The Secret Lives of Garden Bees Interview
An Interview with author and bee champion Jean Vernon
Why write a book about bees?
I wanted to spread the love for bees. I know that sounds corny, but I’d learned so much about these precious creatures and I wanted to share it. The more I learned the more amazed and fascinated I became and the more frustrated I was with the basic information that people seemed to have about bees. I wanted to scream from the rooftop how important insects and pollinators are and I wanted people to understand that there are dozens of different bees, not just honeybees.
Where does your fascination of bees originate from and what are your earliest bee memories?
I’ve been obsessed by plants and gardens since I was a toddler. I grew up in suburbia but we had an allotment, and I soon became fascinated by the bees that pollinated the raspberries and runner beans. I loved to watch them climb onto the ruby red bean flowers and wriggle into the flower. I learned quickly that plants cant move to find their partner, instead pollen needs to be moved from flower to flower to enable pollination. I learned how to pollinate our courgettes flowers by removing the anthers and placing them into the female flowers. What I didn’t know was that we had to do that because the squash bee that would normally pollinate these plants didn’t live in the UK. I think when I realised that plants and bees had evolved together over millennia and some couldn’t survive without the other, I was hooked.
What aspects of bee behaviour do you particularly admire and what horrifies you?
I really admire the solitary bees. These are the single mums of bee world and they really have their work cut out for them. First it’s the male bees that hatch first – they are at the front of the nest, expendable I suppose, so if a woodpecker attacked the nest the males would be devoured and maybe the precious females at the back of the nest might survive. That’s amazing. But also when the males emerge first they disperse which actually prevents them from mating with their sisters. This expands the gene pool and reduces inbreeding. The males can get a bit keen waiting for the females to emerge and are known to drag them out of their nest to mate. That seems a bit brutal. And then the mated female builds a nest or two, lays each egg in a cell that she provisions with food, seals it up and repeats until she has no more eggs to lay. Then she dies. She never sees her offspring and she does all that work by herself.
If you had to pick one favourite out of the 276 species of bees what would it be and why?
Crumbs it’s hard to pick one, but I do have a few favourites. I love the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) because, well wow, we have our very own bumblebee. She has the longest tongue in bee world (UK) and when she flies she sometimes flies with her tongue out so she looks like a unicorn. I love the Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) because she combs the fluff of stachys plants to line her nest cells, weaving them into pouches. And because if you stake out a clump of lamb’s ears in summer that’s the bee you are likely to find. I love the snail nester bee because she chooses empty snail shells to make her nests, she weights them down with little stones so they don’t fill with rainwater, she seals them with masticated leaves and then she gathers blades of grass and builds a wigwam thatch over the top so that they are camouflaged before she dies.
If you could only plant three bee-friendly flowers in your garden what would you choose?
I’d choose my perennial oriental borage which flowers from Dec/Jan into April and is rich in nectar. Trachystemon orientalis. Then Hellebores because they are rich in nectar, have many flowers and each flower is like a little umbrella to shelter the bees from the rain as they feed. And then vipers bugloss (Echium vulgare) it’s a biennial but freely self seeds and the bees and hoverflies love it.
Over the past couple of years there has been a growing appreciation and understanding that us as gardeners need to make more effort to help improve habitat for wildlife. What advice would you give someone who I planning to redesign their garden to encourage more bees?
I’d say be careful of ripping up what you have. Spend a year with it and really understand what wildlife you already have there. Ideally you need a wild patch where wildflowers are allowed to flower and seed. But it’s not just about the flowers, think about the nesting habitats and also places where bees can overwinter. Queen bumblebees like to hunker down in north facing banks over winter where the odd sunny day won’t draw them out of their slumber. Mining bees need sunny, sandy soil to nest. Others use rotting wood, hollow stems, loose mortar and cobb walls to create nests for their developing offspring.
In January 2020 I called you for help when I was presented with a queen bee who had woken from hibernation early. What bee rescue action plan would you recommend to anyone who finds an ailing bee?
First check it is not sunbathing, trying to raise its energy levels out in the sun. If it’s obviously bedraggled or has been trapped then act fast. You need to put it somewhere safe where it won’t be trodden on. Make a 50:50 mix of sugar to water, warm water helps the sugar dissolve but make sure it is cool before you administer. Put a drop or two in front of the bee. If she is able she will poke her tongue into it and soak it up. In a few minutes she will fly off and you have done your job! You can make up a little pot of bee rescue and keep it handy, it saves time in an emergency. Word of warning though, don’t use honey as it can contain spores of bee diseases that might affect your ailing bee.
What are your top tips to help bees through summer and autumn?
Plant more flowers en masse so that the bees can feed effectively in the same area. Bees exhibit floral constancy which means they feed on the same flowers as much as possible until the food runs dry. Keep your summer bee plants well-watered, nectar is the first thing that dries up in a drought. STOP using all pesticides. Mow after dusk when the bees have gone to bed. Leave some of the lawn to flower, especially in late summer when there is often a dearth of flowers for bees. Make a bee bath so that the bees can drink water safely.
How do we help hibernating queens survive winter?
Be careful where you poke your trowel over autumn and winter as you could disturb a hibernating Queen bumblebee. Avoid working on loose soil of north facing banks. Just be aware that they could be anywhere and tread softly in the garden.
What resounding message do you hope readers take from book?
That bee world is a fascinating place with 276 different UK bee species in it. That only the honeybee makes honey. Don’t get me wrong I absolutely love honeybees, but actually it’s our wild bees that are in deeper trouble and need even more of our help. I’d like people to understand that keeping honeybees to save the bees is like keeping chickens to save the birds (sadly we don’t know who first said this – but it is so very true). But anything anyone does to support or ‘save’ the honeybee will in fact have a knock-on positive effect for our wild bees too.
Author signed copies of The Secret Lives of Garden Bees can be purchased at