Gardens for busy bees

Bees are essential to a healthy ecosystem, so make them welcome in your garden

Bees are essential to a healthy ecosystem, so make them welcome in your garden

SOME YEARS AGO, this column used to get the occasional letter demanding lists of plants that would not attract “annoying bees” into a garden. Now, I’m happy to report, the bee-haters have buzzed off, and I’m hearing more often from those who want to make space for bumblebees and honeybees in their patches.

Bees are fashionable now: Chelsea Flower Show featured a bee garden in May, and Hampton Court Palace Flower Show will have one next month. Nearer to home, a trio of garden designers and one artist – Marion Keogh, Una Thomas, Bernie Torpey and Róisín de Buitléar – presented their pretty and floriferous Beauty and the Bees garden at Bloom a couple of weekends ago.

But bees aren’t just fashionable, they are – as most people now know – an important part of our ecosystem. The production of many of our food crops depends on their pollinating work. When bees busily visit flower after flower, they unknowingly ferry pollen, and thus – not to beat around the bush – facilitate sexual reproduction in plants. Some plants are self-pollinating, and others use the services of the wind, but many rely upon insects.


After pollination, fruits and seeds are formed. There are dozens of food crops that depend on bees to act as pollen-carriers, among them apples, pears, currants, cherries, onions, carrots and brassicas. These last three don’t produce edible fruits, but we need the bees’ labours to produce the seeds for propagation. In fact, if bees weren’t going about their foraging business, a third of our food crops would be in jeopardy.

Honeybees are in trouble in the US, where colony collapse disorder (CCD) is threatening the apian population. Its cause is not verified, but some scientists and beekeepers say that widely-used neonicotinoid pesticides are at fault. Bees that are exposed to these substances lose their sense of direction, and cannot find their way back to the hive. Here, there is no evidence of CCD, but honeybees are not faring well. Their numbers have decreased thanks to varroa mite and a series of damp summers. Bumble bees and solitary bees – which together make up the rest of our 101 bee species – are also suffering, through habitat loss, inbreeding and other factors.

Gardeners can help bees: their plots can offer important habitats, especially where there is a row of houses of like-minded people. One bee-friendly garden is better than none, but a whole string of them, with different plants and features can make a large sanctuary for many bee species.


Shelter: All bees like a sheltered garden, as it is difficult for them to fly in breezy conditions. If your garden is exposed, nominate the most sheltered and sunny corner for nectar plants. Hedges and tall plants (shrubs, trees and perennials such as globe or Jerusalem artichokes) help to diffuse the breeze, and can be planted on the windward side.

Nesting places: Most honeybees live in man-made hives, or, if they go native, in dead tree trunks or other convenient niches. Bumblebees nest in wall crevices, in long grass and abandoned mouse holes. Hollow twigs, bamboos, holes in dead wood and in sunny banks and walls may become the egg-laying places of solitary bees. The “solitary” epithet is owing to the fact that the young are left to raise themselves, after having been furnished with a parcel of food by their mothers, when still in the egg stage. Ground nesting bees may find their way to their burrows using markers such as twigs or leaves, so don’t be over-tidy – especially under shrubs, trees and clumps of bamboos.

Food: honeybees are short-tongued, and prefer simple, often dish-shaped flowers. Showy bedding plants with double (many-petalled) flowers are of little use to them, as the nectar and pollen bearing parts are either hidden or absent.

Plants with flowers to attract honeybees include: apple, pear, cotoneaster, forget-me-not, echium, fennel, dill, carrot, sea holly (Eryngium), echium, euphorbia, hardy geranium, allium, hollyhock, verbascum, marigold (both Tagetes and Calendula species), California poppy, cosmos, and cornflower.

Be sure to include some low-growers, such as aubreita, wall campanula and alpines, as these will attract bees on days when there is a bit of a breeze and when taller plants are difficult to access.

Bumblebees and some solitary bees have longer tongues, and like to forage in tubular flowers, and in those with more complex structures. Among those that they favour are: foxglove, comfrey, lupin, monkshood, aquilegia. Bumblebees do not store nectar or pollen in quantity, as honeybees do, so they may be out all year looking for food. In the cold months, plants such as viburnum, winter-flowering cherry and daphne can be life-savers.

Water: honeybees need water to make honey, and to cool their hives. A bird bath will supply the necessary, but a garden pond – if you have the room – will provide mud around the edges, which will be used by solitary bees to cap their egg compartments.