Gardening for bees: top tips
Your garden could provide the ideal home for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Eden horticulturist Emma Pearce shares her top tips for choosing the right plants and creating the cosiest of winter habitats, which will see it buzzing with wildlife.
They may be tiny, but bees, wasps, beetles, butterflies and moths, and a myriad of other invertebrates, are vital to us all. Because they pollinate crops, help plants propagate, and are themselves a food resource for bigger animals such as birds and mammals, they’re essential to both food security and biodiversity. Lose the insects, and things get very tricky indeed.
It’s a frightening fact that two-thirds of UK pollinator species have seen a decline since the 1970s, mostly due to loss of habitat. But the good news is that you can help Britain gets its buzz back! Gardens have the potential to be excellent habitats for pollinators: even the smallest or most simple of gardens has some sort of invertebrate life, barely discernible to the human eye. Follow our easy low-cost (and low-effort!) tips to encourage even more species to take up residence.
Eight tips for attracting pollinators to your garden
1. Go for gold with a variety of blooms
When you think of a pollinator-friendly garden, no doubt an image of flowers buzzing with bees springs to mind. The flowers you choose are vital in providing food for the likes of bees, beetles and butterflies. While they don’t have to be native, take care not to introduce any invasive plants. And most importantly, go for a wide variety from different families, which will in turn attract different insects.
- Members of the daisy family (Asteraceae), the carrot family (Apiaceae), the teasel family (Dipsacaceae) and the rose family (Rosaceae) are all very attractive to bees and hoverflies but also contain lots of different shapes, seedheads and colours to keep things interesting in your garden.
- Plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) are also beloved of bees.
- Fill in the gaps with annuals and biennials – try scattering wildflower seeds such as poppies and cornflowers around your flowerbeds for a burst of colour in early summer.
2. Avoid flowers that are inaccessible to insects
When picking flowering plants, choose ones with single flowers, meaning a single layer of petals. Believe it or not, but double flowers can stop insects from accessing pollen and nectar, so while they might look amazing, they aren’t much use to pollinators.
3. Don't forget winter-flowering plants
You might be surprised to find out that honeybees don’t hibernate, which means they need access to nectar and pollen even during the winter. While winter-flowering plants are relatively limited in choice, this is a great opportunity to extend the season of interest in your garden, while also helping honeybees and other insects that emerge early from hibernation.
- You could plant bulbs such as crocuses or winter-flowering shrubs such as Oregon grape (Mahonia x media) and Japanese quince (Chaenomeles speciosa). My favourite winter-flowering perennial, lungwort (Pulmonaria sp), is also the favourite plant of the hairy-footed flower bee, which can be seen zig-zagging between the flowers on sunny days in February. At the other end of the year, there are plenty of fantastic plants that flower well into autumn, creating a colourful display with bountiful food for insects.
- No space? Get creative with window boxes to attract bees – try wildflowers or herbs in a sunny, south-facing window box, or violas and Tiarella for shady or north-facing windows. Or what about a winter-flowering shrub in a pot by the front door?
4. Provide shelter with trees, climbers and ground cover
As well as pollen-laden flowers, bugs also need places to overwinter and hide from predators. Look for species of trees with interesting bark, which has lots of gaps in which insects can hide – some of our native trees support thousands of different insect species. Or if you don’t have room for trees, shrubs and climbers also create excellent shelter for bugs.
5. Let the garden do itself
Now for the good news: the less you do, the more wildlife will benefit. Bees and other pollinating insects are usually on the wing when plants are flowering, but that doesn’t mean they just disappear for the rest of the year – many complete their lifecycles in hollow stems or nests within the soil, or tucked up within the undergrowth.
Your plants might have died back for the winter, but their structures are important places for larvae to overwinter, so leave old stems uncut for as long as possible. There’s a reward for you, too: not only does this mean less work, but different types of seedheads create a beautiful effect in heavy frost or with the winter sun behind them. If you must cut down the old stems, pile them up in a corner so they’re still of use to insects.
6. Make a bug hotel
Bug hotels, bog gardens and compost heaps all provide shelter and nesting sites for insects – and you don’t need to spend any money. If you haven’t got time to create your own bug hotel, simply put a pile of sticks and leaves in an undisturbed corner, or a bank of soil in a north-facing spot could become home to overwintering solitary bees.
