How We Can Make a Difference to the Life of Bees


Newly single after ten years, I was uprooted from my home and garden and nearly lost my mind. My books in storage, my plants in pots, my soul buried in some patch of earth I no longer had access to. I tried being a sort of nomad gardener; I gardened in an allotment, the shared house I lived in for a while, the gardens of friends who let me stay with them for a few weeks at a time. But it wasn’t the same. You can’t form an attachment to temporary things, fall in love, be so careless with your heart. Well, you can, but it only causes you more pain. And I try to avoid pain, on the whole, these days. – Kate Bradbury

A bumblebee lands on the wall, stops awhile, combs the hairs of her thorax with her little brush legs. She’s a red-tail, all crushed-velvet black coat and bright-orange bottom. She’s perfect and beautiful. I pretend she’s a descendant of long-gone Adrienne, coming to tell me they’re OK and thank you after all. I take her as a sign, a talisman. It’s a warm day and I wonder if she’s hot, busy from gathering pollen for her siblings. I check the bird bath for water, make sure there’s a stone in it for bees and wasps to rest while they drink. We sit together in the sun, she combing her hair, me watching. Adrienne’s daughter stops combing, settles, as if thinking, as if pondering what to do next. I suppose I might have a drink, she says, I suppose I should get back to work. She half-heartedly gets up and buzzes, lazily, to the nearest borage flower, has a drink of nectar, moves on. She buzzes among other bees, from the borage to the honeywort, the chives to cranesbills. Only the last of these blooms remain, globe artichoke and agapanthus almost ready to take over.

She returns to her little bit of wall, bit of shade, returns to combing. I wonder where her nest is. An abandoned garden maybe, a bit of brownfield land, an allotment. Perhaps celebrated in a well-tended and loved garden – we’ve got bees! Yes! I hope so. Red-tails can nest in walls, under sheds, in old mouse holes, an old duvet thrown out into the yard. If you build it they will come, if you don’t they may come anyway.

But it would matter hugely if we gave them a helping hand. If we stop razing gardens and paving them over, drowning what’s left with poison and suspicion. What could this land become if we just let things be? If we learned to love a bit more, to let things work themselves out. If we outlawed slate chippings and weed-suppressant membrane? If we grew out of this horrid obsession with ‘outdoor rooms’, paved-over front gardens, fenced-off land, convenience. How happier we would be – look after the bees and everything will follow. Everything including us.

Mum called me today. For a chat, she said. She’s not eating enough vegetables and she wants me to bring some from the garden on my next visit. She wants to eat some fish. She’s doing so well but I wish she could see it. She’s 80 per cent fixed but sees 20 per cent still broken. She’s beating her friends at Scrabble again, completing the hard Sudoku. She’s amazing. The doctors and nurses are amazing. The resilience of living things is amazing. Today I understand half of what she says. I correctly guess a quarter and pretend to know the rest. I’ll get there, she says.

The bee stirs again, engages her flight muscles, lifts herself up and over the flowers, higher and away as a helicopter rising into the clouds. As she ascends I imagine her view; the garden becomes smaller and more far away, the walls irrelevant, unseen, the divided patches of land as one. Off she goes into the blue, high above the houses with people crammed in them, the roofs and chimneys with the seagulls, the mossy gutters, the laughing starlings, the jackdaws. What does a fragmented, fenced-off land look like from up there? What would it look like if we all made our gardens better, joined them together?

Gardens linked all the way to the train tracks, the train linking Hove to Brighton, to London, to Mum, to the garden, to every garden I have loved and lost and every bit of land that’s ever been wild. Ever. Higher and higher she flies until all she can see is green, habitat-rich networks allowing all to travel, feed and breed. Life pulsing through Britain’s veins.

Far below her now the woman sits on the lawn in her little parcel of recovered land. Grass sways in the breeze, flowers nod to lure bees. There are holly blue and speckled wood butterflies, a lone red admiral soaking up the sun. Leaves hide hoppers and miners, aphids and flies. Above the pond a second generation of common darter dragonflies dances for a mate. Life. It just needs a chance. We just need to give it a chance.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Muddy Hands by Kate Bradbury, Bloomsbury is out now, £9.99stg.


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