I was kindly asked by Interflora to write a guest blog on plants for bees (below), as part of their campaign promoting bee awareness. I’ve described my top 5 bee plants along the lines of a kind of botanical Desert Island Discs. I’m not sure which one I would take with me if all the others were washed away… What would your top 5 be?
As the countryside becomes more and more of a green desert, gardeners have an increasingly important role to play to help bees. What can you do? One of the most critical things for all pollinators is access to food sources for as long as possible throughout the year. This is true for honey bees, which need varying amounts of nectar and pollen depending on what’s going on in the hive. I’ve picked my top 5 honey bee plants for all year round forage in the garden, which will help other pollinators too. Diversity is a key requirement for bee health too, so I’m not suggesting you stop with these 5!
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust reckon that Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) is perhaps the ultimate bumblebee plant – and it’s not bad for honey bees either. Native plants aren’t grown enough in gardens, and this is a classic example of one which looks really good in a border, especially when grown in groups. By definition, our native flora is good for our native fauna. Like the wild Foxglove, Viper’s Bugloss is a biennial with loads of nectar, but it flowers endlessly, from June to September, and does well in the sun in dry, well drained, even sandy soils. In the wild it’s distributed throughout England, and it deserves a place in everyone’s garden as well.
One of the reasons Bugloss is such a good plant is that it flowers during a midsummer gap when there is surprisingly little forage about and honey bee colonies are at their biggest and hungriest. Look around in June/July and you’ll be surprised how little colour you see in gardens or countryside. Professor Francis Ratnieks, one of our leading honey bee scientists, is very keen on helping colonies through this period. Ask Francis for the best plant for gardeners to grow for honey bees and he will tell you without hesitation that it’s lavender. Why? Lavenders are certainly rich in nectar, but the most important thing about them is that they flower through the gap. Early research suggests that the larger lavender cultivars are the best for bees, and you can find varieties from fragrant white to luscious dark purple. Look for the hardier and less picky Lavandula angustifolia or Lavandin x intermedia cultivars for individual plants or to make a lovely hedge.
As honey bees’ colonies decline from mid-summer, the bees work even harder to bring in food to store for the winter months. Among native plants Ivy is the best late nectar plant, but you can do really well for bees and butterflies with Sedum spectabile, which flowers from September. Sedums are forgiving, easy plants to grow and look lovely in groups at the front of a border. Their flowers are easily accessible for honey bees, with their relatively short tongues, and you’ll also find them popular with young queen bumblebees, fattening themselves up to over-winter.
Things can get really tough for bees in the winter months, and not because of the cold; it’s warmer winters which can be problematic for them. Why? On warm winter days honey bees will fly, and without available forage they use up their honey stores too quickly and starve. Active bumblebee queens will also die, as they use up their fat reserves. Gardeners can do their bit to help by providing winter nectar to help see them through. There are several very attractive and fragrant varieties of Mahonia which flower in the dead of winter – as opposed to early spring – which do the trick very nicely, and will site comfortably in a shadier spot. They have healthy looking, glossy foliage when not in flower, and their berries are good for the birds. Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is one of my favourites.
Once spring is springing the honey bee colony starts building up again. At the beginning of its cycle it needs pollen to feed its new brood, which can initially be in short supply. A great source for it at this time of year is crocuses; you can see the bees flying back to the hive with their distinctive orange pollen from February. Crocuses are pretty, easy plants to grow, and will naturalize easily in your lawn. Go for varieties of Early Crocus, Crocus tommasinianus, which are easy to find and cheap. The bulbs should be planted in autumn.