Bees:planting to support pollinators
These days almost everyone is aware of the challenges faced by bees; these include threats from pesticides, exotic pests and diseases such as the varroa mite, and habitat loss and fragmentation caused by urban development. Intensive farming practices have also meant that 97% of our native wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930’s, and been replaced by 5 million hectares of arable farmland. Whilst many think of the UK countryside as a green and pleasant land, sadly much of it is actually a green desert.
Urban parks and gardens, therefore, are becoming increasingly important as refuges for our 250 species of native bees; they contain a wider variety of plants and have more prolonged flowering periods. These ensure that our urban bees remain more active and enjoy longer days and foraging seasons than their rural cousins. Bees in towns are not as susceptible to the use of pesticides either.
Given the above, it is perhaps not surprising that the honeybee population in London has doubled in the last four years and we now have about 5000 colonies in the Greater London area- by contrast, New York has only 600 colonies. This is despite the fact that the vegetated areas of urban back gardens, which cover 24% of the City, have declined, with almost 70% of those garden spaces now made up of hard surfaces such as decking or pavement or short cut grass. Only 11% of private back gardens have flowering plants and shrubbery which may be useful to pollinators.
This makes it hard to ensure that the availability of plants for forage keeps pace with the growth in hives. And it isn’t just honeybees we need to worry about – important wild pollinators such as hoverflies, moths, and butterflies are also competing for the finite amounts of food.
You can start to appreciate what quantities of pollen and nectar are needed when you consider that each honeybee colony alone needs a whopping 120kgs of nectar and 20kgs of pollen each year to survive. It has been suggested that bees need to make 4 million visits to flowers to make just one pound of honey. When you think that each of London’s 5000 colonies each need 37 pounds of honey just to survive winter, you can see why we all need to be planters for pollinators now.
What sort of forage / flowers do bees need?
Different species of bee have different length tongues so will require different types of flowers. What all bees have in common though, is a preference for species with simple flowers which have readily accessible pollen and nectar. Highly bred plants with double blooms and bedding plants should both be avoided as they often lack nectar and pollen organs altogether. Where possible try and stick to traditional cottage garden flowers.
Bees have different nutritional requirements at different times of the year, so planting for different seasons is helpful.
In spring, the queen will start to lay. To feed the brood, bees will seek out pollen- rich flowers such as Crocus, hazel catkins, Christmas roses, Anemones and Viburnum.
At this time, top garden plants for bees are:
- Borage and oregano– among honey bees’ favourite plants
- Lavender ‘Hidcote’, foxglove and legumes (clovers and vetches) –all popular with bumble bees
- Cranesbill and Campanula – popular with honey and bumble bees
- Stachys – a wool carder bee favourite
- Verbena – great for bees, butterflies and hoverflies
- Wallflower ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ – great for early bumble bees, solitary bees and butterflies
- Achillea – attractive to hoverflies and solitary mining bees
- Agastache ‘Black Adder’ – a great all-rounder which attracts many insects
- Cornflower – popular with a variety of insects
Late summer and autumn
Since most native plants complete their reproductive cycle by mid- summer, planting non –natives, especially North American prairie species, can extend the flowering season well into late autumn to provide forage for bees at a time of year when food availability is often scarce and when bee keepers are taking their honey crops off the hives.
Ivy can also provide a bountiful supply of nectar and pollen in the autumn, as can Helenium – a honey bee favourite.
Some different planting ideas
Plant Hanging Baskets and Window Boxes
Try putting some of the following plants together in different combinations to attract pollinators:
- Tagetes ‘Starfire’ mix
- Campanula carpatica
- Ajuga reptans
Create Vertical Pallet Planters
These are good for urban gardeners who are short of space. A planting pouch can be created inside an old wooden pallet using horticultural polythene – the pouch can then be filled with compost and pierced to insert appropriate plug plants.
This year, the LBKA has launched a seed mix with 40 species to provide the best source of forage for pollinators. An annual mix, it contains many of the recommended native and non-native species – sow this in pots or in a patch of garden.
Other things you can do to encourage bees
- Erect bee hotels in your garden for solitary bees. A block of wood hung on a fence or wall with many different sized holes drilled into it will attract mining bees, as will bundles of straws or hollow stems such as bamboo.
- Stop using pesticides.
By Angela Woods, The London Beekeepers’ Association