How to help bees in your garden
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From bumble to honey and solitary, Herts-based garden designer Nic Savage looks at ways we can give bees a helping hand in our gardens and by doing so enrich our lives
Increasingly, my fellow garden designers and I are being asked by clients to factor the wellbeing of bees into our designs. As a beekeeper of over 20 years and an avid lover of wildlife I welcome this.
Recent campaigns have very successfully highlighted the plight of the honey bee, and UK hive numbers have tripled to 100,000-plus since the low point of 2001. But there is still much more that gardeners, designers, landscapers, farmers and local authorities can do. And all is still not well with wild bees which have a vital role to play, often working in synergy with honey bees to pollinate many crops.
Host a hive
You are keen to help bees, but what can you do to help? Well, even if you are really committed you can’t start keeping bees from scratch without assistance, but if you have the space, you can play host to a hive or two. This can be arranged by contacting the Hertfordshire Beekeepers Association (hertsbees.org.uk) who will point you to your local association. They often need sites for hives and will advise on site suitability.
Playing host to a couple of hives will give you the experience of beekeeping without the responsibility – there’s no better way to learn about these amazing creatures than being mentored by an experienced beekeeper. On top of that you will be given pots of honey, and – for me best of all – the experience of an orchard or meadow on a warm summer day with bees buzzing – a wonderful thing. I’m feeling a bit drowsy just thinking about it.
Hives in a suburban garden are fine if you are a trained or experienced beekeeper who will tend them diligently, but to start the process of learning to keep bees of your own, contact HBKA as above.
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An orchard or meadow in a more rural environment is ideal. There needs to be plenty of forage in the area, which can range from lots of gardens to woods with bluebells, hawthorn, wild cherry, blackthorn, horse chestnut and blackberries. Hives should be sheltered from wind and preferably south facing to catch as much warmth as possible. It’s best not to walk in front of a bee’s flight path; they are not aggressive but they get cheesed off if they bump into you (or, from the bee perspective, you bump into them). They also need a surprisingly large amount of water for their activities so a pond nearby is a bonus. Bear in mind the beekeeper needs good access – in high season there are heavy boxes of honey to collect which weigh up to 15kg, so you don’t want to walk far with them.
Make a meadow
If you still want to help but can’t or don’t want to host hives, there is still a great deal that can be done. More than 95 per cent of the UK’s flowering meadows have been lost since the Second World War and gardeners, garden designers and landscapers are playing their part in putting that right. A wildflower meadow with mown paths looks stunning, but the benefits to wildlife are huge, making them fascinating places to spend time in. Creating a wildlife pond alongside a meadow attracts even more.
These days there’s no shortage of companies providing meadow turf and seed, with Wildflower Turf of Hampshire coming highly recommended. They currently supply the turf for a large swathe of wild garden at the site of one of my designs in Farnham, Surrey. The garden is two acres so there was plenty of space to play with. I left a large area of mown lawn, but the periphery, incorporating many trees, will be wildflower meadow, with mown paths and places of refuge. There will be a pleasing change of texture as the lawn goes from mown to wild, and a very different atmosphere as you walk through the trees, tall grass and flowers.
I have been nurturing a meadow myself for many years. It is a place of great beauty when the grasses are high, but despite the fact it has not been sprayed for 25 years, not as many wildflowers have appeared as I would like. Recently, a very helpful consultation and survey by Herts and Middlesex Meadow Trust confirmed that flowers were not going to return of their own accord, so they recommended Emorsgate Seeds, who, once they had been briefed on the conditions were able to recommend the right wildflower mix. The meadow can be viewed as part of the NGS Open Garden Scheme at Hill House in Ayot St Peter near Welwyn each summer.
Plant for bees
So which plants matter to bees? The first thing they need in the year is pollen. This will be gathered on warm days in early spring to feed young bees and build up numbers for the most active periods. For this reason, planting drifts of snowdrops and crocuses is very helpful, as is planting hazel trees whose catkins are early and pollen rich. For a bit of fun for foody bee-loving clients I have specified hazels with roots infused with truffle spores. No truffles have resulted to date though. We live in hope.
At the other end of the year in September, food can get a bit sparse. Leaving as much ivy as possible will help pollinators enormously. On from there, verbena, Michaelmas daisies and hebes give good value.
When it comes to the main flowering season through spring and summer the best rule of thumb for pollinators is keep it simple – flowers need to be singles, not doubles. There are many lists of bee friendly plants too long to repeat here available on the web – the Royal Horticultural Society site in particular provides extensive lists for year-round bee friendly planting.
Favourites among beekeepers are ribes (partly because if it is out, it is time for the first inspection) and herbs. Borage is number one among the herbs for bees – its blue or pink star flowers being rich in often replenished nectar. Oregano, rosemary, fennel and lavender are also very popular. David Austin Roses in Albrighton is promoting bee friendly roses this year.
Among the trees, horse chestnuts are good on three counts – pollen and nectar from its flowers, and resin from the sticky buds to make propolis, used for repairs around the hive. Fruit trees are great, whether pears, apples, cherries or plums, it’s all the same to the bees. Lime trees are a particular favourite too, the flowers providing abundant nectar to make a beautiful aromatic honey.
Wild bees, bumbles and solitary, have their own issues, not least loss of habitat, so creating habitat will make a real difference.
Bumble bees nest in the ground, so leaving wild areas of a garden that are not cut until late September creates habitats for burrows. Solitary bees can be split into mining bees and cavity nesting bees. The former like a sunny south facing bank with exposed soil while the cavity nesters like the bee hotels that have been popular in garden centres in recent years. It’s possible to create a more natural looking effect by using hollow stems, drilled wood and generally leaving wood around to rot and create opportunity.
It is great that so many people are so concerned about bees and also wildlife in general. Honey bees are recovering well, and with a bit of help from gardeners, garden designers and landscapers, habitat and forage for all bees will improve still further, enhancing our whole ecosystem.