Gardens will be beginning to bloom with spring flowers this month – but while all flowers are beautiful, some are better for bees than others
Bees – and especially bumblebees – need our help. In the UK, there are 24 species of bumblebee but only eight are commonly found in most places. According to the most of these species have declined greatly in recent years, and two have become extinct in the UK since 1940.
This is bad news for bees, of course – but it's not great news for us humans, either. We rely on the contribution of bumblebees to pollinate a range of commercial crops – strawberries, apples, tomatoes and peas, for example. Without these amazing insects helping out on UK farms, the cost of some fruit and vegetables could rocket, as farmers become forced to find less cost-effective means of pollination. So it makes sense to do all we can to help.
With bumblebee populations crashing, they are relying more heavily on our gardens for food. So one of the best things that gardeners can do is create a bumblebee feeding station. Planting a range of nectar-rich shrubs, perennials and annuals to offer a constant supply of nectar from early spring to late autumn will attract bumblebees – and all sorts of other wonderful pollinating insects, such as butterflies, honeybees and hoverflies – to your patch.
But which plants are best for bees? Here's a round up of some of our favourites – plant just a few of these and your garden will soon be buzzing with life!
Can't afford a garden makeover, but still want to help bees? Annuals such as cosmos, love-in-a-mist, sunflowers, Californian poppies and candytuft are cheap and easy to grow from seed. Fill a patio container or add to shrubs and perennials in your flower border for colourful summer blooms that bees will adore.
If you grow your own veg, try growing some sweet peas alongside your runner beans. Their fragrant, pastel flowers will attract bees and bumblebees, which will then go on to pollinate your vegetables. Sweet peas are also great for cutting and will add colour and fragrance to your home. They bloom again soon after cutting – in fact this makes the plants thrive, and the more you cut them the more they will flower. The result is vases full of flowers all summer, and a long-lasting source of nectar for pollinating insects.
Lavender is perhaps one of the most popular cottage garden plants, with lovely lilac flowers and a wonderful, relaxing scent. Bees love it, and there's nothing like the sight of a bumblebee dangling upside down on a lavender flower to lift the spirits.
Borage is easy to grow from seed and attracts bees, butterflies and hoverflies. It's a good herb to plant alongside vegetables, as the pollinating insects that are drawn to its delicate blue blooms will then go on to pollinate the runner beans.
Many other herbs are also popular with pollinating insects, and most are easy to grow. Try rosemary, sage, thyme and fennel. As an added bonus, fresh herbs are delicious and will add extra flavour to home-cooked meals.
When bumblebees and other insects emerge from hibernation in early spring, they'll be looking for nectar-rich flowers for a quick breakfast. Unfortunately, there may not be much choice at this time of year – especially if an early warm spell brings insects out of hibernation when much of the garden is still asleep.
That's why planting some spring-flowering bulbs in your garden is so important. Snowdrops are usually the first to flower, and can be in bloom as early as January. Crocuses and grape hyacinths are also a good choice.
Daffodils are less popular, but bees will still visit them for nectar if there's not much else available. The fancy, double-flowered varieties offer few benefits for wildlife, so it's best to choose our native species – look out for Narcissus pseudonarcissuss – if you're planning to plant daffodil bulbs this autumn.
Scabious is a super little plant with purple flowers that keep going right through summer. To attract colourful butterflies, such as painted ladies and red admirals, as well as bees, choose scabiosa 'Butterfly Blue' which flowers from July to October.
Verbena bonariensis is a tall perennial that looks great at the back of the border and produces clusters of purple flowers in summer. Sedums flower in autumn, so include some of these easy-to-grow perennials in your border to provide a source of nectar later in the year. Other bee-friendly perennials include catmint, penstemon, aquilegia and hardy geraniums.
Early flowering shrubs that are great for bees include mahonia, viburnum (v. bodnatense and v. tinus are good choices) and flowering currant. Hebes are popular with many gardeners – as well as bees and butterflies – as they're available in a range of colours and sizes to suit most situations.
For summer flowers, you can't beat buddleia. It's a plant frequently seen on waste ground, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't grow it in your garden! It's easy to grow, and will thrive in almost any conditions – ideal for “difficult” corners of the garden. Buddleia is available in pink, white and yellow varieties, and is commonly called the “butterfly bush” – plant some in your border and you'll soon see why!
Many trees flower, and their blossoms shouldn't be overlooked as a fantastic source of nectar. Trees with nectar-rich blossoms include hawthorn, hazel, wild cherry and crab apple.
Apple trees are also great for bees. Bees feast on the blossom in spring, pollinating the trees as they buzz from one blossom to the next. 'Katy' is an excellent variety for the Peak District climate, or why not try growing a Derbyshire heritage variety such as 'Newton Wonder' or 'Beeley Pippin'?
In fact bees like the blossoms of most fruit trees – so if you don't fancy apples, why not grow pears, plums, damsons or cherries? And, of course, you'll get a tasty autumn crop – so everyone's a winner!
Little Green Space May 2016
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