The best ways to make your garden more bee-friendly

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how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022
how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022

This summer you could make some simple but crucial changes in your garden that will help our native bee population.

“Save the bees” is a slogan bandied about ad infinitum, but it’s almost always focused on the honeybee. This domesticated/farmed species is rightly revered for its honey – but it is not endangered. We have 275 other species of native bees in the UK that are in much deeper trouble, some on the brink of extinction, and while most things gardeners do to “save the honeybee” will help other bees, we need to understand the bigger picture.

The most recent Bugs Matter survey finds that UK flying insects have declined by nearly 60 per cent in less than 20 years, consistent with research that shows declining trends in insect populations globally.

Keeping honeybees won’t save the bees, in fact even a few honeybee hives where rarer bee species exist put huge pressures on our wild bees in terms of spreading diseases and increasing competition for food.

Solitary bees are far more effective pollinators than honeybees. One mason bee does the pollination work of 120 honeybees, so if you have fruit trees and want to improve your harvest it is far more effective to install a solitary bee house. Mason bees nest in hollow cavities and love insect boxes. We can’t change the world but we can change the garden world on our doorstep.

How to attract bees to your garden

Plant power

Nick Tew, a PhD student at Bristol University, is researching plant pollinators in gardens and urban green spaces, and measuring nectar levels in garden flowers (Twitter @nicktew95).

how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022
how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022

His work is very valuable for gardeners who want to help pollinators, and is shaping the way we think about plants. For example, we now know that large gardens with expanses of lawn or paving provide little food for pollinators, whereas even in a tiny space you can pack in a huge amount of nectar with the right tree, shrub or flower-rich border. Here are some power moves from Nick’s research:

Supreme Shrubs

A garden full of flowering shrubs is more pollinator-friendly than one packed with annuals and perennials. Shrubs offer more nectar because of the arrangement of their flowers – hundreds packed close together support efficient feeding.

Bees exhibit floral constancy (ie they feed from one type of flower and work one patch before moving on to the next). This makes them better pollinators because they move pollen from one flower to another of the same type, which is what causes pollination.

Petals please

Choose shrubs with masses of nectar-rich flowers, such as mahonia, berberis, ceanothus and pyracantha. Each pieris flower has seven times more nectar than a primrose, and one small flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), with 3,000 flowers, provides as much nectar as 16,000 primroses.

Food that lasts

Choose plants that provide nectar for eight months of the year, coinciding with most pollinator activity. Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ is an excellent example.

Hang it high

In a small garden, grow fuchsias in pots and hanging baskets. They can be super nectar-rich because they evolved with nectar-hungry hummingbirds.

Globe thistles

Echinops provide a crazy amount of nectar, especially for bumblebees. A single globe thistle head gives as much nectar as 32 cosmos flowers or 349 lawn daisies.

Plant a hedge

In a flower-poor garden, a flowering hedge, such as privet, can easily provide 90+ per cent of all nectar. Prune a third each year to leave larval food for the privet hawk moth. Many hedges flower, just clip at a time that allows them to come into bloom.

No-mow may

Many bees prefer to feed low down. Some of the best lawn flowers for pollinators are bird’s foot trefoil, white clover, dandelion and daisies.

Collect rainwater

In dry weather plants stop making nectar, so to keep them well-watered, collect rainwater rather than using the tap.

Housing for bees

George Pilkington has spent the past six years designing and developing the perfect bee house for wild beekeepers, the Nurturing Nature Solitary Bee Observation Nest Box. “My children wanted to know what was happening inside a bee nest box. So I designed one you can see inside,” he says.

how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022
how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022

“By putting up a bee house you are concentrating the bees in an area and making them easy pickings for pests and predators – which is why you’ve got to manage them. In the wild, you may get bees scattered over a much wider area, so it would take pests a long time to find them and then there may only be two or three bee cells [in one place].”

How to manage your bee house

If you want the best outcome for your solitary bees, learn how to manage them. George Pilkington says: “Red mason bee cocoons can be removed and cleaned from October. Gently remove the cocoons using a plant label. Wash carefully in eco soapy water and dry them. Then put them in a metal sieve with dry sand and swirl them around to batter off any pollen mites.

“Red mason bees overwinter as adults; a lot of the summer bees, like leaf-cutter bees, are still just larvae inside and are much more delicate.”

Cocoons can then be overwintered in a cool dry shed until spring.

The art of bees

Artist and educator Lydia Needle has been a nature lover since childhood, but when she discovered that there were more than 270 different bee species in the UK, she orchestrated a unique art project to showcase the incredible diversity of our native bees.

