Plants did not evolve flowers simply to bring beauty and joy to our lives. Flowers are all about sex – the transmission of DNA from male to female. In flowering plants this involves getting pollen (which contains the sperm) from the male flower structure (the anther) to the female (the ovary). Many plants, such a grasses, use the wind to do this, but the majority use animals – birds, bats, beetles, flies or … bees.
Bees belong to the great insect order Hymenoptera, which is dominated by various wasps, ants and sawflies. They are essentially wasps that have switched from a predatory, carnivorous lifestyle to one that involves collecting nectar and pollen from flowers (with some bees having evolved still further, to become cuckoos of other bees). There are many different types of bee. 275 species occur in Britain, of which 27 are bumblebees of the genus Bombus. The Honey Bee Apis mellifera was probably first brought to Britain by humans and most are still kept by beekeepers in artificial hives, although they sometimes form ‘wild’ colonies.
The oldest known fossil bee was found in amber dating from 83 million years ago. Bees and flowering plants have evolved together for millions of years in the best-known example of co-evolution. The bee is provided with food (nectar or pollen) and the plant has its pollen carried to other plants of the same species. Over millions of years plants have developed flowers with increasingly specialised features to attract visiting bees who, in turn, underwent physiological and behavioral adaptations to take advantage of the food offered by the plants.
Healthy populations of bees of all shapes and sizes are essential to the pollination of many plants, both cultivated and wild flowers. Our bee garden is designed to support bees through all stages of their lives: there are places to nest and overwinter ( ‘insect hotels’, old bird boxes, upturned flower pots, etc., as well as the bare ground needed by some bees), and a wide variety of nectar-producing plants.