5 Top Plants for Bees

My top plants for bees! Interflora kindly asked me to write a guest blog on the best plants for bees (below). This was 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. They’re all easy to grow and good for a variety of bees – honey bees, bumbles and solitaries – although I was asked to write with honey bees in mind in particular. I’m not sure which one I would take with me if all the others were washed away… What would your top 5 be? If you want an authoritative guide rather than this very brief introduction, I’d recommend Kirk & Howes, Plants for Bees. It’s fascinating.

As the countryside becomes more and more of a green desert, gardeners have an increasingly important role to play to help bees. Urban bees tend to be healthier than their country cousins. We think that’s because they have a more diverse diet and less exposure to chemicals. Gardens can be real oases for them, replicating rich natural habitats. So what can gardeners do to help ?

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 honeybees, 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! And do have a look at some TREES as well…

Other helpful general tips are simple. Don’t buy “double flowers”; pollinators find it very difficult or impossible to find their nectar. Don’t buy plants which have been treated with a neonicotinoid – these are systemic pesticides which will seriously affect any pollinator feeding off them. Ask your garden centre. Don’t use pesticides in the garden either, if you can possibly avoid it; your garden should be a haven of organic tranquillity!

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust reckon that Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) is perhaps the ultimate bumblebee plant – and it’s not bad for honeybees either. Native plants aren’t grown enough in gardens. 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. It 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.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

One of the reasons Bugloss is such a good plant is that it flowers during a midsummer gap. 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. Research suggests that the larger lavender cultivars are the best for bees. 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.

Sedum (Sedum spectabile)

As honey bees’ colonies decline from mid-summer, 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. You’ll also find them popular with butterflies and young queen bumblebees, fattening themselves up to over-winter.


Oregon Grape

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. They 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.

Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus)

Once spring is springing the honeybee 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.

What is Going on Out There?

When I was slogging through Physical Science O Level (Grade C, which shows there is a God) I think I assumed that the Victorians had done all the hard work in our back gardens, dissecting, pinning and establishing elaborate taxonomies. Perhaps that’s why we gave up doing it, so that books like Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden, containing 30 years of acute observation, are now so startling.
I’m often reminded about how little we know about what is happening outside our back doors when people start discussing bees, which you might think we know a great deal about. Last weekend I pootled off to enjoy a pint and the carvery at the Somerset Beekeepers’ annual bash and catch up with a few folk. Francis Ratnieks, he of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at Sussex, was the key speaker. Francis is the only professor of apiculture in the country, which gives you a sense of the scale of research done here as well as how over-worked his lab must be. Power to him for flogging down to Somerset, completely unpaid, on a Saturday.
Whenever I listen to Francis I come away with the same feelings – how sensible and practical the approach of his group is and how little we know about honeybees. Take flowers, for example. There are endless lists of good bee plants available on websites, in books, and through lectures. I’m aware of academic work that has been done on various seed mixes and agricultural schemes as well, but it turns out not much has been done on garden plants. The Lab in Sussex now have a PhD student measuring the popularity of 30 perennials with honeybees – just the sort of thing your Victorian rector would have done.
Francis reckons the important thing is to help honeybees through the July/August gap, when, counter-intuitively, there are now few flowers in the countryside. Lavender and Borage are his top tips. I’m sure this is true, but I’m not so confident it should be a gardener’s sole priority. In Somerset a major source of colony loss over the last few years has been starvation; warm winter days mean bees fly and use their honey stores too quickly, as there is no forage to be had. By the spring they’ve starved to death. Queen bumblebees use up their reserves too quickly too. It makes sense to me and others – although of course we can’t prove it – for gardeners to concentrate on providing all year round nectar and pollen as much as filling any other gaps there might be in forage locally.
The same lack of certainty fuels the fire of impassioned debate about bees in other areas, most notably the effects of the new generation of systemic pesticides. How pernicious neonicotinoids are no-one really knows – which is a very good reason why they should be banned. We are as far from being well informed about honeybees as I was from getting an A in my Physical Science – and this is an insect we know relatively lots about. Keep up the good work, LASI!

Newsletter No.12: March 2011

Spring is springing in deepest Somerset, although we’ve been working so hard it is rather passing us by. Over the last week we’ve been busy processing plug plant orders from our offer for Butterfly Conservation. The dogs need walking more and I keep putting off writing a book outline I MUST do. I did manage to get my act together enough to write a piece for the FT last weekend, which is always super exposure. I have also finally added some lovely lavenders on the website from Downderry Nursery.

