With bees in trouble, our gardens are vital fast-food takeaways for bees and other beneficial bugs. As well as serving up a varied menu of plants they provide the shelter and nesting places that bees also need.
It’s a sad commentary on the declining state of nature that our gardens are proving to be better habitat for bees than our countryside. It should be the other way round but that’s one reason why Britain’s bees are in trouble.
Our green and pleasant land has lost much of its natural variety. It has become a large industrial unit, with huge fields of single crops replacing the hedgerows and the variety of plants bees need.
No wonder over 20 of the UK’s bee species are now extinct, or that a quarter of the 267 remaining bee species are endangered.
With the simple tips below, you can make your garden a bee paradise, and help other wildlife to survive in your garden and beyond.
1. Set up a bee garden right away
First of all, relax. You don’t have to be an expert or have sprawling grounds. Small spaces can be great gardens. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but gardening is about trying things out. With bees as your guide, you are likely to make rapid steps in the right direction. Best of all, you can get a lot done in fragments of time, and you can start at any time. There’s no need to wait for the perfect sunny Sunday.
2. Choose bee-friendly plants for your space
With that in mind, start with something simple to suit your space, your time and your interests. Pots on a patio, herbs in a window box or even a hanging basket can get you going and help bees – if you grow the right plants. Also, think trees, shrubs and larger plants to provide height in your borders. A cherry or birch tree can form a backdrop to ‘layers’ of plants of different height and size closer to the front of the border.
Low growing heathers and crocuses in the front will provide colour and help feed bees in the barren months.
3. Plant through the seasons to provide year-round bee habitat
Like you, bees need food and shelter all year round – so think about planting through the seasons. Which plants will flower and provide the nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein) bees need? Remember that late winter is the time to sow seeds for spring and summer plants. Autumn planted bulbs will burst forth in spring. When the soil warms in the spring, try growing sunflowers that will rise through the year, and stand proud as they feed bees and birds alike. TIP: when they die back cut them off but leave the stump and roots in the ground to return nutrients to the soil.
4. Ask for advice on the best plants for bees
Peek over the garden fence or at your neighbours’ front gardens to see which plants are doing well, and which are being visited by bees. If you like the plants they are visiting, ask your neighbour what they are or take a picture and ask your garden centre. While at the garden centre, have a look to see which plants bees are visiting there.
5. Plant a mix of bee-friendly seeds to grow plants, fruit and veg
Bees need different plants for food – from trees, hedges and shrubs, to bulbs, herbs and grasses – throughout the seasons.Small trees like hazel, holly and pussy (or goat) willow help bees at different times of the year. Ivy is a top food in autumn – try not to cut it cut it back until after flowering. Do you prefer to grow fruit or vegetables? Bees will love both. You can even mix them up – there is no need to keep things formal and separate unless you want to. If you fancy growing your own, the bees will help pollinate your veg – try French, runner and broad beans; aubergines, onions and peppers. They’ll do the same for fruit – from apples, pears and plums to blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.
The greater variety of plant life, the greater the variety of bugs and birds they will support.
6. Give bees shelter by letting the grass grow
Give your mower – and back – a rest by letting some of your lawn (if you have one) grow longer. When you do mow, cutting less often and less closely will help give pollinators places to feed and shelter among the grass. TIP: raise the notches on the mower to lift the cutting blade a few centimetres.
Don’t push it, pile it. Another cheap way to help is with a small wood pile in a corner where bugs can nest and feed. This micro-habitat will decay over time and give a natural look. Use logs or sawn off tree branches but avoid treated wood. Even a small heap of pruned branches and twigs will give shelter and can be placed out of sight at the back of a border.
Being a bit messy is part of being a good gardener for nature. Mess can attract bugs, birds and larger creatures such as hedgehogs. (Tip: cut a hedgehog-shaped hole in the bottom of a fence panel to let them move through.)
Your compost heap may get occupied by harmless queen bumblebees and grass snakes seeking a place to nurture their young. Don’t worry, they will move on but you will be helping them heaps if you let them be.
7. Save the bees and put away the pesticides
One thing to put away is the ‘bug gun’. Bee-harming pesticides and herbicides are implicated in bee decline. It’s tempting to put a can of spray in your basket on a trip to the garden centre, but it is a lot of money when dealing with real pests like aphids is as easy as stripping them off with gloved hands.
8. Use peat-free compost to save wildlife habitat
Help keep our threatened peat bogs intact by using the many good alternatives that now exist. Public concern about the loss of these unique natural habitats has persuaded the Government to phase out the sale of peat in garden centres by 2020.
9. Grow from seed to create great bee habitats
Growing from seed is growing in popularity, especially vegetables. It is a cheap way to get the full experience of tending through to maturity and is the ideal method for creating pollinator-friendly habitats such as wildflower meadows. Look for heritage and naturally ‘open-pollinated’ seeds which help keep the diverse genetic make-up of what is being grown – contributing to greater biodiversity.
10. Welcome beneficial insects in your garden
Beneficial insects like hoverflies, beetles and ladybirds hunt aphids and other pests so treat them as allies not enemies. We can have great gardens and help bees and other nature at the same time.
To survive and thrive, bees need us to be the generation that saves our British bees. Letting bees be your guide and ally will help transform your patch, control real pests naturally and get your plants and crops pollinated for free. That’s more than a fair trade.