How to garden for bees

Bumblebee by - Josh Kubale

We all know that bees are under threat, but we don’t always know how to help them. Luckily, bee conservation can start in your garden and we’re here to help you learn how to garden for bees.

You don’t need a huge garden to help bees at home. Yards, balconies, and even doorsteps with just a couple of plant pots can help the UK’s bees to cling on. Gardening for bees is all about using your space wisely and bearing bees’ needs in mind when you plan your outdoor space. Here are our top tips.

Plant bee-friendly flowers and herbs

Unfortunately, not all plants are bee-friendly. Many of the blooms available in garden centres have been bred purely for their looks and, as a result, have double or multi-petalled flowers which block bees’ access to nectar. These flowers can even lack nectar and pollen completely. So what are the best bee-friendly plants?

Native plants

Bees, like many of the UK’s insects, evolved alongside our native wildflowers for millions of years, so adding them to your garden is a great way to help bees thrive. Some of their favourites include:

  • Scabious
  • Betony
  • Comfrey
  • Viper’s bugloss
  • Knapweeds
  • Thistles
  • Bugle
  • Heathers
  • Ivy
  • Ox-eye daisies

The good thing about native flowers is that they’re also relatively hardy and tend to be more resistant to pests.

Nectar-rich herbs

As well as giving you a ready supply of delicious ingredients for your cooking, home-grown herbs are brilliant for bees. When they flower, they’re rich in nectar and attract some of the most common garden bumblebees and solitary bees, including red-tailed bumblebees and red mason bees. Herbs are also some of the best bee-friendly plants for pots, window boxes and planters – ideal if your outdoor space is on the smaller side. Try these:

  • Rosemary: Flowers in spring and may continue throughout the year. Add to pasta sauces and roast potatoes.
  • Thyme: Flowers in summer. Delicious in risotto.
  • Chives: Flowers in spring and summer. A tasty addition to potato salad.
  • Marjoram: Flowers in summer and early autumn. Sprinkle onto pizza or stir into salads.
  • Sage: Flowers in late spring and summer. Works beautifully with butternut squash.
  • Lemon balm: Flowers in summer. Use it to liven up pesto.
A red-tailed bumblebee with clumps of pollen on its legs feeding from a chive flower

Red-tailed bumblebee on chives by Richard Burkmar

A range of flowering periods

Different plants flower at different times of the year. Bees rely on nectar all year-round, so when gardening for bees try to include plants with a range of flowering periods. This way there will be a ready supply of nectar and pollen through every season.

Spring-flowering plants

  • Hawthorn
  • Bugle
  • Primroses
  • Grape hyacinths
  • Viburnum

Summer-flowering plants

  • Verbena
  • Scabious
  • Comfrey
  • Foxgloves
  • Lavender

Autumn-flowering plants

  • Buddleia
  • Heathers
  • Honeysuckle
  • Autumn aster

Winter-flowering plants

  • Ivy
  • Snowdrops
  • Crocuses
  • Hellebores
  • Winter aconite

Different flower shapes

Did you know that different bees have tongues of different lengths? This means they can’t all reach the nectar from the same flowers. Long-tongued species like the garden bumblebee, for example, love delving deep into tubular flowers including foxgloves and honeysuckle. Shorter-tongued species like the white-tailed bumblebee seek out flowers like borage, with easily accessible nectar.

Rethink weeds

Did you know that some of the most important bee-friendly plants are also the ones that many people try to eradicate? We’re talking about flowers like dandelions and clovers. Dandelions in particular are some of the first flowers to bloom, offering a vital source of early nectar for solitary bees that have just hatched and queen bumblebees that have woken from hibernation. When they emerge, these bees desperately need to fill up on nectar and, when they’ve made a nest, gather pollen stores to feed their first brood, so please let your ‘weeds’ lie.

An ashy mining bee feeding from a dandelion

Ashy mining bee feeding from a dandelion by Charlotte Varela

Get a bee hotel

Bee hotels offer vital nesting areas for solitary bees, which don’t live in colonies like bumblebees. Solitary bees nest alone in a range of tube-like structures, which makes bee hotels great garden homes for them. Red mason bees and leafcutter bees are the species most likely to book a room in your bee hotel.

The best bee hotel is quite often the simplest: a container filled with different-sized hollow tubes, such as cut lengths of bamboo. It’s really easy to make your own, but think carefully about where you place it. The best position is a south or east-facing wall or fence that gets plenty of morning sun, about 1.5m off the ground. Push the tubes back against the back of the hotel so they’re protected from any wind and rain.

The main thing to bear in mind with a bee hotel is that once you put one up, it needs looking after to make sure it isn’t taken over by parasites or diseases. Take the bee hotel down in October and pop it somewhere it will stay cool and dry through winter, like a shed or garage. Put it back out in spring and replace the container or its nest holes at least every two years.

