Plants for Bees

Honey bees are thought to be responsible for about a third of pollination of food crops in UK. They have been of vital importance to the ecosystem of the world for thousands of years. Man has been collecting honey from wild bees for centuries. Bees collect nectar and pollen from all sorts of flowering plants, this forage is vital for them to survive and for honey production. There are hundreds of flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs which are pollinated by bees and other insects.

bee - close-upBees need a mixture of pollen and nectar. The pollen is necessary for raising the young. They collect this in 'pollen sacks' on their legs.

There are many bee species in the UK. The various varieties of bumble bees are able to fly at lower temperatures and in wetter conditions than honey bees and so are valuable pollinators as well.

In the winter bees tend to huddle together in the hive or colony and feed off the stores of honey and pollen collected in the season. They usually collect much more than they can use for a whole winter and so we can take some of this. We must make sure they have plenty to survive the winter though.

A single honey bee makes no more than a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. They prefer foraging one crop at a time, so it's advisable to plant clusters of one type of flower rather than lots of individually bee- friendly plants. Bees also seem to prefer plants with small clusters of flowers such as Sedums.

Bees begin to forage for food in February usually but occasionally they will go out earlier in good weather. Some of the earliest garden flowers are hellebores, crocuses and snowdrops, a useful source of pollen and nectar after a long winter. Daffodils unfortunately are not good for bees.

bluebellsSome good spring flowers are bluebells and primroses. There are too many to list here. Of course a good late spring 'weed' for bees is dandelion. Not most gardener's best friend, but bees love them. This spring I saw a local organic farm with two fields absolutely covered in them- beautiful.

One of the big spring agricultural crops for bees is oil seed rape. This gives bees a massive monocrop for a short period and much honey is made. However, the honey crystalizes very quickly, so has to be taken off the hive as soon as possible as it goes hard if left on.

Following on is hawthorn in the hedgerows and apple blossom time. Commercial beekeepers are paid to pollinate apple orchards and many other fruit and vegetable crops. Hives are moved to crops as needed.

Through the summer cotoneaster is a very good garden plant for bees. In the vegetable realm beans are good forage from broad beans to runner beans. Most herbs are also excellent for bees. Thyme is a particularly good plant, easy to grow in dry soils and it makes pretty and aromatic ground cover.

heatherLater in the year towards the end of summer the main honey flow is from brambles and if grown maize is a good pollen source. If bees are near waterways, there is usually the Himalayan Balsam, which despite naturalists' dislike of it, is fabulous for bees. Heather is a late summer source of forage as is ivy, although, like oil seed rape, ivy honey crystalizes easily and may become too granulated for the bees to use through winter. In fact one of my colonies of bees died last winter from starvation even though their hive was full of ivy honey that had all crystalized.

For more information you can go to the British Bee Keepers Association, the Royal Horticulture Society and there are now many good books such as Ted Hooper and Mike Taylor's: The Bee Friendly Garden.

To conclude, when planting your garden, perhaps think on the importance of all the pollinators and that if they disappear we will be left without the wonderful diversity of flowers and vegetable, meat and dairy produce we have today. We would also be left without one of the most beneficial, tasty and mystical substances of all - honey! 

For more information email Food & Farming Group Leader, Dee Ross. Sign in to see more contact details..