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RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2023: how to help save the bees even in the smallest outside space — and why we should

 (The Newt)
(The Newt)

“When the bees go, it’s just before we do”, says Paula Carnell, head beekeeper at The Newt in Somerset, and custodian of the immersive ‘beehive’ the hotel is presenting at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Carnell is making an impassioned case for the importance of nurturing bee habitats, and one that the Newt is promoting as headline sponsor of the event.

“We’re trying to help people understand the real importance of bees. They are dying in our environment and we’re in that environment too – we have to realise that we cannot harm bees without harming ourselves,” Carnell continues.

Standing inside the Newt’s Beezantium, an interactive installation offering human visitors a “bees’ eye view” in the form of a giant honeycomb housed in the scaled-up beehive building, within a bee-friendly garden, the human-bee interaction is particularly clear.

Why so much focus on bees? “They are an indicator species like the polar bears in the Arctic,” says Carnell. “When you start to notice bees it has knock-on effects for you to notice the whole ecosystem. It’s so important that gardeners understand the value of the wide range of pollinators. In the UK we have 275 species of bee, only one of them is a honey bee.”

In addition bees provide a popular route in to learning about biodiversity and ecology. “Intuitively humanity is drawn to learn from the bees.” All major world religions use bees as symbolism, Carnell points out, saying: “we’ve become detached from it but we know there’s something we need to learn from the bees.”

The good news is that, while we cannot singlehandedly beat an agricultural system that can seem intent on wiping out bee populations by destroying habitats and spraying poisonous chemicals, there are relatively accessible and simple steps we can all take that will help encourage these essential parts of our ecosystem to thrive.

Surprisingly, this is especially possible in urban areas like London. In the countryside trees are being cut down, while cereal crops take precedence over floral hedges, meaning there’s nothing to feed bees.

“Like foxes, bees are being forced into urban areas because there is not the forage in the countryside. Each colony of honey bees needs one acre of flowering plants. A big lime tree, like the ones growing behind the beezantium, will produce the equivalent of five acres of flowers,” says Carnell. “This is where urban areas are so good.”

How to encourage bees in your own outside space

  • “If you plant the right flowers, the bees will come,” says Carnell. Look for simple, open flowers that offer easy access to nectar

  • Biodiversity is key, choose a wide range of different flowers

  • Plant in clumps of the same plant. “If you’ve only got a window box, choose herbs that will flower all year round, say thyme or mint, which have lots of little flowers on each plant.”

  • “Think about what you’ve got flowering throughout the year that will feed the bees in your neighbourhood. A holly bush is also a good commonly found option. Even ivy growing up a building can be beneficial because it flowers when there’s not much else around,” says Carnell.

  • Carnell urges aspiring beekeepers to think beyond the honey. “Think about it as providing a home for bees, rather than buying bees in and make sure that if you are having bees, you are doing so for the environment, not so you can have honey. If you want to save bees plant flowers, don’t just have a beehive.”