Is your garden popular with bees? If not, here are some easy ways to transform it into a bee friendly garden that these vital insects will love to visit.
Why bees are important
If you’re interested in gardening and nature, you’re probably aware that bees are in trouble, with numbers and species in quite dramatic decline. What you might not be aware of is just how important bees are to us, and the planet in general.
Native bees don’t just make honey and give us a lovely sound in the garden on summer afternoons. Bees are vital for the pollination of plants – including food crops – and this insect family which is in serious decline plays a crucial role in helping to provide around a third of the food we eat. Just think about that for a second – worrying, isn’t it?
How to create a bee garden
No matter how small your garden or outdoor space, you can do your bit to help native bees thrive. They will return the favour by pollinating all your plants.
If you’d like to make your garden more bee friendly, here and some easy ways to do it, plus a guide to the best flowers for bees.
Grow plants for bees
The single most important thing you can do to make your garden more bee friendly is to grow a pollinator garden full of bee friendly flowers and plants that attract bees.
The best plants for bees are those that provide a good food source of nectar or pollen, or ideally both. Think of the whole garden, and this will really broaden the potential for bee friendly plants. Trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals are all great candidates.
You should also aim to grow plenty of plants that produce single, open flowers for bees. These make it easy for bees to reach the pollen and nectar.
There are lots of different species of native bees are active at different times of the year, so try to grow a range of pollinator-friendly plants that will provide flowers for bees for as long as possible. March to September is the key period to aim for.
Look out for the RHS ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ badge when buying seeds and plants, these are all plants bees love. You can also find a list of bee plants and flowers for bees on the RHS website. Here’s a quick list of flowers that attract bees to get you started.
The best flowers for bees
Spring flowers: Pansies, Crocus, Hyacinths, Primroses, Forget-me-Nots, Bluebells, Pussy Willow, Flowering Cherry Trees, Hawthorn, Peonies, Alliums, Rhododendrons.
Summer flowers: Lavender, Phlox, Echinacea, Cosmos, Foxgloves, Snapdragons, Bee Balm, Delphiniums, Honeysuckle, Alliums, Marigolds, Zinnias, Borage, Chives, Mint, Sage, Thyme, Oregano, Nasturtiums, Buddleja, Verbena Bonariensis.
Autumn flowers: Zinnias, Asters, Nasturtiums, Sedum, Thyme, Oregano, Borage, Witch Hazel, Ivy.
Winter flowers: winter Clematis, winter Honeysuckle, Snowdrops, Hellebores, winter Heather.
Apparently bees can see the colour purple the most clearly, so it’s a good idea to bear this in mind when choosing your plants.
Grow native wildflowers
This is a great low-maintenance option for a bee garden, and ideal if you’re just getting started on making your garden more bee friendly. Native plants and wildflowers suit native wildlife, and maintain the balance of nature – obvious really isn’t it!
A wildflower patch will support many different wildlife species, not just bees – and it’s a really low-cost project too. You can buy mixed packets of *wildflower seeds which will create a lovely meadow effect that bees will also enjoy. If you’re not sure how to sow them, check out my guide to sowing wildflowers.
Install a bee hotel
Solitary bees and mason bees love to make their home in little holes. An easy way to provide such a habitat and attract bees to your garden is to install a *bee hotel.
Bee hotels should be placed about 1-4 feet off the ground and facing as close to south as possible. A position that receives full sun is ideal.
Choose a bee hotel that has a variety of hole sizes, this will make it useful for different types of bee. We always have at least a few residents in ours!
You can also make your own bee hotel, there’s a good guide to doing this here.
Provide a queen bee nest
In autumn and early winter, bumblebee queens are looking for a warm, dry place to hibernate. If you can provide this, you’ll be helping to support next year’s bumblebee population.
To create a queen bee nest, all you need is a terracotta pot, some moss, and some hay. Place the moss in the bottom of the pot, then fill it loosely with hay. The aim here is for the moss to fall down a bit when you turn the pot over, allowing the bee to enter through the drainage hole in the bottom.
Position your filled pot in a sheltered part of the garden. Place it upside down, and use soil to bury it about halfway. This will provide a cosy winter home for your local bumblebee queens.