We’ve finalized a day for this year’s wildlife pond creation day – 12th May. The course will again be tutored by pond guru Hugh Roberts, and we have a fab site in Redlynch, southeast Somerset, to develop. I’ve also posted a video of Matthew “Landscape Man” Wilson working on a project with our coir rolls and native marginal plants, which gives a helpful idea as to what we offer:[aembed:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UW7pA0FHV7U]

Meadow AnywhereIt’s the time of year to be thinking of wildflower meadows – plugs and seed. Our wildflower and grass seed mix, launched with Hilliers last month and featuring at Chelsea, is going really well. We’ve had extensive media coverage and interest from other retail partners.

Newsletter No.7: 1st September 2010

Cold Wind Blowing
It’s my favourite time of year. We took a bumper honey crop at the beginning of August and, despite the wasps, the bees look in good shape. We’ve finished scything the meadow, which was lovely this year, and seeding a couple of new areas. The kitchen staff (surely some mistake – Ed.) are now wrestling with current and impending gluts of courgettes, apples, plums, pumpkins (!), and, more excitingly, usable numbers of quinces, figs, medlars and pears. We’re cleaning the apple press and might even have enough Perry Pears to think about our first vintage. Huge furry new bumblebee queens have started to buzz the sedum and the bats and swallows are zipping about in celebration of a fecund year in the garage. The new pond we made for our course in April has been extraordinary – the latest excitement there has been the arrival of Anax Imperator.

Basking in the late summer sun I should feel content, and looking forward to what I hope will be a busy month as folk start buying seed and ordering bare-root trees. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in front of my computer recently, but instead I feel rather morose. The economic and environmental news over the last few weeks has, let’s face it, been pretty grim, and there’s worse to come.

On the other hand, my resolve is also strengthened. Charities have to find new ways to fund themselves. Small businesses and consultants have to find new ways to market, and the internet should be the perfect medium for them. It should also work well to promote localism generally. This is all very much what Habitat Aid is about.

Most people have been incredibly supportive, but there’s a certain residue of suspicion about what we’re doing, which is understandable. My background was in the City (not a good start), and I have no expertise in many of the areas I’m looking at now, I do know people who have. The idea of a business which isn’t driven by financial profit is still a new idea for a lot of folk; I’m often asked questions like “is your blog commercial?”, or at the other end of the spectrum “who is funding you?” I still feel like we are a tiny boat (coracle?) in a pretty vast and stormy sea, but we are making headway I think. Since we started trading in May last year we have had nearly 100,000 page views, which to me sounds like a lot from a standing start.

Meadows Website

We’re launching a microsite about meadows at www.micromeadow.co.uk. To quote the blurb:

The site is intended to encourage folk to establish smaller scale meadows and to provide access to good quality plants and seeds, as well as to reliable information and advice.

Got it? Have a look and let us know what you think.


We’re delighted to announce we are working with Downderry Nursery to sell a range of lavenders from the spring. Downderry are regular Gold Medal winners and owner Simon Charlesworth is a committed conservationist. I met him originally at an open day organized by the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University, with whom he is working to trial the best bee friendly varieties.


We have started to carry adverts on our main site and blog. Not the usual nonsense, but we are being guided by the excellent Digital Spring. Like us, they occupy an interesting spot in the demi-monde between charities and commerce. They have put together a portfolio of ethically vetted conservation related advertisers – binoculars, birding holidays, etc. – whose ads appear on our sites. We make money, they make money – and donate some to a related charity.

Somerset Pride
We’ve signed up to become an associate corporate member of our local Wildlife Trust. It’s a great scheme, and another example of a partnership between charities and corporates where everyone wins.

Fruit Tree Management Courses
This winter we are hosting two one day courses on managing fruit trees, tutored by respected specialist nurseryman Kevin Croucher, owner of Thornhayes Nursery.

About Us
Habitat Aid aims to persuade and enable folk to at least partly recreate or help replace key habitats like meadows, wetlands, orchards and woodland. The company also helps a small number of charities.

We are partly an online retailer selling mostly trees, plants and seeds sourced from really good quality specialized suppliers who often have a limited or no e-commerce operation themselves. Half our profits from sales go to selected partner charities, which are linked to specific products; this doesn’t just help charities financially, but also helps get their key messages across.

We also act as a kind of honest broker. We are building a network of consultants in areas like “wildlife garden” and estate design, meadow creation, and wetland and pond projects. We recommend and introduce these folk to end clients and landscape professionals, to give advice or to design and project manage. We then supply the plants for these schemes.

