Meeting the bees’ needs

Photo of a Bee.
Photo of a Bee.

For some time, environmentalists and horticulturists have been urging gardeners to let their grass grow a bit longer, leave at least one area of their garden ‘wild’ and create nooks and crannies in the form of log piles to allow wildlife to flourish.

Now, with the recent launch of the government’s Bee and Pollinator Strategy, a 10-year plan announced by environment secretary Elizabeth Truss, we can do more to encourage a “flower-rich habitat” to provide more homes for wild honey bees, bumblebees, butterflies and other pollinators.

A Generic Photo of a honey bee eating nectar. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

A Generic Photo of a honey bee eating nectar. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

Scientists warn that British bees are in serious decline with 71 of our wild bee species under threat and more than 20 already extinct. Loss of habitat and forage are the main problems facing wild bees.

The strategy is supported by the government’s Call to Action — Bees’ Needs: Food and a Home, launched earlier this year on www.beesneeds.org.uk, which offers a wealth of tips on how to help these valuable creatures flourish in our gardens.

Guidelines include:

* Grow more flowers, shrubs and trees that provide nectar and pollen as food for bees and other pollinators throughout the year — pussy willow, primroses and crocuses in spring, lavenders, meadow cranesbill and ox-eye daisies in summer, ivy and hebes in autumn, and mahonia shrubs and cyclamen in winter.

* Leave patches of land to grow wild with plants like stinging nettles and dandelions to provide other food sources (such as leaves for caterpillars) and breeding places for butterflies and moths.

* Cut grass less often and ideally remove the cuttings to allow plants to flower.

* Avoid disturbing or destroying nesting or hibernating insects in places like grass margins, bare soil, hedgerows, trees, dead wood or walls.

* Think carefully about whether to use pesticides, especially where pollinators are active or nesting or where plants are in flower. Consider control methods appropriate to your situation and only use pesticides if absolutely necessary.

People should understand that the beauty of a flower has nothing to do with its nectar content. Modern plant breeding has tended to value showy flowers more highly than the welfare of the insect world, so the latest double begonia or frilly carnation probably won’t attract pollinators.

Double flower varieties have extra petals but produce less pollen and nectar. For example, a study comparing four varieties of dahlia found that the double ‘pompom’ and ‘semi-cactus’ varieties were less attractive than open-flowered varieties.

Many good nectar plants have inconspicuous flowers and often old-fashioned ones are the best, but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring. Foxgloves, hellebores, wallflowers, red valerian, ice plant and Verbena bonariensis all produce loads of nectar, as do many winter-flowering heathers.

It’s also important to provide good nectar sources for as much of the year as you can.

Social species like bumble bees need food for the queen bees in spring when they are founding the nest, throughout the summer for the workers to rear the young, and finally at the end of the season for the young queens to build up fat stores before hibernating for the winter.

Late-flowering, nectar-rich plants include dahlia, fuchsia (single varieties), Michaelmas daisies, marigolds, lavender and knapweeds. Ivy is a good autumn source of nectar for a range of species including honey bees, ivy bees and hoverflies, and is the larval food plant of the holly blue butterfly.

Herbs including chives, borage, hyssop, rosemary, sage, thyme and fennel are also rich in nectar, while less common perennials including Calamintha nepeta, Veronica and Liatris spicata will also attract bees and other pollinators.

Don’t forget moths, which tend to be night-feeding - so include fragrant honeysuckle, jasmine, evening primrose and night-scented stock in your planting scheme.

And if you are still bulb-planting now, remember that wood anemones, scilla, chionodoxa and dwarf daffodils are all ideal for growing in grass, providing nectar for emerging bees in spring.