As Christmas approaches and people get ready for the festive period, let’s look at how bees contribute to our most cherished traditions.
Your Christmas Roast Dinner
It may surprise you to learn that whether you have a turkey, goose, gammon, a joint of beef or even a nut roast for your main meal, this was only possible with the help of bees.
In the wild, turkey, geese and pigs are all omnivores, feeding from a variety of seeds, fruits and invertebrates, which exist in a natural food web reliant on bees and other insect pollinators to assist plants at the base of the food chains. Cows and sheep are primarily grass eaters, but even here the quality of their grazing depends on other plants such as clover, and other nitrogen-fixing flowering plants pollinated by bees and other insect pollinators.
Even on large farms, animals are fed pellets made up predominantly of maize and wheat, with soya beans and/or field peas as a source of protein again requiring pollination.
No bird served at the table would be complete without stuffing, which typically contains onions, herbs and spices, all pollinated by a variety of mainly solitary bee species. The Onion Yellow Faced Bee collects its pollen exclusively from onions. Although still common in parts of continental Europe, this species is sadly thought extinct in the UK.
Roast Carrots, Parsnips and Brussel Sprouts
Root crops don’t directly require pollination to produce edible vegetables, but each plant starts as a seed produced by specialised growers every year and their host plants require efficient pollination in order to create plenty of seeds. The flowers of these plants are typically tiny and are usually visited by hoverflies, small beetles and solitary bees such as the carrot mining bee, which is solely reliant on carrots for pollen to feed its offspring. Brussel sprouts and all other members of the Brassica family, such as cabbage and kale, similarly depend on bees for seed production each year.
Roast potatoes cooked in goose fat are a Christmas tradition and, as with root vegetables, bees are not directly required to set the underground tubers, but again bees are required to breed new varieties of potato. As these plants originated in South America, there are no native pollinators in Europe, so instead potato breeders use commercially reared Buff-tailed bumblebees to pollinate the seed potato plants. By chance, they vibrate their bodies at just the correct frequency to allow the potato seed plants to shed their pollen.
The grapes that produce the raisins and currants in the dried fruit mix are self-pollinating, but being in place for up to 100 years, they depend on high-quality soil which is usually planted with a variety of flowering cover crops to keep the soil healthy. Many vineyards, therefore, have beehives to boost the effectiveness of the cover crops and to get a honey harvest to supplement their income. The cherries, apricots and plums (prunes) that also make up most dried fruit mixes are all early flowering trees pollinated by a variety of solitary bees such as Andrena Mining bees and Red Mason Bees, as well as Bumble bees, all of which can forage in temperatures too cool for most Honeybees.
Nuts were vitally important to our ancestors as an excellent source of fat and protein that could be collected and then easily stored for consumption in the winter. Archaeologists have identified many Neolithic sites by the huge piles of roasted hazelnut shells left at their camps, which were clearly important to them and echoes of that tradition remain today in the purchase and consumption of various nuts at Christmas. Over 90% of the world’s Almonds now originate from California in vast mono-culture orchards across 810,000 acres in the Central Valley. Each year 81 Billion honey bees from 1.6 million hives pollinate over 2.5 trillion Almond blossoms in what is the largest insect migration on the Planet. Beekeepers use over 6,000 trucks to migrate the bees in colonies from all across the United States. It’s clear that this is completely unsustainable both in the vast volumes of water required to grow these trees from rapidly reducing groundwater aquifers and the total reliance on transported honeybees to pollinate them.
Apples and Oranges
In my family and many others, there is a tradition of always placing a small apple or orange inside the Christmas stocking. This practice again goes back thousands of years when ancient people across Europe made gifts and sacrifices of Apples and Oranges around the time of the winter solstice. The ripe fruit was the colour of the sun and a symbol of the return of spring and warmer weather, which brought relief to the cold northern winters. Historically, Honeybees have been kept in and near Apple orchards, and whilst they pollinate these trees, they are completely outshone by the Orchard Mason Bee which is so much more efficient at pollinating Apples that just 300 female bees can perform the pollination role of 90,000 honey bees!
The Christmas Wreath
Christmas wreaths predate Christmas and Christianity by several thousand years. Originally, ancient Britains and other northern Europeans would have made loose hanging wreaths (basically just a bundle of greenery tied at the top and hung from the walls of their home) to warn off winter spirits. It is only later, with the rise of the Christian churches, that Wreaths adopted a circular shape mirroring the crown of Christ. Many evergreen plants like Holly produce long-lasting berries which were a symbol of life and fertility. Strongly scented sprigs of conifer would have hidden the foul odours of winter. Both the Holly and the Ivy are pollinated by several solitary bees as well as Honey bees. Flowering Ivy has a dedicated pollinator in the Ivy Mining Bee, which only collects pollen from the Ivy and times its emergence to the opening of the Ivy flowers in Autumn.
Candles bring light and warmth to the home at Christmas. Beeswax candles are smokeless and give out daylight, which is why they were used in churches for centuries. In addition, Christmas candles are often scented with extracts such as vanilla pods from the tropics and Frankincense and Myrrh, which are both derived from the resin of exotic trees native to the horn of Africa and all are once again pollinated by our little flying friends.
Having enjoyed all that the bees have given us this Christmas, why not give a little back and think about planting your garden, window box or balcony with some flowers to help them out or create a wild area in your garden to allow our precious pollinators to hibernate safely over the autumn and winter.