Lastly, we are developing products directly with our partner charities. We are working with the ‘Adopt a Beehive’ scheme and BBKA Enterprises to supply native seed mixes for bees, for example.

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Bees in lavenderIf there is a better plant for bees at this time of year I have yet to see it. I took a rather wobbly video of the 8 metres of lavender hedge outside our kitchen this afternoon, which partly shows the concentration of bees on it. There must have been several hundred there. I could see some of my honeybees, four different species of bumblebee – Garden (Bombus hortorum), White-tailed (B. lucorum), Carder (B. pascuorum) and Red-tailed (B. lapidarius) – and two types of cuckoo bee, the Gypsy cuckoo bee (B. bohemicus) and the Field cuckoo bee (B. campestris). There were probably lots more I didn’t spot, in addition to various hoverflies.
It’s a particularly great garden plant though because it works so well for us humans; it’s a good hardy hedging plant, looks good, smells good, and has all sorts of medicinal and cosmetic uses. What’s not to like?

Hampton Court Show

Floral Marquee, Hampton Court showThese days I upset myself by spoiling perfectly nice events by plunging into a familiar kind of off-putting eco censoriousness, which is as tedious for me as it must be for the people who are subjected to it. So if you want to miss the tedious bits of last week’s day-I-messed-up at the Hampton Court Flower Show, then skip straight to the picture of the Eryngium.

How can I explain what upset me? It wasn’t so much the “garden centre” element, although the Country Living Magazine Pavilion, as a symptom of it, was enormous – and furnished me with three pairs of very good value stripy socks, so I shouldn’t complain. Each to his own, it’s a free world, commercial pressure, etc. etc.. No, I think what upset me are the missed opportunities these shows represent.

Regretting that second pint

Some examples. There was an enormous gushing Magritte like pink penis – sorry – tap – which was my favourite design feature of the show gardens (along with the Falmouth College garden), apparently raising awareness of overactive bladder syndrome. There were a lot of other water features too, and according to the catalogue no less than 17 water feature suppliers’ stands, pitched on the straw coloured grass. Was there a single supplier of water butts or water saving devices there? No. Grey water irrigation systems? No. Reed beds? What about green roofs? You’re having a laugh. Holiday Inn (“implementing sound environmental practices”) sponsored an interesting but modest area called Sustainable Gardens, to “showcase themes relating to the environment and biodiversity”. I guess the other show gardens didn’t? Er…well, now you come to mention it… Certainly the Legoland garden wasn’t a very helpful advert in the International Year of Biodiversity. Of course there has to be a commercial logic to all of this, and it’s absolutely critical not to take the fun out of gardening, but PLEASE can the RHS not treat “the environment and biodiversity” as somehow seperate issues to mainstream gardening, and fully embrace and promote them. It needs to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. HoneybeeThey could at least start by vetting exhibitors and managing a tiered rate system according to how “eco friendly” they were. They might even actively solicit certain types of exhibitor. I wondered if biodiversity was a consideration in judging the show gardens (I loved the Bradstone Garden at Chelsea, for example, which showed how it can be done)? Does anyone think about the overall impression the show might create? Organisations like the RHS are the kind of opinion formers who need to be at the vanguard of a new paradigm shift.
Right, that’s that off my chest. It was lovely to see all sorts of people at the show. The BBKA were there, and honey bees from their demo hive were much in evidence in (some) parts of the Show, although I wonder how many punters noticed there were no butterflies about. Anywhere.

My main pleasure as a non-designer is to wander around the small nurseries, who can be a delight. Downderry Nursery’s stand in the Floral marquee – top – was lovely. We hope to be selling lavender supplied by them soon. Owners Simon and Dawn Charlesworth are very much on side when it comes to bees; I bumped into Simon originally at LASI, with whom he’s trialling different types of lavender. I also hope to start selling Hellebores from Harvey’s Garden Plants, who also look like just the sort of folk we ought to be promoting. More anon. Jekka’s Herb stand was lovely too – and rather more swamped in bees than the Copella Bee Garden.


It was nice to meet Jake Hobson, one of our suppliers, who imports Japanese ladders and tools and sold me the most beautiful pair of secateurs. I had a nice chat too with the man at Clear Water Revival, who nearly sold us a swimming pond when I was affluent. Lovely company, great product. It would be good to supply them with native aquatic plants. Talking of which, I loved the locally based Dorset Water Lilly company, and other favourites included the Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight. I hope you all had a good show. As to the folk selling bronze butterflies on wires, good luck to you too – soon they’ll be the only butterflies your customers will see.