To bee or not to bee – how will your garden grow?
That is the question. Bee numbers are in steep decline worldwide. Much of this has been laid at the door of a virus spread by the Varroa mite. Whilst this has undoubtedly been a major factor, there is no doubt that a lack of food, plus the longer term effect of pesticides, have eroded bees resistance to this, and other viruses.
The major issue, and one we can do something about, is the impact of pesticides. Please don’t use chemicals that contain “Neonicotinoids” – avoid pesticides altogether if you can. Bees are the gardener’s friend – without them our gardens will be sadly depleted – not just due to the absence of those furry bundles of joy (unless you step on them of course), but more so from the plants that need bees, and others, to procreate. In China, they have eradicated many of their wild pollinators, and have had to use domestic bees or, more extraordinary still, pollinate by hand. In Sichuan province, 40,000 people are employed pollinating fruit trees using chicken feather dusters! This is a job that used to be done by nature, for free.
What can we do to help them then? Bees, and other pollinators, need two key things - food and shelter. Bees need pollen – and for as long a season as possible. Nectar feeds the adult bee and pollen is collected for the
In early spring winter heather (Erica carnea) can be relied upon for colour and bee feeding stations. Goat willow, pulmonaria and snowdrops are also helpful. An interesting note here – double snowdrops (and other “double” flowers) are no use to bees (or other insects) as the “double effect” is achieved at the expense of the pollen bearing parts of the flower.
During late spring and summer the list is long! Native species tend to be more interesting to native bees, as well as tending to be hardier than more exotic ones. A decent size clump of flowers in the sun will be more attractive to bees than a few scattered blooms. Try growing Viper's bugloss, Echium vulgare. This is a magnificent plant for a herbaceous border, with spikes of vivid blue flowers up to 60cm (2ft) tall. It should
attract a cloud of bumblebees in high summer. The single rose family is also very attractive to bees – these include crab apple, hawthorn and potentilla.
For late summer, when queens are stocking up for the winter, ivy, angelica, buddleia, cardoon, lavender are all favourites.
Bees prefer slightly untidy gardens – this sounds like a marvelous excuse to be a little lazy! They thrive where things are undisturbed – quiet corners would benefit from comfrey (a good groundcover - also useful as liquid plant feed), foxgloves, forget-me-nots, Verbena bonariensis, teasels, honesty…
For shelter it rather depends on the bee. We have 250 species – 24 bumbles, 225 solitaries and 1 honey bee. With a little work you can attract between 6 and 10 species of bumblebee to a Tatsfield garden. Solitaries nest in holes in the ground or decayed wood. Where you spot bees nesting in the ground, be careful not to disturb these holes if you can avoid it. Bee nesting boxes can be bought at most garden centres. These look like a bird box but with bamboo tubes arranged horizontally. Bees like warmth and shelter, so fix their new abode in a south-facing spot but not in direct sunlight. Point them down slightly to keep out the rain. Site these as close to a source of food as you can.
So bee kind to wildlife and it will do you a good turn. I am planning to plant a bee friendly bed this year and will keep you posted on progress.