Bees aren’t just beautiful, they are vital, reports Wendy Tobitt from the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT)

Next time you’re walking through a park in the sunshine or sitting in a garden, listen carefully and you’ll hear the buzz: the sounds of dozens of bees flying from flower to flower sipping nectar and filling their pollen sacs.

Are these noisy insects that could sting you, or one of nature’s most beautiful, valuable and hard-working creatures?

Insect pollination has been valued at around £690 million per year for UK crop production, and many of the bees we hear and see around us are essential for pollinating fruits and vegetables that are grown in gardens and allotments.

In recent years the numbers of bees have declined, for a variety of reasons including use of pesticides and herbicides in farming, and diseases within bee colonies. Some species, such as the short-haired bumblebee, have died out completely.

So why are there so many bees in towns? Urban Pollinators, a recent three-year nationwide project, run by universities and conservation groups including the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, has found there are more species of bees in urban areas than in the neighbouring countryside.

This is mainly due to the wide range of plants and flowers in people’s gardens and allotments, and the urban nature havens such as Milham Ford Nature Park, which is carefully looked after by the New Marston Wildlife Group.

Oxford’s ‘bee champion’ Dr Judy Webb, has been observing bees and other pollinators at Milham Ford for more than 20 years, and is now working with Oxford City Council and community groups to encourage more pollinating insects to thrive in and around Oxford.

Judy is a member of the Pollinator Advisory Group, set up by Oxford City Council after last year’s Oxford Bee Summit, which is already making plans for wild flower meadows in eight city parks.

In Bury Knowle, Blackbird Leys, Hinksey Park, Florence Park and Magdalen Quarry new flower-rich areas will be laid out and sown this autumn with seeds of perennial wild flowers and herbs.

The meadow areas in Sunnymead will have even greater variety of wild flowers with the addition of species that are missing. In Cutteslowe, where there are already eight honeybee hives, the wild flower meadows will be extended.

Judy is drawing up a site-specific list of plants for the new meadows the city council is creating, and is keen to source locally-grown native plants that flower every year.

Seed from perennial wild flowers is likely to come from sites in and around Oxford, including Milham Ford Nature Park, where two seed collecting events are already lined up for July 26 and August 1, and also Aston’s Eyot, near Iffley, where local people have a pollinator project.

Bees need homes too, and on May 24 a group of Oxford Conservation Volunteers will be at Milham Ford to create a Bee Bank out of limestone and crumbly mortar — ideal material for solitary bees including mining and masonry bees.

Bee-friendly activity is continuing across the city with a new project launched this spring by Oxford’s Friends of the Earth group.

Creating a Buzz is working with faith communities to develop the green spaces around their buildings with wild flowers and bee homes. The project includes workshops, events and bee-themed celebrations, planting nectar-rich flowers, and training bee champions.

And there’s lots of advice for people who want to encourage more bees and other pollinating insects into their gardens.

The Wildlife Trust’s Oxford Festival of Nature in June is hosting events such as workshops to make bug hotels, wildlife gardening activities, and visits to Rosybee specialist plant nursery in Steventon. This is where plants-woman and beekeeper Rosi Rollings not only grows plants for bees, but also researches which ones are most nectar-rich at different times of the year.

There’s room on every balcony, patio and landscaped area around business parks for nectar-rich plants to attract bees and other pollinators, keeping Oxfordshire’s city and towns buzzing with life.