A leafcutter bee covered in pollen flying into a bamboo stick in a bee hotel

Leafcutter bee by Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Go chemical-free

Sadly, a range of pesticides containing neonicotinoids (proven to kill bees) are still approved for home and garden use. What’s more, they’re readily available in most garden centres and DIY shops, in bottles as well as in many of the plants on sale. It’s really important to source plug plants that haven’t been grown using pesticides where possible.

One of the best things you can do for the bees in your garden is to put down pesticides and go chemical-free. By planting wisely, encouraging natural predators and using physical barriers, you’ll soon be able to manage your outdoor space without harming bees, insects and other wildlife.

How to go chemical-free in your garden

Choose peat-free compost and plants

Did you know that by using peat-free compost and plants you can save not only the bees in your garden, but bees elsewhere in the UK and even the world?

The peat used in garden compost is extracted from peat bogs. These precious wild places, once common across the UK, are now rare habitats that are sadly becoming even scarcer. When healthy, they’re bursting with fascinating plants like carnivorous sundews, beautiful heathers and peat-forming sphagnum mosses; they buzz with rare bees, butterflies and dragonflies; they’re home to wonderful animals like curlews and adders; and they store huge amounts of carbon and help prevent flooding. But when peat bogs are drained and their plants and grasses ripped out so the peat beneath can be dug up for compost, the entire landscape is changed and we lose all of the wild creatures that depend on the peat bog for survival.

Thankfully there are some fantastic alternatives to peat-based compost out there. Some DIY shops and garden centres are now stocking these, but not all of them, so if you can’t find any, don’t be afraid to ask for it. You can also buy peat-free compost online from brands like Dalefoot Compost and SylvaGrow.

Try to source peat-free plants, too. Unless they’re labelled as peat-free then they’ll have been grown in a peat-based compost, regardless of whether they have an ‘insect-friendly’ badge on them. If Monty Don and Kew Gardens can do it, so can you!

More peat-free gardening tips

The sun rising over a healthy peat bog landscape in Ireland

The sun rising over a healthy peat bog by Ben Hall/2020VISION

Why are bees declining?

Unfortunately, there isn’t just thing lurking behind the decline of bees – these incredible insects are facing an onslaught of threats.

Modernisation

Modern intensive farming methods and insensitive urban development are robbing bees of the wildflowers they rely on for food and safe places to nest amongst vegetation, soil and hedges. 97 per cent of wildflower meadows have been wiped out in the last 40 years alone.

Climate change

Climate change is causing seasonal shifts, making our winters warmer and wetter. This is disrupting the nesting behaviour of bees and may also impact the flowering time of the plants which they rely on for food. Apple trees, for example, could blossom at a different time from when the bees are active. This would mean the bees have less food and the trees won’t get pollinated or produce fruit. Climate change is also pushing bees northwards, but not all bee species can survive further north, whether because of their ability to adapt to different temperatures and landscapes or because the plants they rely on simply don’t grow there.

Pesticides

Scientists have found that exposure to pesticides can damage honeybees' ability to navigate, and bumblebees' and solitary bees' ability to reproduce. Neonicotinoids are the particularly harmful pesticides and have been proven to kill bees. When a bee drinks from a flower containing neonicotinoids, the pesticide destroys the bee’s central nervous system, stopping them from being able to feed, navigate, forage and reproduce.

Herbicides

Herbicides are increasingly used to eradicate many of bees’ favourite nectar plants from parks, pavements, road verges, towns, cities and the countryside. From dandelions to knapweed, spraying these wildflowers with herbicides kills them and the vegetation around them – killing a vital nectar source and, often, the long grasses that bees like to shelter in.

Pests and disease

Honeybee colonies are susceptible to a range of pests and diseases, but the most dangerous is the varroa mite. This tiny parasitic mite attaches itself to a honeybee, transmits disease and saps its strength, and it can jump from honeybees to our bumblebees. By closely managing the health of their hives, beekeepers can be part of the fight to protect our wild bee colonies too.

We hope this has helped you feel more confident about gardening for bees and armed you with plenty of tips to get started.

Feeling inspired?

Here are even more ways you can help bees and other pollinators to thrive both at home and further afield.

Sign the No More Neonics petition

Tell the Prime Minister to overturn the decision to allow bee-killing pesticides to be used in England.

Sign the petition

Take action for insects

As well as bees, why not take action for moths, beetles and other insects at home and in your local community?

Find out how

Penny Frith

Become a member

Surveying bee populations, creating solitary bee banks, planting new wildflower meadows, working with Northern Rail to create bee-friendly train stations; we’re hard at work ensuring bee populations recover in your area. But we’re only a small charity – we can’t do this without your support.

Become a member today

Wildflower meadow (c) James Alder

Make a donation

Whether it’s £1 or £100, each and every donation helps us safeguard local bee populations.

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Chris Gomersall/2020VISION