Keen to make your garden bee-friendly? Find out how to include the right plants and nesting places to create a buzz!
The bee is one of nature’s most important insects, and it has a crucial pollinator role to play in our environment. Supporting bee populations everywhere, including in our gardens, encourages continued biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem.
The importance of bees can be summed up in just a few words: no bees, no harvest. Wild bees and honey bees pollinate most plants that we rely on for crops and resources. Bees also make a significant contribution to the dispersal of plants and, as such, biodiverse habitats.
The most noticeable difference between wild bees and honey bees is their lifestyle: wild bees are solitary insects that make nests in the ground or rock crevices, plant stems, dry stone walls or insect hotels, while honey bees are colony nesters, living together in a hive. This means that wild bees are distributed over a wider area and therefore make a greater contribution to pollination than honey bees. Many cropping plants do better if the more efficient wild bees pollinate them, and a few plant species, including tomatoes, are pollinated exclusively by solitary bees. Another way that these insects are essential in the ecosystem is that they become food for other animals.
In the UK alone, there are over 250 species of wild bee, of which 35 are threatened with extinction, and all are in decline. Intensive agriculture is largely to blame: it places primary importance on monocultures to achieve higher yields. Hardly any flowering plants can be found in these monocultures, meaning there is no food for bees. Some native bees only collect nectar from one plant species, so if that plant is pushed out by agriculture, our stripy friends have nowhere to go.
It’s not only a problem in an agricultural context, as domestic gardens are often unwelcoming to bees as well. Gardens are generally designed to suit the taste of the owner or to be easy to care for, which means many gardens don’t contain the plants that insects need. If bees can’t find enough food in our meadows, fields or gardens, they will starve.
If the nearest wildflower meadow is a long way from a bee’s nest, it will be hard for the insect to access the food source. So a bee-friendly garden should include everything they need to survive: food, nesting sites, shelter and somewhere to overwinter. Even if you can only keep a couple of bee-friendly plants in your garden or on your balcony, these can serve as a ‘flower island’, helping bees as they search for food and fly from flower island to flower island, pollinating more plants and supporting the ecosystem.
Protecting bees is essential for the wellbeing of our planet and of our own species. Read on to find out how to make your garden a bee-friendly haven.
It just takes a few simple materials to transform an outdoor space into a perfect bee habitat – even the tiniest corner stocked with bee-friendly plants is hugely helpful to local insect populations. And with a little extra effort, you can create a real pollinator paradise of bee-friendly perennials, herbs and shrubs.
Bees need to stay hydrated too. Fill a flat dish with water and add a little gravel or a few marbles so the bees can safely climb in and out.
Pesticides keep your plants free of pests, but they also deter beneficial insects, including bees. So your bee-friendly garden should avoid this type of pest control and instead use natural methods to strengthen your plants against pest attacks. A spray of diluted stinging nettle fertilizer or garlic brew makes a powerful foliar feed and deters many pests. Aphids are simple to tackle with a powerful jet of water, by brushing off with a finger, or by removing the affected shoots.
To prevent pesticides or fungicides from being needed in the first place, pay close attention when first buying plants for your pollinator-friendly garden. Look for blight-resistant vegetables and disease-tolerant or disease-resistant fruit and roses from well-established nurseries and growers. Position your plants so they don’t suffer due to lack of light or other reasons – weak plants are much more susceptible to pest attack.
If you can't avoid using pesticides in your bee-friendly garden, use brands that are harmless to beneficial insects and are explicitly safe for bees. Take note, though, that even these pesticides should never be sprayed onto flowers, as bees that pick up and carry the smell of these substances may be unable to return to their colonies.
STIHL professional tip: Remember that the insects we see as pests are as much a part of our natural ecosystem as beneficial insects are. Try and tolerate some pests in your garden as they are often a food source for other wildlife too.
Your garden will never be really bee-friendly without some places to nest. Solitary bees, in particular, who would usually nest in plant stems and holes in wood, love hideaways like insect hotels and gaps in dry stone walls. It’s very easy to build an insect hotel yourself, and you can also buy them in many garden stores. Make sure you use the right filling materials: bees love to nest in reeds or bamboo canes, seashells, pine cones.
Another accommodation option for wild bees is a dry stone wall. In these simple stone walls made without mortar, bees nest in the crevices between the stones.
Dead wood piles also provide a hidden habitat for many creatures. Whether you use them as sections of hedging or piled up in a corner of the garden, hedgehogs, birds, brimstone butterflies and many other animals will find shelter between the boughs and twigs.
Some species, such as the grey-backed mining bee, for example, dig their nests in sandy ground, so you could leave a small area of sand exposed to offer these bees some simple and natural assistance with nesting in your bee-friendly garden.
Don’t forget: place a dish of water with stones close to the nesting site, so the bees always have something to drink.
When you are looking for bee-friendly garden plants, first consider native species. Your local bees have long been adapted to these, and exotic breeds are rather alien to them. Native weeds – such as stinging nettle, buckthorn and thistle – are outstanding sources of nectar for bees and other pollinating insects such as butterflies and bumblebees.
Avoid plants with full blossoms and no clear centre, as these have been developed through breeding, so the stamens are replaced with petals. Though the lush blooms look beautiful, they don’t offer much for bees, who struggle to reach the stamens inside and are then rewarded neither with nectar nor pollen.
One easy way to provide bee-friendly flowers in your garden is by sowing a seed mix specially designed to attract bees. However, be aware that many of these mixes are designed with plants from the Mediterranean or the USA. Though the blooms are open and suitable for insects, for native wild bees indigenous plants are still a better choice. So you should ideally choose seed mixes that are designed for your area; try farm shops and agricultural organisations.
Hydrangeas are extremely varied, and only some are bee-friendly. Choose simple-flowered “lacecap” types for a bee-friendly garden so that the bees can get to the precious nectar.
Growing vegetables such as broad beans, cabbage, cucumbers, carrots and onions is good for you and for the bees. Medicinal plants such as borage and calendula also attract many insects with their nectar-filled blossoms. Complete your kitchen garden with strawberries and herbs for a wonderfully scented patch full of goodness.
It’s easy to make your balcony bee-friendly: wallflowers, nasturtiums, verbena, lobelia, wild sage and snapdragons look beautiful and offer a rich bounty for visiting bees. They also love kitchen herb favourites like sage, rosemary, lavender, peppermint and thyme.
Just as bees are on the lookout for food all year round, you will want to enjoy a beautiful garden through all the seasons. The lists below give you an idea of plants that will keep your garden blooming and bee-friendly through the seasons.
There are few bee-friendly plants that blossom in the cold season here, though non-native exceptions include winter clematis, hellebores and mahonia. Most bees don’t look for food in winter and sustain themselves through the season from the supplies they have already gathered, but it is not unusual to see a few winter bees foraging, particularly in cities. And there are other ways you can help bees in winter, too: an insect hotel in your garden or on your balcony provides a safe place to overwinter. If you have shrubs in the garden, don’t cut these back during your winter tidy-up, but leave them until spring instead. Bees and other insects like to overwinter in the stems.