Provide bees with a source of water
Bees need a water source to keep them hydrated while they work on your flowers. This can be as simple as a shallow dish of water with some stones, twigs or marbles sticking out to provide a landing spot.
Make sure you keep an eye on your bee bath in warm weather, and top it up regularly.
Don’t be too tidy in the garden
This is a good rule in general when making your garden a home for wildlife. Nature isn’t tidy, so wildlife isn’t suited to taking up residence amongst a perfectly pristine garden.
Try letting some of your lawn grow longer to allow plants like clover and dandelion to flower. It doesn’t have to be a huge chunk of grass; even a small patch will make a difference. If you can’t bear the thought of an unkempt lawn, you could go easy on the weeds somewhere else in the garden. Many species of bee love to visit a more natural, unattended area.
You can also leave dead plant stems on the plant to provide a place for solitary bees to nest. Piles of branches are also great for bee species that nest in wood and stems.
Use natural fertilisers, pesticides and weed control
To provide your local bees with the safest environment, aim to only use natural pesticides, fertilisers and weedkillers. Many chemical-based products are harmful to bees – and lots of other beneficial insects too. As well as helping to create a bee garden, switching to a more organic approach is also an easy way to garden more sustainably.
Your garden is probably already home to a very natural form of pest control: namely the insects that feed on the pests. Ladybirds, ants, spiders and lacewings are brilliant for controlling aphids (greenfly and blackfly), and ground beetles will happily deal with slugs and caterpillars. Encourage the beneficial varieties, and you’ll deal with problem pests while also supporting your local bees.
Natural weed control methods include removing by hand, smothering, and filling up your ground with plants to starve out the weeds.
How to help a tired bee
It’s hard work being a bee! You’ve probably come across an exhausted bumblebee or honey bee that isn’t moving or flying, and it’s not hard to give them a helping hand.
Make a sugar solution by mixing sugar with warm water in equal quantities. Put some of the solution in a small saucer or bottle cap, and position it close to the bee’s head. This provides the bee with a high-energy drink which will quickly help to perk it up.
How to avoid and deal with bee stings
Bees aren’t aggressive, and will only sting as a last resort if they feel threatened. The simplest way to avoid getting stung in the garden is to try not to alarm your bees. That means no quick movements and swatting motions, even if a bee lands on you!
You might also want to avoid wearing perfume with a floral or fruity fragrance, as this can make bees mistake you for a nectar-rich flower. They won’t sting you because of it, but it might mean they pay more attention to you. Similarly, brightly coloured clothing and flowery prints can confuse bees and cause them to get a bit too close for comfort.
It’s worth knowing that bees flying in a straight line (as opposed to buzzing from flower to flower) are likely to be close to their nest or hive. They will defend their home if you disturb it, so this is a good way to work out which areas you might need to steer clear of.
If you’re unlucky enough to be stung by a bee, remove the stinger from the skin (a credit card works well here), and wash the area with soap and water. A cold compress can be used to reduce any swelling, and you can use over-the-counter bite and sting cream to help with itching. A severe allergic reaction to bee stings is uncommon but dangerous, so seek medical help immediately if you experience hives, nausea or breathing difficulties.
More bee garden resources
So you’ve created your bee garden, and it’s buzzing with visitors! Here are some useful bee resources and activities for all the family.
Gardener’s World has a great guide to the common varieties of garden bee here. Can you spot them all in your garden?
*The Secret Lives of Garden Bees explores the relationship between bees and plants, and has lots of tips for creating a bee friendly garden.
*The Bee Book is a great introduction to bees and beekeeping.
Kids can have fun with a bee scavenger hunt.
*B is For Bee introduces very young children to the world of bees through gorgeous illustrations and simple facts.
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has lots of activity sheets, crafts and games here.
*The Bee Book is aimed at 5-8 year olds and teaches children about bees, how much they matter, why they are declining, and what we can do to help.
*RHS Let’s Get Gardening is a fantastic gardening book for kids which has a whole section on wildlife gardening.
Looking after our native bees is so important – it really isn’t something we can ignore and hope others will sort out. Happily, a bee garden isn’t tricky to create, and can look stunning. It’s also a wonderful project to get the children involved with – and by doing so we can inspire the next generation to carry on the good work.
Have I convinced you to make a few bee-friendly changes in your garden?