Bees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Around the globe, populations have suffered catastrophic decline, and the implications for all of us are huge. According to the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA), a third of our food is dependent on pollination, and would not be available if bees died out.
In the UK alone, about 70 crops rely on visits from bees, while the BBKA estimates that the economic value of honey bees and bumblebees as pollinators is in excess of £200million per year. UK bee-keepers have reported winter colony losses of up to 23% in recent years. If this decline continues, the effect on gardens and allotments could be devastating.
So why are bees in trouble? According to Friends of the Earth, nearly one in 10 of Europe’s wild bee species are facing extinction. Habitat loss is a huge worry. Since the Second World War, the UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows, robbing bees of their natural habitat, while intensive farming and urban development has taken its toll, too.
Environment experts warn that climate change is disrupting the behaviour of bees, while conservationists have argued that pesticides can have an adverse impact. And as if bees haven’t had enough bad luck, a parasitic mite called varroa has been attacking colonies.
World Bee Day, which is on 20th May each year, aims to put the plight of pollinators on the political agenda. But while the debate rages, our gardens are increasingly seen as a last refuge for bees. In fact, by planting pollinator-friendly flowers, we can provide vital supplies of pollen and nectar in our own back yards – helping to safeguard the future for bees. So if you want to do your bit, here are 10 of the best flowers to help bees survive
Lavender is a magnet for bees and it’s easy to grow. This cottage garden favourite will thrive in sun-baked spots where it’ll become smothered in pollinators. The British Beekeepers’ Association says common lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a winner, due to its mix of flower power, scent and ability to woo bees. For best results, plant into well-drained soil in a sunny position, as lavender hates sitting with its roots in the wet. Lavandula angustifolia ‘Little Lady’ carries the Royal Horticultural Society’s Plants for Pollinators logo. Its fragrant, light-blue flowers are adored by bees and butterflies.
Great for encouraging children to start gardening, the cheery blooms of sunflowers come in a range of colours and heights to suit all tastes. Take note of this tip from urban beekeepers though: grow yellow or orange sunflowers to attract the most bees, and avoid trendy red-flowering varieties, which pollinators aren’t partial to.
Most of us grow herbs such as chives for their young leaves, which add a delicious oniony taste to potato salads and infuse summer salads with flavour. Simple to grow in a window box or container, it’s worth leaving a few plants to bear vivid purple-pink flowers, which are loved by bees. According to Friends of the Earth, chives in flower will lure bumble bees, honey bees, mason bees and leafcutter bees.
The hum of bumblebees going about their business is one of the most delightful sounds of summer. Plant common foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) in a shady or semi-shaded area of your garden and you’ll witness bees arriving in their droves. That’s because the elegant flowers of foxgloves are rich in nectar, while their freckled interiors act as a runway, guiding bees to land on the lower lips of blooms.
2016 was the Year of the Cosmos and introduced gardeners to these easy-to-grow summer flowers. That’s good news for bees, which adore their large daisy-like blooms, borne in profusion during the warmer months. Cosmos bipinnatuscan be direct sown and is excellent for filling gaps in summer borders. Flowers look at home in cottage gardens, in summer borders, and add height behind bedding displays. Dead-head regularly to keep new blooms coming.
If you’re planting a herb garden, include rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Its needle-like leaves are great for adding flavour to roasts, while honey bees, bumble bees and mason bees will thank you for the plant’s blue flowers. Rosemary is a drought-tolerant herb, making it ideal for low-maintenance planting schemes near a barbecue area. It can begin to flower in spring and may carry on into winter, drawing-in pollinators when other plants are dormant.
Verbena bonariensis is a tall perennial that looks at home in tropical planting schemes as well as traditional borders. Its clusters of small purple flowers are a favourite with pollinators, as blooms produce ample supplies of nectar for bees and butterflies. Grow in full sun, choosing a sheltered site where lanky stems won’t be toppled by wind. Verbena bonariensis is an excellent choice for adding height and drama to the back of borders.
Dahlias are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, and that’s good news for bees, because these showy flowers bloom into autumn, providing a vital late season source of nectar and pollen. The trick is to grow single-flowering varieties, as the complex petal structures of doubles and fancy types present an exhausting obstacle course for foraging pollinators. Try ‘Bishop of Leicester’ (pink flowers with brown/golden centres) or ‘Moonfire’ which puts on a stunning show of gold-and-yellow flowers above dark foliage.
Red admirals and tortoiseshells flock to the plant commonly known as the butterfly bush, but Buddleja davidii is also valuable source of nectar for bees, while moths feast on its dense, fragrant sprays of small flowers on warm, calm summer nights. It’s a fast-grower, enhancing biodiversity even when subjected to neglect.
Winter-flowering crocus put on a show at a time of year when little else in the garden is in bloom, providing a supply of pollen for queen bumblebees emerging from hibernation. A handful of bulbs in a container will suffice, but for maximum benefit, plant a bee banquet by naturalising crocus bulbs in lawns. Beekeepers also recommend that gardeners grow the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, as an early source of pollen.
Quick tips: how to make your garden bee-friendly
- Grow single flowers which allow bees to easily access pollen. Avoid varieties with double flowers, where pollen may be absent or difficult to access.
- Look out for the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Plants for Pollinators’ logo when shopping at garden centres.
- Avoid spraying with chemical pesticides when plants are in flower.
- Put up insect hotels which will provide nesting and hibernation habitats for wild bees and mason bees. Many have rooms for ladybirds and lacewings, which feed on pests.
- Deadhead flowers regularly to keep more blooms coming.
Is your garden a haven for bees? What else have you planted in your garden that bees flock to? Let us know in the comments.
Marc Rosenberg bio
Marc Rosenberg is a freelance garden writer and editor. A former journalist with Amateur Gardening and Horticulture Week magazines, he holds seven Garden Media Guild Awards. Marc has written for publications including The Garden magazine, BBC Gardeners’ World and RHS online.