long into winter as well as being evergreen climb and entwine representing matrimony and togetherness. Strongly scented sprigs of conifer would have hidden the foul odours of winter (no fridges back then so perishable foods would not last long even when dried and salted and would produce a pungent smell)

Key items used in wreaths include Holly Ilex aquifolium which is pollinated by Honey bees and Andrena mining bees who’s short tongues are well equipped to manipulate the strongly scented but visually insignificant flowers. Ivy flowers are pollinated by a wide variety of insects and are a valued autumn forage source but has its own special pollinator the Ivy Mining Bee Colletes hedera which only collects pollen from Ivy and times its emergence to the opening of the Ivy flowers.