To bee or not to bee, that is the gardener's question

The British love of animals is to be put to the test with a scheme to encourage suburban householders to keep bees. Oxford University scientists have developed special nesting boxes for people to rear wild bees, which the academics are trumpeting as the perfect "pet pollinators" for keen gardeners.

The British love of animals is to be put to the test with a scheme to encourage suburban householders to keep bees. Oxford University scientists have developed special nesting boxes for people to rear wild bees, which the academics are trumpeting as the perfect "pet pollinators" for keen gardeners.

Unlike domesticated honeybees, which live in colonies of thousands, most wild bees are solitary creatures that rear their young in individual nests, dug in the ground or in crevices in walls or wooden fences.

The scientists believe the number of nesting sites available to bees in the typical garden has dwindled over the years. The answer they say is to introduce specially designed nesting boxes.

Chris O'Toole, head of bee systematics at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, has identified a species of wild bee called the red mason bee as the best pollinator.

"The red mason bee is not aggressive," said Mr O'Toole. "A female will sting only if very roughly handled between the fingers and even then [the sting] is a puny thing compared to a wasp or honeybee."

The red mason bee, named after its tendency to nest in the soft masonry of old brickwork, is widespread in England and Wales and enjoys feeding on garden flowers and trees.

The red mason bee works hard at pollinating flowers. It flies even on cold days and can visit between 15 and 21 flowers a minute compared to the honeybee's 11 flowers a minute.

"Not only will you notice improved fruit crops - apples, plums, pears, strawberries and raspberries - but the bees also visit a wide range of garden flowers," Mr O'Toole said.

The Oxford nesting boxes consist of a circular case containing between 30 and 300 individual plastic tubes of the precise diameter favoured by broody bees.

Female red masons build a succession of between 10 and 15 "cells" in each tube, each containing an egg and a meal of pollen mixed with a little nectar. The young develop over winter to emerge as adult bees the following spring.

The initial plan is to sell empty nest boxes by mail order to encourage passing red mason bees to set up home. In 2001, the scientists plan to send out nests that are already occupied with bee larvae.

Although the bees are solitary and do not need worker bees to help rear their young, they are gregarious and like to nest in groups. One nesting bee will naturally attract others and daughter bees will return to the same nesting site to establish a permanent breeding group, the scientists said.

David Sheppard, an ecologist at English Nature said one species of bumblebee is already thought to be extinct because of the cutting of farm meadows before they flower, and the lack of traditional flowers in suburban gardens.

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