How to transform your garden into a sanctuary for bees

Clumps of echinacea are laden with bees through summer

Clumps of echinacea are laden with bees through summer - Credit: Leigh Clapp

With spring emerging now is a great time to think about adding some bee-friendly plants to your garden.

Echinops are a good choice with their clusters of flowers

Echinops are a good choice with their clusters of flowers - Credit: Leigh Clapp

As we all know bees are vital for plant pollination and it is estimated that 80 per cent of the western diet is dependent on bee pollination, so it is important that we do what we can to help their health and survival.

The prime reason for the waning bee population is the parasitic varroa mite but we can do our bit to help by adding nectar and pollen-rich flowers to increase the population and the inventory of flower-rich habitat in their area. In return an abundance of pollinators will ensure our garden plants and crops continue to flourish.

There are lots of things we can keep in mind to be bee-friendly. Bees focus their pollen-collecting in the area local to their hive, returning to the same source until it is depleted. It is important to plan for a succession of choices from early spring to late autumn, and winter choices can also be beneficial.

Adding the right plants to attract bees is easy once you gain some understanding of what they need. Think simple long-flowering, single open flowers, old-fashioned cottage plants and native choices for their food, water to drink and habitats for shelter. Aim for long, successional blooming rather than short, seasonal bursts of flowers. Bees need high quality food and variety to be healthy, just like us.

Harvesting honey at Pashley Manor

Harvesting honey at Pashley Manor - Credit: Leigh Clapp

You may even like to keep honey bees yourself or allow a beekeeper to place hives in your garden. I chatted to Margaret Ginman who cares for the hives at Pashley Manor Gardens in Ticehurst, a glorious classic country garden that attracts visitors from far and wide through the season. The hives are kept in a field beside a small orchard on the edge of the gardens, surrounded by early crocuses and near the hot borders that are planted with an array of options for ease of access to the nectar, including single open roses and dahlias. “There is a pollination deficit in the UK which I am happy to say Pashley is addressing with the continuation of bee-friendly planting. We are also keenly aware of the shortage of local honey. We are building up the Pashley hives this spring to provide good quality local honey for visitors,” she explains.

As general secretary of the Bee Farmers’ Association and a member of DEFRA’s Pollinator Steering Group she also suggests that the home gardener grow more bee-friendly flowers, shrubs and trees, let some areas grow wild, cut the lawn less often and don’t disturb insect nests and hibernation spots.

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Many gardens in Sussex offer opportunities for inspiration. At Nymans, a National Trust property near Handcross, the garden and woodland are managed for year-round interest but it is also one of the best nature gardens for the diversity of plants and wildlife. Assistant head gardener Nick Delves says: “We garden with nature in mind, ensuring plants for nectar through the year, such as mahonias, hellebores and snowdrops through winter, primulas and bulbs along with flowering trees and shrubs in spring, choices including fuchsias, nicotiana and Verbena bonariensis in summer and salvias, Japanese anemones and single dahlias in autumn.

“We use lots of natives, leave seedheads in some of the borders, and have a diverse meadow area alive with insect favourites such as scabious, poppies and daisies. We like to leave fringes wild and don’t use pesticides, instead utilising biological controls. Some weeks the garden is alive with insects due to the bio-diversity in food and habitats. We’ve just restored the rock garden as well, which is particularly good for solitary bees to make their homes. It is a great idea for people at home to try,” he says.

Spring chores

Spring chores - Credit: Leigh Clapp

Standen near East Grinstead, another National Trust property, has eight hives in the old orchard with a mix of apples, cherries and mulberries. Senior gardener Andy Gorman-Strong explains their strategy: “We have a dedicated group of volunteers looking after the hives. The bees have a range of up to three miles and go to various plants, including our border for bees and butterflies with choices such as buddlejas, salvias, dianthus, daisies and Verbena bonariensis, a lavender lawn and two wildflower meadows.”

“Our hives are involved in a project launched by Monty Don where scientists will be doing DNA tracking, which is quite exciting,” he adds.

