Did you know that the British Army is providing much-needed homes for several species of bees, some of which are Britain's most endangered native species?

 This week as part of Bees Needs Week, an annual event coordinated by the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), we highlight some of the work being done across the Defence estate by Army and civilian personnel to create bee-friendly environments to help ensure the pollinators are protected for the future.

Bee nests or hotels as they are often referred to, can be found on sites across the Defence Estate including Donnington, Bicester, West Moors, Gosport and Abbey Wood with more planned.

Made of different sized hollow tubes, a bee hotel is a great way to help solitary bees, including Red Mason bees, by providing much needed shelter. A bee will live there from the time it is laid as an egg until it is ready to emerge.

Working with the Praise Bee charity, volunteers at the sites erect and monitor nests to discover if there are any bees at their location. If they remain empty then, working in conjunction with Defence Infrastructure Organisation ecologists, they will consider pre-loading the nests with bee pupae next year.

Lee Sanderson, who is the Environmental Protection Estates Officer at Defence Equipment Support is a Trustee for the pollination charity Praise Bee and volunteers his skills to support them. He said: “We are looking after the Red Mason bee which was specifically chosen because it is low maintenance. It does not produce honey and has no sting, so it poses no threat to staff.

 “It just feels immensely rewarding to be part of something that is genuinely making a difference. The support of pollinating insects is so important to our food chain.”

 Meanwhile at the British Army’s Headquarters are passionate beekeepers Lieutenant Colonel Donald Watt and his wife Lieutenant Colonel Ruth Littlejohns. They have several apiaries of honey bees, one of which is at the Army Headquarters.  Unlike most other British bees, honey bees will be hunkered down in their hive over Winter. The larger colonies will now be 40,000-60,000 strong but will start to decline in late August and by January will reduce to around 10,000, ready to start building up for the next summer.”

 Colonel Donald, who also keeps bees at home, said: “The bees will go to where they think the fodder is best.  We have lots of bee friendly plants around our home, and I would urge others to do likewise, but when the horse chestnuts are in flower at Land Warfare Centre our bees go there – or at least we suspect they do as they come back with loads of red pollen and the amount of propolis increases!”

 Located a short distance away in Westbury at the home of the Army Officer Selection Board  (AOSB) assessment centre is Lieutenant Colonel Jane Watt who is responsible for an apiary located in the walled garden on the site supported by Ruth and Donald.  All are members  of the Wiltshire Beekeeping Association and have completed a variety of beekeeping courses some of which were part funded by DEFRA.

 Colonel Jane said: “We had honeybees at home as a child and the whole idea seemed rather terrifying.  I wanted to challenge myself to overcome this preconception.

“It is impossible to think about anything else whilst handling the bees, a good de-stressor. I am also slightly in awe of a bee colony – it is a fantastically efficient entity – with bees designated to roles such as undertakers, nurses, foragers, cleaners and guards.”

 The honeybees at AOSB have already produced over 40lbs of honey this year which is sold to the staff on site. All funds raised goes towards the cost of maintaining the honeybees.

Bees are an essential part of our environment and play a crucial role in food production. Everyone can help them flourish by making small changes including leaving patches of garden to grow wild and cutting grass less often.

Alison Cobb
Army Press Office Central England and Wales