7. Embrace your weeds
Controversially, you should love your weeds! Dandelions are an amazing nectar and pollen source in late winter when nothing else is flowering. You’ll see them covered in bees and pollen beetles in early spring so resist the urge to pull them out or mow them off. Nettles are a food plant for more than 40 butterfly and moth species – if you can leave a patch at the back of the garden, insects will be grateful.
8. Use natural pest control
Wildlife in balance helps your garden to look after itself. Take your cue from nature: too much of one thing (usually bad!) indicates an imbalance somewhere. For example, if you’re overrun with aphids – introduce plants that attract predatory insects such as hoverflies and wasps, which in turn will eat your aphids.
On the subject of pesticides… If you must spray, be specific. Look for products that target the thing(s) you want to get rid of, rather than using sprays that kill everything. Many soft-bodied insect pests can be controlled with dilute washing-up liquid (we use a professional version here at Eden). Birds are very good pest control, so don't forget to keep them coming to your garden.
Top 10 plants for pollinators
Here are 10 plants you could try this year to attract bees and other pollinators to your garden.
1. Bronze fennel Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’
Image: Ingrid Taylar
Hoverflies can’t resist the pollen-rich flowers of this tall, airy perennial, whose leaves and seeds can be used in cooking. Look out for red soldier beetles, which congregate on the flowerheads in summer. Both hoverflies and soldier beetles eat aphids – happy days!
2. Sneezeweed – Helenium sp
Image: Col Ford and Natasha de Vere
Great for a ‘hot’, sunny border, sneezeweeds are in the daisy family and flower well into late summer and beyond. They’re particularly attractive to honeybees, so deadhead them often to keep them flowering for longer to provide nectar. My favourite cultivars are ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ and ‘Wyndley’ but there’s a huge range – some tall, some short, and everyone’s garden should have one.
3. Foxglove – Digitalis sp
We’re all familiar with the sight of a bumblebee disappearing into a foxglove flower – in fact they’re its main pollinator. Foxgloves flower for weeks, and when the main spike is finished, the plant will often throw up a few more. Easy from seed and will self-seed themselves around.
4. Ivy – Hedera helix
Flowering in autumn, ivy is a brilliant food source for bees and other insects when everything else is going over. You’ll often see butterflies basking on its leaves if the sun’s out. If you don’t like the standard ivy, there are lots of attractive cultivars available.
5. Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis
My rosemary flowers from February onwards, and provides nectar to early-flying bumblebees and honeybees as well as fabulous fresh leaves for the kitchen.
6. Ornamental onions – Allium sp
Great for adding pops of bright purple to beds and borders in early summer, ornamental onions are also hotspots for bees and other pollinators. Make a statement with groups of enormous Allium ‘Globemaster’ or dot the firework-like starry flowerheads of A. christophii around.
7. Lithodora diffusa ‘Heavenly Blue’
This lovely, low-growing rockery plant is in the same family as borage, which is equally attractive to bees. In early summer it’s covered in bright blue flowers that stand out above the dark green foliage. Give it free-draining soil and plenty of sunshine and it’ll reward you by flowering for weeks.
8. Bee balm – Monarda sp
The name says it all – bees love Monarda, as do hoverflies and butterflies and plenty more. These plants need moist, rich soil otherwise they are prone to mildew. Flowers are bright red, purple, pink or white – or for something really unusual, try M. punctata, the spotted bee balm.
9. Sorbus sp
Image: manuel m. v.
Sorbus are small- to medium-sized trees that flower early on, in April and May, providing loads of nectar and pollen for bees. The flowers are followed by round berries beloved of birds such as blackbirds and redwings, so in planting one of these you’re doing your bit for lots of wild creatures. Favourite species are our native Sorbus aucuparia, which has red berries, and Chinese S. vilmorinii, whose berries are bright pink.
10. Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’
Image: ashley BALSAM baz
This beautiful tree is absolutely covered in bees when it flowers in August and September. Better for a larger garden as it can reach 12 or more metres in height, its glaucous foliage contrasts well with the creamy white flowers, which it produces in abundance. Also good for bees is Hoheria, which flowers slightly earlier in the summer.
Emma Pearce is a Horticultural Scientist (Conservation) at the Eden Project.
Photo credit: Jonas Von Werne on Unsplash