How to Create a Bee-Friendly Garden

Pollinating insects such as bees and hoverflies are in decline, and as vital as they are for our and our planet's survival, each of us should be doing our bit to help them.  By planting nectar and pollen rich flowers over a long season, even the most amateur gardener can help reduce this decline, and it really doesn't take much effort.  By planting a bee-friendly garden, you will help them thrive, and in return these wild pollinators will ensure your garden plants continue to reproduce through seed, and help crops like apples, strawberries and tomatoes successfully set fruit.  Win, win all round.

What does a bee-friendly garden look like?

Ideally, your garden should provide bee-friendly flowers from early spring until late summer.  The more suitable plants in your garden the better, but aim for at least two kinds of bee-friendly plant for each flowering period.  This will ensure that there is a good supply of pollen at all of the crucial times:
  • When the queens are establishing nests.
  • When nests are growing.
  • When nests are producing new queens and males.
  • When queens are fattening up ready for hibernation
What to plant?

Look out for the RHS endorsed plants in garden centres, or just look for the plants with bees buzzing around them!  You can also order plug plants by mail order or seeds, all will be clearly labelled if they are great for pollinators.  You can find a comprehensive list at the end of this post, too.

If you have space, consider keeping a hive yourself, or for more solitary bees you can hang nest boxes containing cardboard tubes, hollow plant stems or short lengths of bamboo around your garden.  Buy at a garden centre, or make your own.  A piece of wood with holes drilled in it will work too.  The holes/tubes should be a mixture of different diameters, from 2mm to 8mm.  Place bee boxes in a south-facing spot, but out of direct sunlight, and make sure the entrance points downwards so that rain can't get in.  Leave a patch of soil in a sunny spot uncultivated for solitary bees that burrow, and a small log pile for other nesters.

If tree bumblebees decide to colonise one of the bird boxes in your garden, leave them alone and put up another box nearby.  When they vacate in winter, clean the box out thoroughly.

What Else Can I Do?

  • Consider replacing some of your lawn with more beds and borders.  For example, do you really need a lawn at the front of your house?
  • Supplement your garden by adding pots on steps, patios and decking, or add window boxes to utilise any extra spaces in your garden.  The more plants you have, the better.  But try to group similar plants together so the bees don't need to expend valuable energy flying from one part of the garden to another.
  • Create a 'bee bath' by placing pebbles in and twigs across a shallow dish of fresh water.  Bees and butterflies will use them to land on while drinking.

  • Encourage your children or grandchildren to respect insects, not to be afraid of them.  The likelihood of getting stung is minimal, especially if you stay still and gently brush an insect away.  Bees are not aggressive and will only use their stings in self-defence if roughly handled. 
  • Try to appreciate the beauty of weeds as they can be a very important food source for bees.  Leave an area where dandelions, clover, buttercups etc are welcome, and try not to be too fussy about your lawn!
  • If you have space, plant trees for bees.  For effective foraging, bees need masses of flowers in one place so large shrubs like buddleia, or small trees are a vital food source.  Five established trees would provide a similar amount of pollen and nectar as an acre of meadow!  Choose winter and early spring flowering trees such as wild cherry, willow or hazel.  Fruit trees are also ideal, such as those listed below.

What to Avoid

  • All pesticides and dangerous chemicals, these are often labelled 'bug killers' or similar, and almost all can harm bees, even if you don't intend to harm them.
  • Try not to plant too many exotics and foreign plants, our bees are adapted to native plants so make these the focus of your garden.
  • Flowers with petals that form long tunnels which are too long or narrow for the bees to feed from. Flowers with multiple tightly packed heads which offer bees very little accessible food.
  • Double flowers produce much less nectar than single flower tops like daisies and marigolds, which make it much easier for bees to access pollen.
  • Plants like pansies and double begonias offer little for bumblebees and other pollinators, mainly due to over-development by horticulturists.

Flowering Plants to Include in Your Garden:

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some of the best plants for pollinators are:
  • Allium
  • Anemone japonica
  • Antirrhinum (snapdragons)
  • Aquilegia
  • Aster
  • Bergamot
  • Borage
  • Buddleja
  • Calendula
  • Campanula
  • Cat Mint
  • Chives
  • Comfrey
  • Cornflower
  • Cosmos
  • Delphinium
  • Dianthus
  • Echinacea
  • Echium
  • English lavender)
  • English marigold
  • Foxglove
  • Geranium
  • Goldenrod
  • Honesty
  • Honeysuckle
  • Hosta
  • Hyacinth
  • Hyssop
  • Jasmine
  • Lemon Balm
  • Lobelia
  • Lupin
  • Mint
  • Nasturtium
  • Penstemon
  • Poppy
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Salvia
  • Scabious
  • Sea Holly
  • Sedum
  • St John's Wort
  • Sunflower
  • Sweet Marjoram
  • Sweet Pea
  • Teasel
  • Thistle
  • Thyme
  • Verbena
  • Weigelia
  • Zinnia

And for fruit and vegetable gardeners:
  • Almond
  • Apple
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Broad Bean
  • Cherry
  • Crab Apple
  • Globe Artichoke
  • Gooseberries
  • Loganberries
  • Pear
  • Peas
  • Plum
  • Quince
  • Raspberries
  • Runner Beans
  • Strawberries

Leave vegetable plants to flower as these will also be an important food source to bees as things die down, and don't forget to leave your sunflower heads up for birds over winter.

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