Monday, 12 April 2010
Planting for Bees
by Jean Vernon
Bees use our gardens and the countryside to forage. Since wildflowers, orchards and hedgerows have been in decline they have become more and more reliant on our gardens.
As beekeepers we can do a lot to support our bees and help provide the best forage plants for their needs. Just by visiting a few seasonal gardens and observing what plants bees are visiting, both bumble and honey, we can get a better idea of what they like and need.
Most plants are good for bees but some such as Alliums are said to enrage them and should be avoided if you have testy bees.
This guide is for all bees not just honey bees. Some flowers such as the pea family, most honey bees cannot access, but these are good forage flowers for bumblebees. For a definitive list of bee plants check the web.
Wild and Natural
There are a few basic rules that apply to plants for all bees. First of all leave an area of your garden wild, where weeds and wildflowers can grow. Bumble bees 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 floweer. For the rest of the garden choose plants that are native to the UK, that are not highly bred and that have single or open flowers where the flower parts are exposed for bees to gather pollen and nectar.
Unlike most bumblebees, honeybees do forage all year round if the weather is conducive. Over the winter the colony is much reduced and feeds on honey and pollen stores, sugar supplied by the beekeeper and also winter flowering plants. By concentrating on growing plants that flower during the lean winter and early spring months the gardener can hugely support local bee colonies.
Trees for bees
One or two trees in a small garden can provide masses of pollen and nectar. Again think about things that provide vital food in the winter and spring. 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. You don’t have to grow normal hazel, though it will provide a harvest of cobnuts too, contorted hazels are attractive and have catkins overloaded with early pollen.
Don’t forget that bees also collect and need tree resin to make propolis. Tree buds before they burst are an excellent source of this resin.
Think about using the vertical surfaces of the garden to grow flower rich climbers such as honeysuckle, blackberries, clematis and roses. Don’t forget climbing beans, sweet peas and other climbers from seed that will quickly clothe a trellis and provide pollen and nectar for bees. Ivy is also an important source of nectar and pollen in late autumn and winter.
Winter and early spring flowering shrubs can make all the difference to early foragers. It’s a good time to visit a local nursery or garden centre where you’ll find a whole range of winter flowering and winter interest plants. Choose carefully, avoid double flowered hybrids and buy plants with scented, bright flowers that attract insect pollinators. Many winter flowering plants flower on bare stems, good plants to include are Viburnum farrei and Viburnum bodnantense. Mahonia are a must for winter bees and have fabulous blossom in January and February when the rest of the garden is bare. Witchhazel, heath heathers (calluna spp) and also Ling heathers (Erica spp) are also good out of season sources. Don’t forget early spring bulbs such as snowdrops and crocus and even species tulips.
But in a late spring other plants become essential food sources as the bee colonies increase. In fact this can be one of the most difficult times for the bees to find sufficient food. Flowering currants, aubrietia, berberis, cherries, apple blossom, lungwort (pulmonaria), hellebores and early tulips are all good bee plants for April.
Productive crops for you and bees
One of the most important roles that bees play in our lives is as pollinators. To get the most from your garden consider growing bee plants that also provide a harvest for you. There are many bee friendly herbs that are not just culinary plants; some can be used for medicinal purposes too. Great herbs to grow include thyme, lavender, rosemary, marjoram, borage, chives, catmint (nepeta), fennel, St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), lovage, hyssop and calendula (pot marigold).
Almost all types of fruit, except perhaps rhubarb, (which is botanically a vegetable anyway), need pollinators. Apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, currants, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries, cherries and more all need pollinating insects to transfer pollen from flower to flower, even a small garden can support a wide range of fruit throughout the year and produce a bountiful, fresh and healthy harvest.
Popular bee plants
All in the name
Look out for plants that mention bees in their names, such as Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm), Melianthus major, Euphorbia mellifera and bee balm (bergamot); these are sure signs that these plants are good for bees.
There are also many annual flowers that can be sown from seed each year to fill gaps in the garden and provide nectar and pollen for foraging bees. Good plants to choose include calendula, cosmos, cleome, poppies and nigella but there are lots and lots of others.
Finally grow a variety of different plants that flower at different times of the year so that there is always something in flower in your garden. Watch which insects visit the flowers and any which are particularly popular with bees and other pollinating insects can be grown en masse the following year.