Planting for bees

Take a closer look at that buzzing creature in your garden, says Jean Vernon. There are dozens of species of solitary bees as well as our honeybees and bumblebees and they all do vital work in the garden.

bee on lavender
Bee on lavender. Image: Martin Mulchinock.
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leaf cutter bee
A leaf cutter bee. Image: Martin Mulchinock.

I spend many hours in the garden, watching bees of all sorts supping nectar for their stores and harvesting protein to feed their babies. The nectar gives them an energy boost and sustains their vibrant activity while they forage. Any surplus nectar is processed by the workers in the hive and fortified with special, precious bee medicine, flower essences and ingredients that we humans (mostly) fail to understand and is finally transformed into honey. Even bumblebees make a honey-like substance, they store it in Winnie the Pooh shaped honey pots inside their nest to feed the workers and the babies.

Honey is the bees’ food. It is so precious and magical to their wellbeing that we cannot begin to fathom to what degree. We revere its medicinal properties, we marvel at how it can cure lesions and ulcers on our bodies.

Bee support

There’s a quotation, often wrongly attributed to Einstein; that states that when the bees die out our planet will die within four years. Whoever formed those words was wiser than their years. For the bees are the canary in the coal mine and already they are in serious trouble. I’m pretty sure mankind would die out; our reliance on bees is much bigger than the sum of all the parts. But like most things we take them for granted. Fortunately we can all make a difference. You don’t have to ‘keep’ bees to help them. Anyone with a garden can do their bit.

bee on borage
Honey bee on borage. Image: Martin Mulchinock.

Here’s how to help the bees in your garden

  • Even if you only have a tiny space you can grow nectar and pollen rich flowers that provide vital sustenance for these precious creatures. Not just honeybees but bumblebees and solitary bees too, as well as other pollinators such as butterflies and hoverflies.
  • Honeybees have shorter tongues than bumblebees and can’t reach the nectaries of some flowers. That’s why you will find some insects prefer different flowers. For example, red clover has longer flower tubes that only bumblebees can drink from, whereas white clover has shorter flowers where honeybees can feed.
  • Leave an area of your garden wild, where weeds and wildflowers can grow. Bumblebees in particular like a natural wild area to nest and forage. Many weeds such as vetch, clover, dandelions and daisies provide excellent pollen and nectar for bees and should be allowed to flower.
  • Grow open, single flowers where the pollen is accessible rather than blowsy, overbred doubles, where often the pollen bearing stamens have been replaced by an extra set of petals for a fuller flower. This is not advantageous for the bees, as pollen is a vital, protein rich food source for them.
  • There are dearths in bee forage that can cause a colony of bees to starve without intervention from the bee carer/keeper. In early spring when they first emerge there is very little in flower. Concentrate on growing plants that flower during the lean winter and early spring months and you can hugely support local bee colonies.
  • Trees are vital for bee survival in late winter, early spring. Hazel, willow and other early pollen bearers are a lifesaver. Alder is a very good source of early pollen; Crab apples and wild cherries have masses of pollen and nectar rich flowers fairly early in the season.
Jean Vernon

About Jean Vernon

Jean Vernon is a slightly quirky, bee friendly, alternative gardener. She doesn’t follow the rules and likes to push the boundaries a bit just to see what happens. She has a fascination for odd plants, especially edibles and a keen interest in growing for pollinators especially bees. She’s rather obsessed with the little buzzers. Telegraph Gardening Correspondent, mostly testing and trialing products and Editor-In-Chief for Richard Jackson’s Garden.
@TheGreenJeanie
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