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The Top Ten Flowers For Bees

I used to be guilty of blithely writing top ten lists like this. For many, bees tend to be shorthand for pollinators generally, so you might think a list like this is an easy route to making a pollinator friendly garden. Even if these lists were accurate (and generally they're not!) I've come to think they're actually potentially very unhelpful.

This hasn't stopped me from writing this shamelessly commercially opportunistic blog, though - huzzah! You'll find my recommendations at the end of it (some of which we might even sell), but as or even more importantly I wanted to explain why this sort of thing is at best so over-simplistic. 

It's a given that generally the best plants for pollinators offer the best nectar (sugars), and/or pollen (protein and fats) rewards, over the longest period. Beyond that the picture gets more complex, even if you're just looking at bees.

Different Bees Have Different Needs

First off, there are lots of bees in the UK, all with slightly different requirements. Solitary bees, bumblebees and the honeybee all have very distinct life cycles. To ask what the best flowers for bees are is like asking what the best food for birds is. They all have particular needs. 

If you planted a garden for honeybees - very efficient generalists - it will be pretty unattractive for, say, Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes). These sweet solitary bees emerge in early spring and have an improbably long proboscis, like many bees, in their case to access flowers like lungwort or deadnettle.

Photo: Honeybee and Myrobalan, Prunus cerasifera

Honeybees, on the other hand, want lots of pollen in spring for their new brood, but then nectar as their colonies build up over the summer. They have short flat tongues, so prefer open saucerlike flowers.

Photo: Male Wool carder bee and Stachys byzantina

As a social, arguably non-native bee (and one that's active all year round these days), honeybees are more liberal in their preferences between non-native and native flowers. Solitaries and bumblebees generally seem to prefer native wildflowers when they can find them.

Some bees are very specific in their requirements. The engagingly bonkers male Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), for example, will endlessly patrol Lamb's Ears (Stachys byzantina), seeing off all comers. Wool carder females line their nests with the fur from the leaves.

This preference thing works both ways. Tomato plants, for example, can ONLY be pollinated by bumblebees as they do a thing called buzz pollination, which releases their pollen.

It's complicated, as nature always is. 

The Need For Variety

Photo: Crab apple 'Evereste' and solitary bee

So we have a myriad of bees - 260+ species in the UK - which have different requirements. It's true, some are more generalist than others, which means there's a risk we plant flowers which are helpful for some common species but not for the others. Typically the more specialist and dependent on a single or small number of types of flower, the rarer the bee will be. It's these at risk species we should most be trying to help, of course. It's analagous to what we're discovering about bird feeders; good for aggressive Blue tits but bad for retiring birds like Willow warblers.

Like us, what the majority of these bees do have in common is the need for a balanced and continuously available diet. Pollen and nectar from different floral resources. This variety could come from different gardens, for example, and explains why a native hedge can be such a good asset for so many pollinators.

Continuity Of Flowering

Photo: Ivy bee and Geranium 'Rozanne'

As the climate changes the need for all year round food becomes more critical. It's not just honeybees you'll see flying on a warm January day - there'll be bumblebees too. For most species these will be queens, but now there are Bombus Terrestris colonies which are fully active all year round, for example. There aren't wildflowers about in winter, so we can really help by giving these bees plants which produce good nectar flow after the Ivy has stopped flowering, in December/January/February.

Other species have much smaller windows when they're active, from our friend Anthophora plumipes in early spring to beautiful newcomer Colletes hederae, the Ivy bee, in late summer/early autumn. 

Don't Forget Other Pollinators

It's also absolutely not true that the best flowers for bees are the best for other pollinators. Flowers have adapted over millenia to appeal to different pollinators. Some are mostly moth pollinated and open at night. Others, like the poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii) and Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) major on hoverflies.* In autumn our Sedum spectabile is covered with all sorts of insects, but the Verbena bonariensis next door can only be pollinated by butterflies. All sorts of other insects pollinate flowers too, like the Bee-fly in this photo.

There's also the issue of food plants. I grow various plants specifically to be eaten by butterfly and moth caterpillars. These are very distinct from the flowers their parents nectar on - they could be grasses or hedgerow shrubs like buckthorns, for example.  

Follow The Science

The final problem has been lack of data to support people's ideas about the relative merits of flowers. This has led to some pretty bad misinformation. Until recently, the best source of information has been the excellent Plants for Bees (Kirk and Howes). Its recommendations are based on careful observation, but don't have a more rigorous scientific basis. More recent work like the recent studies by Nick Tew and DNA analysis partly pioneered by the Botanic Garden of Wales has helped firm these up.   

...And Finally! 

Photo: Mating Mason bees and Wallflower 'Bowles's Mauve'

To put you out of your misery and with all these caveats, here are my must have 10 bee plants for your garden. I've tried to come up with an easy to grow and adaptable list to provide continuous flowering for as many bee species as possible. Inevitably, it's a hideous compromise.

Many of these plants will also help other insects too, of course, and I've tried to keep that in mind. I'd stress too that it doesn't include any native meadow species (some FANTASTIC wildflowers here, including "weeds" like dandelion), which I'm assuming are flowering merrily in my meadow, or the fab apple trees in the orchard (what a cheat - Ed.).

Oh - and I've tried to include a mix of trees, shrubs, cottage garden perennials, and bulbs. I'd love to have included lavender and various herbs, and Viburnum tinus, and Arbutus unedo, and... on and on. Alas, they all just missed the cut. There are, of course, much more comprehensive lists available elsewere

Anyway, here are the magnificent 10, in flowering order:

  1. Early crocus, Crocus tommasianus
  2. Myrobalan, Prunus cerasifera
  3. Lungwort, Pulmonaria spp.
  4. Willow, Salix spp.
  5. Wallflower, Erysimum (e.g. 'Bowles's Mauve')
  6. Common comfrey, Symphytum officinale
  7. Viper's Bugloss, Echium vulgare
  8. Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus
  9. Ice plant, Sedum spectabile (e.g. 'Autumn Joy')
  10. Mahonia x media (e.g. 'Winter Sun')

*I use both of these in our veg patch as companion plants; the hoverfly larvae do for a range of nasties...