Life in the Borders – Part II – To Bee or Not To Bee

It’s been some time since I last wrote for the Arbworx blog, mainly due to the arrival of baby Poppy Rose who finally popped out on 26 November (ten long days after her due date) and who has been keeping me and Jon on our toes ever since.

Baby Poppy Rose - Arbworx's newest arrival
Baby Poppy Rose - Arbworx's newest arrival

However, now that she seems to be settling into a sleeping and feeding routine, I am able to snatch the odd hour here and there to catch up with the rest of the world. Among other things I’ve been using the time to read some Twitter posts, one of which has prompted this blog on bee friendly gardening.

Under my ‘nom de plume’ of @babyflowerz (in tribute to little Poppy Rose) I follow a long list of people and organisations who have an interest in gardens, gardening, landscaping and other aspects of the natural world around us. One of these is @helpthebees, whose Twitter mission is to ‘raise awareness of the plight of bees and what we can do about it’ and who recently suggested that more of us might help bees by creating our very own bee gardens in 2011.

Spot the Bee - feeding on red comfrey at Arundel Wetlands Centre
Spot the Bee - feeding on red comfrey at Arundel Wetlands Centre

This got me thinking about what our customers might be planting in their gardens after the fabulous Arbworx boys have finished their work and left for pastures new, and I’d like to do my bit to help the bees by explaining why bees are so important to us, and offering some suggestions on how to create your very own bee friendly garden.

Awareness of the plight of bees and the danger to their continued survival in the British Isles has risen in recent years, yet it is estimated that 2008 saw the decline of an extraordinary 33% of all bees in the UK, mainly due to land usage change and pathogens which are attacking bee populations. This decline, should it continue unchecked, would have a devastating effect on the human race as bees play a vital role in our ecosystem as the most efficient pollinators in the world.

Albert Einstein once said: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”

Aside from their crucial role as pollinators, bees also produce honey, the liquid gold of the natural world. Honey is one of the most beneficial natural products in the world with a history dating back to the early prehistoric era of the Greek empire when the art of apiculture (bee keeping) is first recorded. Considered to be the mythical ‘ambrosia’, or food of the gods of Olympus, honey is also mentioned in the Qur’an both as a ‘healing for mankind’ and ‘a remedy for every illness’.

Magical Honey - picture courtesy of slowfoodaustralia.com.au
Magical Honey - picture courtesy of slowfoodaustralia.com.au

Honey’s medicinal qualities include antifungal and antibacterial properties, and wound healing and anti-inflammatory abilities. It is also effective in healing coughs as well as being extremely nutritious.

Nigel Slater recently featured honey in his ‘Simple Suppers’ series on the BBC where he gave a great recipe for Duck with Honey and Figs. Here is the link to that episode. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00wmnhl/Nigel_Slaters_Simple_Suppers_Series_2_Saints_and_Sinners/

Jonathon Jones, Commercial & Garden Director at Tregothan Gardens in Cornwall showcased an amazing range of honeys produced on the Tregothan Estate and I urge readers to watch this episode, if not Slater’s entire series, for some excellent recipes and lots of inspiration for grow your own produce. http://www.tregothnan.co.uk/index.php

So, now that I’ve hopefully convinced you of the importance of bees and the benefits of honey, let’s get back to the main point of how to create a bee friendly garden of your own.

Whilst there are around 250 different species of bee in Britain you are most likely to see only six types in your garden (known as the Big Six), or perhaps ten if you are lucky. The Natural History Museum provides a very useful guide to the Big Six which are the Common Carder Bee, the Red Tailed Bumblebee, the Early Nesting Bumblebee, the Buff Tailed Bumblebee, the White Tailed Bumblebee and the Garden Bumblebee. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/bombus/bumblebeeid.html

In order to attract these fuzzy, buzzy friends into your garden, you need to ensure that you have the right ‘bee friendly’ plants in your borders. Whilst exotic and highly cultivated garden flowers often look spectacular they aren’t suitable for bees to collect pollen and nectar from, as they either produce little of either, or their structure means that the bees can’t actually reach what they need. The majority of the most popular bedding plants, such as Begonias or Busy Lizzies, produce very little nectar and many other plants are ‘double petal’ which generally means that they keep the pollen and nectar hidden away from the bees under a double layer of petals – pretty, but pretty useless for bees.

Instead try and go for traditional cottage garden flowers and native wildflowers. Not only are they great for bees but they are also hardy and much more resistant to slugs and disease.

Those native wildflowers really are the dogs... delight!
Those native wildflowers really are the dogs... delight!

Even if you have a very formal or minimalist garden there are some beautiful plants which will provide bold colour and good structure such as roses and geraniums, and tall, elegant hollyhocks – think of those deep, dark red varieties – a drift of white foxgloves, or a sweep of multicoloured lupins. The real floral stars, and those which produce some of the best honey, are the highly scented varieties such as wisteria and honeysuckle, as well as fruit trees and bushes like apple and pear and raspberry, blackberry and red and blackcurrants. Great for the bees and for the kitchen!

White Foxgloves - picture courtesy of estabrooksonline.com
White Foxgloves - picture courtesy of estabrooksonline.com

Herbs are another excellent source of sustenance for bees. Even the tiniest courtyard garden can reap the benefits of herbs planted out in decorative pots, not only will the bees be attracted because of the flowers, but what cook could turn down the opportunity to have fresh herbs growing outside the back door? Why not try a combination of rosemary (great for roast lamb), chives (perfect with a warm potato salad), sage (makes a delicious stuffing for pork), and thyme (a wonderful addition to grilled chicken breast)…

Best for bees and cooks - picture courtesy of herbgardenpassion.com
Best for bees and cooks - picture courtesy of herbgardenpassion.com

For those of you lucky enough to own a larger garden, you have the opportunity to set aside an area to sow with grasses and meadow flowers. Species could include dead nettles, vetch, comfrey, clover, cornflowers and, of course, beautiful, vibrant red poppies. Many of these flowers are readily available in pre-mixed sachets from your local garden centre and will not only encourage bees, but also butterflies, moths and a whole host of other insects which, in turn, will bring birds and other wildlife into your garden.

Stunning, scarlet, Sussex poppies
Stunning, scarlet, Sussex poppies

It is important to try and design your planting scheme so that there is something for the bees throughout their life cycle (from March to September) so think about what will be in flower when. It’s a good idea to have at least two nectar- or pollen-rich plants in flower at any one time during this period. The nectar feeds the adult bee, while the pollen is collected to feed the young.

It’s also worth taking a moment to think about your colour scheme. Few people realise that bees actually have good colour vision and are particularly attracted to flowers that are blue, purple, white and yellow. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust have a very comprehensive list of bee friendly plants for every season which you can find here http://www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk/gardening_for_bumblebees.htm

I’m sure you’re all raring to plant your own bee friendly gardens now so I’ll sign off with a quick reminder that if there’s any help you need getting started, the team at Arbworx are only a phone call away.

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