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Bee Garden

No English garden is complete without its bees, and Kew is no exception.
A beekeeper inspects a hive of bees in Kew's wildflower area

Where to find bees at Kew

The home of Kew's bees has moved from its previous location near Elizabeth Gate to the plant family beds. The abundant flowers in these beds, the nearby Kitchen Garden, Salvia Border and Rock Garden will provide ample food (nectar and pollen) for the bees over most of the year.

Honeybees will travel over 5 kilometres to forage for food, so can choose from a vast menu at Kew. The bees from our colonies have been seen drinking from the water fountain in the Secluded Garden on hot summer days.

Kew's bee hives

The two modern hives look quite different from each other, but are in fact the same structure; one has a white outer casing. The basic-looking one is called a National hive and the other one, with the white outer casing, is a WBC hive, named after its designer William Broughton Carr. The larger, lower box is called a 'brood chamber' and is where the colony lives. The floor below the brood chamber has a step at the front and an entrance through which the bees enter and leave the hive. These hives grow taller as more 'supers' (extra layers) are added, as the honeycomb is formed inside them by the bees and filled with honey. The queen bee is excluded from the honey 'supers' on the top of the hive so that the cells are filled with honey and not eggs or young bees.

Honeybees work together as a colony and each bee has an important role in the life of the hive. Each hive has a queen bee, a small number of male drones (as many as a few hundred in summer) and the rest of the bees are female workers – who act as cleaners, nurses, guards, scouts (looking for food) and foragers (gathering nectar and pollen).

Kew staff check the bees in the hives regularly and remove honey in late summer.  Unfortunately there is not enough honey produced to sell to the public - but it is very popular with staff in the Gardens!

Kew's other bees

Joining the honeybee hives, 4 bumblebee nest boxes have been set up in the plant family beds. They are currently inhabited by Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) colonies, but since bumblebee colonies are rather short lived and die in late summer, occupancy may vary. Bumblebees are social like honeybees, with one queen and many worker bees. Their colonies stay much smaller, though, with only a few hundred bumblebees at most, compared to 20,000 to 60,000 in a honeybee hive.

You can spot at least 8 out of the 24 UK bumblebee species around the garden, including the Common Carder Bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum), or the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum).

Most bee species at Kew are solitary bees. In these bee species, a single female provisions a brood chamber with pollen and nectar, on which she lays her egg. She then closes the chamber without providing further brood care. Many solitary bees like the mining bees (Andrena) build their nest in the soil, but other species nest above ground in cavities. You can find observation nest boxes for cavity nesting bees like the Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) on one of the brick walls of Kew’s Kitchen Garden.

Kew’s plant diversity supports over 50 different bee species, including the tiny Harebell Carpenter-bee (Chelostoma campanularum), the Bryony Mining-bee (Andrena florea), or the big Wood-carving Leaf-cutter (Megachile ligniseca). While it is often only the honeybee that gets most of the attention, these other bee species are at least as vital for pollination of wild and cultivated plants.

Under threat

Bees make an important contribution to gardens, agriculture and wild ecosystems, pollinating flowers and in the process helping them produce seed. Scientists have estimated that bees and other pollinators provide hundreds of millions of pounds worth of pollination services to British agriculture every year.

However, bee populations have been declining over the past decades. Habitat change and loss, diseases and pesticides have all taken their toll. 32% of all British bee species are now listed as threatened in the UK Insect Red Data Book. At Kew, we are studying the role of plants in bee health to support bee populations in the future.

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