“I felt compelled to do something. I always thought there were honeybees and a couple of bumbles and something else, like a mason bee. I thought that the other bees were just bigger or smaller versions.”

how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022
how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022

Her exhibition Fifty Bees is now in its fifth phase, and this year ran until May 14. It’s not exactly annual (partly due to Covid), but there have been four exhibitions; the first in 2017 when Lydia turned 50 (pivotal birthday). Each one has showcased 50 different species, though each exhibition does include the honeybee, which Lydia describes as a gateway bee.

The fifth phase will probably have been the last exhibition, and featured 50 more species (which leaves about 25 that she may never feature). For each exhibition Lydia makes exquisite, almost life-size sculptures of each bee out of wool, stitch and recycled materials. She invites other artists to create a partner piece for one bee, based on its ecology.

“The bees have different personalities that come across in the works. If you go into an exhibition with 50 different pieces, there are going to be some that really seep into your soul. Art reaches and touches people in various ways, so that the information is absorbed differently.”

Affordable homes

Wildlife artist and ecologist John Walters was totally enthralled by an aggregation of the much-loved hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) nesting in an ancient church wall (when solitary bees all nest together it is described as an aggregation).

how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022
how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022

“It inspired me to make cob bricks for nesting bees. We mixed some clay, sand and a little bit of gravel, and slowly added water. I shaped them with pieces of wood and made some holes in them while the cob was still wet.”

Create nest sites

Make a variety of holes in cob bricks, from 3-10mm, for other cavity nesters such as red mason bees, leaf-cutter bees, solitary wasps, flower bees and yellow-faced bees.

Plant bee magnets

Some bees visit particular flowers. John puts pots of lungwort near the cob bricks for hairy-footed flower bees.

Damp kills bees

You need to keep nesting bricks as dry as possible; John uses roof tiles to keep off the worst of the wet weather. They also prefer a southerly aspect.

Nature and the mind

Engaging with nature is healing. Bee champion Emily Doorish and her 10-year-old son Jack both have autism, but she says: “One of the things we find incredibly calming is being around nature. I have tea and bee breaks, and if we are having a bad day the bees bring a sense of joy.”

how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022
how to make garden more bee friendly bees nature wildlife flowers pollen uk 2022

Emily has a number of solitary bee houses. She keeps careful records, gently excavates the cocoons and stores them in labelled containers until they hatch, sometimes in her hands. She generously shares her passion and knowledge on Twitter @EDoorish and Instagram @emiliagoxd.

“Jack spent lockdown with a little red mason bee he called Wombee. He fed and cared for him and saw a whole other side of these bees. People think ‘Oh it’s just an insect, it doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t matter.’” But, as Jack says, “We need to look at insects in a different way. We’ve got to stop people hurting them, they are misunderstood, they are gentle creatures, and they need our support.”

Dump the toxins

If you see perfectly circular or oval cuts in your leaves, don’t spray them, female leaf-cutter bees use petal or leaf segments to wrap their babies in little leafy sleeping bags.

Let dandelions grow

Dandelion flower heads offer a flat landing pad and are a rich source of pollen and nectar.

Provide nesting materials

Mason bees need mud. A natural pond is brilliant – bees collect from the clayish rim. A leaky hose or a dripping water-butt tap will keep a mud patch moist.

Replant carrot and parsnip tops

These biennials won’t grow a new taproot, but will flower, providing essential food for hoverflies and other pollinators.

No bee left behind

Inspired by a chance encounter with a tired bumblebee, Faye Whitley and her partner Jake created a bee revival kit, Beevive – a phial of sugar solution within a key ring. Save a queen bumblebee or a female solitary bee and they live to make a nest and subsequent generations. Even male bees aren’t expendable, saving one outside its territory helps to strengthen the gene pool.

When bees get isolated in a small area (they need feeding spots to fuel every flight), they start inbreeding and the available genes within that area become limited, breeding weaker and weaker populations. To keep the genetics strong, male bees need to move away from their nests (so they don’t mate with their sisters) and mate with bees from a different population. So if a male bee has managed to fly further but become exhausted, saving it could make a huge difference in taking new genes into a different population.

The best bee events in the UK

May-September

Join a bee safari with Jean Vernon and learn more about wild bees. Yeo Valley Organic Garden, Somerset, 10am-12.30pm, May 11, June 15, July 20, Sept 28. Tickets £28. For ages 12+.

June 19 & 20

Bee days with Jean Vernon at National Botanic Gardens Wales. You will get to meet a huge variety of bees and hear about the plants that make a difference to them.

June 27-July 3

Support Solitary Bee Week, to raise awareness of solitary bees. Many of these unsung pollinators have fascinating life-cycles – nesting in empty snail shells, or weaving pockets from the fluff on plant leaves to swaddle their eggs and larvae. Use #solitarybeeweek to share your photos on Twitter and Instagram.

This article is kept updated with the latest information.

For further information, visit TheGreenJeanie.com. Buy Jean Vernon’s book, ‘Attracting Garden Pollinators’ (White Owl) for £25 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514 

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