As I write this in my little suburban garden I am surrounded by a cloud of bees.
They are upon closer inspection bees of all different shapes and sizes, honey bees, solitary bees, leaf cutters and busy bumblebees.
The latter always look as if they shouldn’t be able to fly, but as a saying goes no one has thought to tell them.
Different species seem to prefer different flowers and the relationship is a complementary one.
The flowers long for some buzzing attention.
Bee species are important for ensuring that a plant can thrive and propagate itself so they do their best to look alluring.
Take the showy foxglove flower for instance with its tracks tempting a bee inside.
If you want to know what ecstasy looks like take a look at a bee buried inside a foxglove flower. The whole plant rocks in earthy satisfaction.
There’s a reason why it’s one of our most successful wild flowers. It’s practically irresistible to bees.
A few years ago dwindling bee numbers were causing real concern. Urbanisation, intensive farming practices and disease were all taking their toll.
Dystopian bee-free futures were being talked about as a real possibility.
Some wild bee species have completely disappeared. Different species pollinate different flowers and when we lose a species of bee the plants it pollinates are then under threat.
Whilst complete disappearance may be on the darker side of current predictions it has served to focus our attention on their wellbeing to a much greater degree.
In short, we really can’t afford to take them for granted.
Gardeners can be in the front line of the bee fightback and planting flowers for bees isn’t just an optional extra. It’s right at the heart of what good gardening should be about.
Just like farmers, gardeners are stewards of the natural world not its masters and in our own humble plots we can make a real difference.
Plants are pollinated by bees when they gather nectar from flowers. Wild bees and honeybees also collect pollen.
Pollen is a vital food, used to feed the developing bee grubs and is gathered with the nectar. A good bee garden or border needs a mixture of nectar and pollen-rich plants.
Bees forage for a wide range of flowers, a good bee garden will contain lots of different shapes of flowers.
Bee species have widely different tastes depending on their size, weight and shape of their mouthparts.
Many modern cultivars of wild flowers have evolved so far from their ancestors that they’re now of little use to bees. Roses with complex double flowers are a case in point.
They present too much of a challenge for the average bee to be bothered, and when they do the nectar and pollen yield may not be worthwhile.
The closer a rose is to a wild dog rose in appearance the more likely it is to be attractive to bees.Another factor to consider is flowering time.
A good bee garden will have some flowers available for most of the year.
Bumblebees are particularly vulnerable at the lean times of the year as their colonies only contain food for a number of days.
That’s why you’ll sometimes see a lonely looking bumblebee methodically working its way through your garden at the tail end of winter.
Early season flowers are also needed for newly emerging females.
The female solitary bees appear in mid to late Spring and having mated they then prepare the nest for overwintering the new brood.
There’s a long list of bee friendly plants, sweet peas, catmints, salvias, lavenders, agastache and lavateras being some of the best known and most prominent.
In early spring short tongued bee species can forage on cotoneaster, long-tongued species love the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and if you have the space and inclination, gorse (Ulex europaeus).
Foxgloves are cheap and planted once will spread and return in new and unpredictable places in perpetuity.
Loveable annuals like the poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglassii) are cheap, easy to grow and loved by bees.
As late summer slips into autumn, Echinops, Perovskia and Hebes come into their own.
The bee attractions of the humble wallflower shouldn’t be underestimated, and the long flowering perennial variety Erysium ‘Bowles Mauve’ will throw up flowers from late winter/early spring through to autumn.
Even if you only have a backyard or a window box a few pots with bee friendly plants will make a real difference not only to the survival rates of local bee populations but also to your quality of life.
When we had a small concrete backyard behind a city centre terrace a little colony of bumblebees decided to set up home in our outhouse coming and going through a little gap in the old wooden door.
The nectar and pollen rich plants in pots nearby were certainly an attraction.
Even just planting a few bee friendly plants will make a real difference.
Sharing your space with bees and their complex lives is one of the joys of gardening.
They add beauty to our lives as well as fulfilling a vital role in our food chains.
They’re co-creators of gardens and it’s only right that we should help make their job a little easier.
The RHS have produced more information about bees and how gardeners can help them on their website :
This is a guest blog post written by Martyn Clayton (AKA the ‘York Cycling Gardener’) who provides garden maintenance services in York by environmentally friendly pedal power. For more information about the service please visit http://yorkcyclinggardener.com/