The Bees Needs

Posted on: 08 April 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

We are all used to the idea of putting out food for the birds, but there is one other little creature in our garden – one now believed to be just as important to our ecology – that could benefit from some help from us: the humble bee.


I’m not talking about creating a fancy apian-feeding station, but we could all think about making our gardens more supportive for our 250+ species of native bee.  Why bother?  Because our ecosystem depends on bees and globally, their numbers are fast-diminishing.  In the UK alone, the bee population reportedly declined by around 30% across 2007 and 2008.

The implications are alarming: bees pollinate many of the plants and food crops which we consume.  Without bees, not only will be fewer fruit and vegetables available, prices will sky-rocket  and  as bees pollinate most kinds of animal feed, their demise has an impact on the rest of the food chain too.

All kind of theories are being put forward for the demise of bees: parasites, pesticides, global warming, GM crops and even mobile phones radiation. Colony Collapse Disaster (CCD) has led to commercial hives being abandoned by bees worldwide, although in the UK, DEFRA has yet to officially confirm any cases here, although one of London’s biggest commercial bee keepers has recently reported that more than half of his hives have mysteriously been abandoned.

While the scientists try to work out what is going on, we can do our bit:  the same way that households across the land have helped the British field-bird population to survive, we can now do the same for bees.

Feed For Bees

There are two main ways to help, the first of which is to simply grow nectar-rich plants that feed bees.  Generally, a garden that has lots of flowering plants will be bee-friendly, though avoid varieties that are double-flowered, because it makes it hard to reach the nectar, as well as often being sterile. 

Make sure that there is something available all year round, because bees have prolonged periods of activity.  For instance, I’ve spotted bees buzzing around as early as February.  Winter flowering heather provides an early source of nectar, as do cowslips and wallflowers.   Don’t forget flowering shrubs, particularly mahonia varieties, which provide nectar in winter.   Another bee-choice is pyracantha, the Firethorn bush.  Flowers in summer are followed by autumn and winter berries loved by the birds, so pyracantha has a double benefit.

In high summer, there are lots of plants that bees love, including many that are familiar in our gardens.  Good old Snapdragon, the antirrhinum, is beloved of bees and butterflies alike.  Easy to grow from seed, many garden centres also sell handy plug plants.

Another useful annual is borage, an attractive herb that can be sown directly where it is to grow, or in pots for transplanting later.  The added bonus is that borage is a prolific self-seeder and its pretty starry blue flowers are a traditional addition to a glass of Pimms. Indeed, the herb garden is a good place for bees, with the blooms of thyme, lemon balm, hyssop, marjoram, lavender, sage, mint and chives all providing much needed food.

One of my favourite bee-friendly plants is lythrum salicaria, our native Purple Loosestrife, also available in cultivars of pink and red.  We grow masses of loosestrife in our garden and in summer, at any time from dawn to dusk, each clump might be host to 50 bees having a snack.  It also has the advantage of blooms from mid-summer right into August.

As the summer draws on, nectar sources will start to diminish, so think about later flowering plants.  An obvious choice is bergamot, also known as ‘Bee Balm’, which as its name suggests, is popular with these threatened insects.  Perennial asters not only provide the garden with colour in early autumn, they also give bees some much needed food too.  

Give A Bee A Home

Apart from nectar sources, the other way gardeners can help is to create habitats in which bees can live.  Bumblebees like a nest that is about the same size as a small bird box, but with two rooms, one filled with wood shavings for the queen to breed in, and the other an empty compartment in which the rest of the colony will live.  Fix somewhere sunny and with the entrance facing downwards away from rain.

Mason bees live in the hollows of old woody stems, such as brambles.  An easy way to make a multi-occupancy hotel for mason bees is to cut up short lengths of bamboo cane and tie them together, or it is now possible to buy mason bee nest ready-made.  The best location is against a wall, fence, or under the eaves of a shed.

What about keeping a hive of honey bees?  This may sound dangerous, but most beekeepers would argue that it is pretty safe, as long as the right precautions are taken.  It is even possible to keep honey bee hives in city centres and indeed, this is rapidly becoming a fashionable, growing hobby. 

Bumble, mason and honey bees are just three bee species in the UK that we can help.  Many of the others are solitary species and will live alongside us as long as the conditions are right.  It helps to leave a few spots in the garden ‘untidied’ - offering bees and other wildlife a choice of places to set up home -  as well as gardening as organically as possible and realising accepting that ‘perfect’ is not compatible with nature.   I don’t mind the local leaf-cutter bee making holes in my rosebush foliage if it means the bee stands a chance of survival.

Living alongside bees is vital for our environment and very easy to achieve.  So when planning your garden for 2009, think about the birds AND the bees.

Further Reading - list of bee friendly plants  - one of many suppliers selling mason bee nests -  site about honey bees and bee-keeping

By Maxine Farmer

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