On a domestic scale, Hoopers Farm in Mayfield opens through the National Garden Scheme. Andrew Ratcliffe, who lives there with his wife Sarah, has two hives and has observed how the bees have favourite plants according to the nectar flow at various times of the year. “I have certainly noticed them on rosemary, the echiums and borage. The key as a beekeeper is to have a broad variety of plants within flying range so there is accessible nectar all the way through the year. Bees will always do well in any garden that is flower-rich. The density of flowers in a garden is generally greater than the countryside. It is also often the case that urban bees can be more productive than those in the country, as the density of gardens and planting is greater,” he explains.

The Long House in West Dean, home to Rosie and Robin Lloyd, is another NGS garden alive with the hum of bees enjoying a wonderful diversity of plants, from cottage favourites, ribbons of lavender and a large perennial wildflower meadow brimming with daisies, wild carrot and yellow rattle. “One of our neighbours has bees in their orchard,” sats Rosie, “and they do seem to go for our buddleja, Verbena bonariensis and adore nepeta. We have all kinds of bees, honey bees and bumblebees, even ground-nesting bees in the meadow that we see hovering over their holes. One tip is for people to grow plants that have large heads of small flowers.”

Hopefully you are now feeling inspired to add some bee-friendly choices to your own garden.


• Small trees – prunus, malus, pyrus, ornamental almond, salix, witch hazel, hawthorn, Judas tree

• Shrubs – lonicera, quince, cornus, ceanothus, forsythia, lilac, broom, viburnum, buddleia, berberis, mahonia, abelia, myrtle, shrub roses, rosemary, lavender, wigelia, rock rose, hebes, philadelphus, potentilla, hypericum, choisya

• Annuals and perennials – eryngium, salvia, sedum, allium, echinops, cosmos, foxglove, delphinium, aster, zinnia, geum, nepeta, geranium, poppies, campanula, kniphofia, lavatera, Japanese anemone, violet, hollyhock, achillea, centaurea, verbascum, dianthus, lychnis, monarda, verbena, echium, daisy, marigold

• Herbs – borage, thyme, hyssop, chives, origanum, mint, comfrey, chamomile

• Hedging plants – cherry laurel, hawthorn, pyracantha, Portuguese laurel, holly, cotoneaster

• Early blooms – hellebore, crocus, snowdrop, winter aconite, hyacinth, heather

• British wild flowers – corncockle, cornflower, teasel, wild parsnip, viper’s bugloss, evening primrose, cowslip, scabious, corn poppy, clover


• Replace some of your lawn with flowering plants – re-wild it or plant as a meadow area

• Plant some British wildflowers

• Observe the plants bees particularly enjoy in your garden and in the local area

• Plant for biodiversity

• Clumps of bee-friendly plants, planted in sunny positions, are more attractive to bees than scattered or shady spots

• Avoid highly hybridised plants

• Avoid double or multi-petalled flowers as they may lack pollen and nectar and be difficult for bees to access

• Honey bees like saucer-shaped flowers as they are easier to get into with their short tongues

• Grow flowers from organic seeds and bulbs

• For honey bees plant larger groups of one plant: unlike bumblebees, honey bees collect one type of pollen per forage flight so do not mix pollen types

• Different species of bumblebees have different lengths of tongue which means they feed from different-shaped flowers

• Large shrubs and trees are a vital food source as well. Five established winter/early spring-flowering trees supply a similar amount of pollen and nectar as an acre of meadow

• Don’t use pesticides on plants when they are flowering

• Plan for blooms year-round for a constant supply of food

• Look for the RHS Perfect for Pollinators logo on plants at the garden centre

• Solitary bees are not at all aggressive, bumblebees and honeybees are unlikely to sting unless disturbed, so enjoy watching them and leave them to their foraging in your garden

Where to visit bee-friendly gardens

• Pashley Manor Gardens, Ticehurst, TN5 7HE

Opens from 1 April to 30 Sept, Tues-Sat and BHM (10am-5pm)

• Nymans, Handcross, RH17 6EB

Open year-round

• Standen House and Garden, East Grinstead, RH19 4NE

Open year-round

• Hoopers Farm, Mayfield,

TN20 6AB Opens through NGS with Mayfield Gardens, 13 June (1-5pm)

• The Long House, Seaford, BN25 4AL

Open by arrangement May-July

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