Bees are synonymous with the perfect English summer’s day. Any portrait of rural Britain would be incomplete without our plump and furry little friends, but what many don’t know is that these small little insects that works so tirelessly and quietly around us, have played a vital role in the development of the human race.
Without them it’s unlikely that flowers would have evolved their diverse and alluring colouration, and they’re responsible for pollinating a staggering 70% of the food we eat in Britain. Their existence has helped feed both our soul and stomach, and without them agriculture as we know it would collapse.
Alarming statistics from Friends of the Earth suggest that over recent years the British Bee population has declined by a third since 2007, and in the 1950’s there were over 50 native species of bee in the UK, yet now there are just 25.
While the exact cause of the decline remains unknown, it’s speculated that a combination of climate change, the use of pesticides, genetically modified crops and the Varroa mite – an external parasitic mite that attacks bees and spreads the virus to the entire colony – are all contributing factors.
Without their industry and pollination, many wildflowers, plants and animals that form the basis of complex food chains would all suffer if bees disappeared.
However all is not lost, there are steps that we can all take to ensure that our gardens and window boxes include bee-friendly plants that will ensure that they have a sustainable level of nectar and pollen at key times throughout the year.
The most common types are bumblebees, honeybees and solitary bees. While bumblebees and honeybees live in hives, solitary bees – as the name implies – don’t live in colonies. Solitary bees usually make nests in the ground, in sandy soil and along paths.
Bumblebees build nests both above and below ground. Below ground nests can include abandoned holes, under sheds and in compost heaps, with above ground nests being made in clumps and tufts of thick grass, in bird boxes, lofts and in trees.
Honeybees can thrive in natural or domesticated environments, though they prefer to live in gardens, woodlands, orchards, meadows and other areas where flowering plants are abundant. They can build nests inside tree cavities and under edges of objects to hide themselves, essentially they want a nest that is large enough to accommodate a growing colony, is well-drained and hidden from predators.
Bees do not like to nest in areas with prolonged exposure to the sun, as this can cause excessive heat throughout the nest.
While you may have the urge to ensure your garden look pristine, neat and orderly, you can help by not cutting back everything. If you can, leave some sheltered areas of grass for the bees. If you’re pruning shrubs you can leave some of the cuttings in the corners of the garden while letting the vegetation grow naturally. Habitats that while small, can help attract bees to your garden.
Bees need both nectar and pollen in order to feed their offspring. Different types of bees will require types of flower depending on the length of their tongue. Long-tongued bees feed on tubular flowers such as Penstemon, while short-tongued bees prefer flatter flowers like Daisy’s and Geranium’s.
By including a variety of “bee-friendly” flowers in your garden, you can encourage all species at key times throughout the year. A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least two kinds of bee-friendly plant for each flowering period.
Flowers for spring
Typically most bees will emerge from hibernation in February and March, and one of their first priorities in early spring will be to gather food for the next generation. A selection of flowers that will provide pollen and nectar during spring would include:
- Fruit Trees
- Grape hyacinth
- White Deadnettle
- Red deadnettle
- Yellow Archangel
Flowers for summer
In the summer months bee activity is at its most prolific. In bumblebee colonies the queen would have already produced many offspring, and will be searching for a variety of suitable flowers. These can include:
- Corn marigold
- Field Scabious
- Globe Thistle
- Hedge Woundwort
- Lambs Ears
- Meadow Clary
- Ox-eye Daisy
- Purple Loosestrife
- Red Campion
- Red Clover
- Sea holly
- Viper’s Bugloss
- White Clover
- Wild Clary
- Wild Marjoram
Dandelions are also incredibly important as they provide an early nectar source for emerging bees and continue to do so throughout summer. Try to leave Dandelions in the grass for as long as possible or perhaps reserve an area of the lawn to let the Dandelions without being fearful of the lawn mower.
Flowers for autumn
After mating and feeding throughout the spring and summer, new queens will be searching for a suitable place to hibernate. However milder weather can encourage queens to start entirely new nests late in the autumn and even winter.
As summer ebbs away, the number of suitable flowers begins to decrease, but it’s important to remember that bees still need a continuous supply of pollen and nectar in order to prepare for hibernation. Flowers that can help stock nests during the colder months include:
- Cone flower
- Golden rod
- Ice Plant
- Michaelmas Daisy
- Perennial Sunflower
- Red Valerian
- Winter flowering Clematis
- Winter flowering heathers
- Winter flowering honeysuckle
Soil and pruning
The types of plants most suitable for your garden will vary in different parts of the country depending on the different type of soil, and specific species will prefer just one type species of plant (e.g. Bellflowers, Daisy’s and Pea family), and where possible choose single, native flowers as doubles often provide little or no pollen or nectar, ultimately providing little value to bees. So avoid packs of bedding plants (e.g. pansies) and if you want annuals, sow poppies, cornflowers and Corn Marigolds.
Also where space allows, plant bands of the same plant species so bees can easily find and move between flowers over a shorter distance.
By carefully pruning your plants you can increase the length of flowering in some species (e.g. geranium, red valerian) and give a second lease of life to others. Look for gaps in flowering and fill them with a suitable alternative, and often against your better judgement try to leave dead stems on plants that can provide shelter for many bees over the winter.
Planting a hedgerow
Planting a hedgerow is another great addition to any bee garden. A flowering hedgerow will provide food for all types of bees, and bumblebees may find an abandoned rodent hole at the base of the hedge – a popular spot for building a nest.
Ideally you should not disturb hedges between March and September when they may be providing a nesting site, and if you can, leave trimming them to 2-3 year intervals.
Chemical fertilisers and pesticides
Most importantly, please refrain from using chemical fertilisers or pesticides on both flowers and hedges in your garden. A report by Friends of the Earth shows that a number “bee-friendly” plants contain systemic pesticides that can cause severe harm to the bee population. Neonicotinoid pesticides are the major concern and the European Union is so concerned that it has banned these pesticides on flowering crops.
Pesticides damage the ability for bees to gather food, they can considerably reduce the yield of cross pollinated crops, reduce the production of honey and can kill entire colony’s.
We can often take the humble bee for granted, but our quality of life, the beauty of our countryside and much of our food all depends on the many services that bees supply for free. By turning your garden is a haven for bees, we can help to save many of these important species from extinction.
This post was written by Wildflower Favours. An eco-friendly business that provides vintage wedding favours that promotes the growth of wildflowers through seed paper and packets.