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A Guide to Pollinator-Friendly Gardening

by Sanna Burns

There are many reasons to encourage pollinators in the garden. The pure delight of sitting in your garden listening to the pleasant drone of insects about their business is but one. Gardeners know that encouraging honey bees, the world’s best pollinators, is a ‘Good Thing’ if you want high yields, and that where you develop an environment attractive to pollinating insects, you also encourage pest predators such as ladybirds.

Over the past twenty years or thereabouts, honey bees in particular have faced a number of new and serious problems, (including the varroa mite, (Varroa destructor), originating from south-east Asia, new pesticides, including neo-nicotinoids, a series of wet summers, newly-arrived foreign diseases and Colony Collapse Disorder), that have led to significant colony losses, and a heightened public awareness, thanks to the national media, of a ‘lack of bees’: The WI, at their National AGM, voted to ‘save the bees’.

But what can an ordinary person do considering that there are

about 250 species of bees in Britain, some of which, including the Common Carder bee, are already endangered? Furthermore, any nectar-feeding insect can pollinate crops, (though neither so effectively or systematically as Apis melifera). Other pollinators include moths and many species of butterfly: just look at any buddleia bush in the Summer.

Keeping bees is one option. However, this can be quite an expensive and time-consuming pastime, and does not address the needs of other garden pollinators.


I believe that pollinator-friendly gardening is without doubt an important way that people could help, from window-box planting, through to large-scale market gardening. However before visiting your local garden centre for bulbs, plants and seeds, you should bear the following points in mind:

1. The flowers pollinating insects choose to visit depend to a large degree on the length of tongue or proboscis: Bees' tongues, for example, vary in length from about 1mm to 20mm and each species accesses flowers suited to its tongue length. Short-tongued bees tend to favour daisy-like flowers, as the nectar is found in short tubular florets. Long tongued bumble bees prefer flowers with large trumpets such as foxgloves. Hummingbird hawk moths, with their amazing probosces, are particularly partial to honeysuckle, but as you can see from this picture, will try their hand at almost anything with sufficient nectar!


2. Bees are active in the garden from very early in Spring until the autumn frosts, (though honey bees are inactive at temperatures lower than 10 degrees Celsius). Moths are also seasonal. It’s important to have suitable plants in flower, at the appropriate time, for the pollinators you want to encourage.

3. Here are a few simple guidelines to encourage the sustainable build-up of pollinating insects:

* Early in Spring all types of bees need access to pollen-producing flowers to feed the newly hatched larvae.

* Plant a garden that has flowers throughout the year and features a mix suitable for both the long and short-tongued.

* Don’t buy ‘double flowers’ as they produce much less nectar than single-flowered varieties. F1 hybrid plants usually produce very little pollen

* Avoid the use of herbicides and insecticides as much as possible. If you must use them, please read and follow instructions for use carefully. Dispose of excesses safely.

* Plant ivy, as it is the last crop of the year for bees, and can help prevent starvation over winter if they have had a poor summer’s foraging.

Here are a few suggestions for planting to attract all types of pollinators, especially honey bees. All are both nectar and pollen sources, unless otherwise stated.

Annuals: Garden annuals are useful for both pollen and nectar. Their flowering period can be extended by successional sowing, and hardier kinds can be sown in Autumn under glass to get them off to an early start. Bees much prefer plants in full sun. These are some favourites: Balsam, basil, calendula, candytuft, China aster, clarkia, convolvulus, cornflower, cosmos, French marigold, gypsophilia, lavatera, limnathes, mallow, mignonette, nasturtium, nigella, poppy (pollen only), saponaria, scabious, sunflower and zinnia.

Perennials: These plants are a real boon to any insect reliant on nectar or pollen, as they provide a food source year after year, and require little input from gardeners once they are established. Bees like alyssum, aubretia, borage, campanula, Canterbury bells, catmint, clematis, cowslip, fuchsia, geranium, geum, golden rod, gypsophilia, heather, helenium, hollyhock, honeysuckle, horehound, hyssop, lavatera, lavender, mallow, marjoram, Michaelmas daisy, mint, peony (single), rosemary, sage, scabious, savory, thrift, thyme, veronica, wallflower (biennial) and ivy, amongst other things.

Bulbs: The early pollen and nectar from bulbs is vital to bees each Spring. Some are found wild, whilst others are cultivated. Of the cultivars, most are easily naturalised, grow with little maintenance, and do not compete with other garden plants. Consider camassia (quamash), Chionodoxa (glory of the snow), Colchicum (Autumn crocus), crocus, aconite, fritillaria (all varieties), Galanthus (snowdrop), Hyacinth, Ixia, Leucojum (snowflake), Muscari (grape hyacinth), Narcissus (daffodil and jonquil), Scilla, Trillium (wood lily) and Tulip (only for pollen).

Trees: Fruit and nut trees are much loved by bees, and fruit growers maximise their crop by getting local beekeepers to place a couple of hives in their orchards for purposes of pollination. However bees also gather forage from other trees.

Apple, pear, plum, peach, apricot, almond, cherry, lime, hawthorn, sycamore, alder, ash (pollen only), birch (pollen only), blackthorn, sweet and horse chestnut, hazel (for pollen), cherry laurel, privet and willow (all varieties) are great food sources.

Shrubs:A number of ordinary garden shrubs are useful to bees for both nectar and pollen: Cotoneaster (all varieties), buddleia (esp. B. globosa), pyrocanthus, snowberry (Symphoricarpos) escallonia, broom, privet, buckthorn, flowering currants, choisia, ceanothus and  holly, to name but a few.

Weeds: What man might consider a weed, is a bee’s bread and butter, so think before you make your garden too tidy! They especially like Thistle, dandelion, rosebay willow herb and blackberry. Dead nettles (Lamium maculatum) provide early nectar for bees emerging from hibernation

Vegetables: The flowers of a number of vegetables are attractive to bees, though normally these are harvested before the plant reaches the flowering stage. If just a few plants at the end of a row could be left to set seed, this would be beneficial to bees, and could save the gardener money on next year’s seed. These include radish, cabbage, turnips, swede, cauliflower, kale (and other brassicas), onions, leeks, chives, carrots, parsnips, chicory, endive. Bees are also attracted to asparagus, marrows and courgettes, pumpkins, cucumbers, beans of all varieties, raspberry canes, fruiting currants, gooseberry bushes, poached egg plant, (limnanthes douglasii), when planted en masse as a green mulch, and strawberry (for pollen)

You could also plant edible flowers to brighten up summer salads: Try nasturtiums, borage, violets, and pansies (heart’s ease). Remember, the greater the variety of flowers on offer in the garden the more types of bees and other pollinators will visit and profit from your efforts. Happy planting!


Sanna Burns is your contact for Brecknock and Radnor beekeeprs:

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