It is very pleasing when people respond to what you have written, and I would like to thank both Dave and Brian who responded via the website and were posing similar questions. Both wanted to know how they could encourage bees: Brian wants bees in his garden, whereas Dave poses a slightly different problem. He is trying to attract them to a disused cemetery. Other than that the situations are very similar.
The obvious answer is to plant trees, shrubs and plants that are high in pollen and nectar. That precludes the highly bred double flowers that you can buy, already in flower, from Garden Centres. Some which you would presume are simple enough to attract pollinating insects seem to arouse no interest whatsoever, and geraniums spring to mind. One flower (weed) which breaks all the rules is made up of many florets and each one is certainly attractive to honeybees. It is the ignoble dandelion.
At the moment, my bees are coming back to the hives covered in bright yellow pollen from head to toe. All the beeswax of the combs is bright yellow and there is a pungent odour rising from the hives - all due to dandelions - but they do make wonderful honey. Unfortunately not many gardeners want them.
I have spent some time recently going through the entire Ashridge range and have noted which products provide pollen, or nectar, or both, and this information should be available in the next catalogue [which is going out very soon - Gareth]. What is equally important is the time of year that pollen and nectar are produced by their flowers, and this information should also be provided. I was amazed how much of the Ashridge range is pollinator friendly. If, however, you want a fully comprehensive list of all pollinator-friendly plants, then have a look at the ‘RHS perfect for pollinators’ plant list. It doesn’t tell you which they provide, pollen or nectar, but it does give you lots of information.
The British Beekeepers’ Association has a publication, ‘Pollen and nectar-rich plants for your garden by season’, which can be found on their website at www.bbka.org.uk. Flowers, or blossoms, appear at different times of the year, and getting a good spread across the warmer months will provide a continuation of food, starting with snowdrops, crocuses and mistletoe, then going right through to ivy, as the last useful flowers to insects.
There is an infamous period called ‘The June Gap’ when most fruit blossoms have finished and most garden flowers have not yet kicked in. Be careful that you have something to span that period, although as our climate changes it is becoming less of a problem, especially in the south. As late as October, on a warm day, you can see bees, wasps and flies clustering on ivy flowers and looking for that last drop of sweetness. So making sure that you have plants attractive to pollinating insects, and that includes bees, butterflies and hoverflies, is one way of ensuring that you can attract bees to your garden, or indeed, disused cemetery.
Provide a home
There is one other way of luring them. Make them somewhere where they would like to settle down and raise a family, and this is so much simpler than most people realise. We will presume that you have already given them some food sources, or, in other words, planted things that they can feed on. You want to attract honeybees but, unless you are a beekeeper, you don’t want them setting up home.
Bumblebees and solitary bees are a different matter as they live in far smaller numbers. A bug box attached to an east or south facing wall, or most vertical surfaces, will act as a nursery for some solitary bees to lay their eggs in. These will over winter, and hatch in the spring as the new generation of bees, and they are charming, docile little creatures.
We have about six different species in our garden. Some use the bug boxes and some use the lawns, where they burrow to make nests and leave small telltale piles of soil. They don’t seem to mind the lawns being mown, but they do seem disorientated for a short while after the event.
How to make a bug box
Making a bug box could not be easier.
- Find a wooden box about 6 inches (150mm) x 4 inches (100mm), but exact sizes are unimportant. Ideally it should be about 3 inches (75mm) deep.
- Cut some bamboo cane into lengths the same as the depth of the box, but make sure they are completely hollow. You don’t want those knuckles, because they are solid and the insects won’t get past them, and you don’t want the holes too large as the insects want to feel snug.
- Then simply pack the box with the pieces of bamboo standing up and cram the last few in for a tight fit.
Job done. Now just hang your newly created bug box, or insect hotel, up on the wall. Instead of a box, you could use a length of plastic pipe with a suitable diameter and cram bamboos into that. The insects really aren’t fussy and there is no record, throughout history, of an official complaint made by any insect regarding the accommodation provided by humans. You can let your mind run riot, though, and, again, the internet is full of pictures to inspire you. You can even go multiplex and make an insect condominium, or block of flats and all options are pretty much guaranteed to attract insects.
Plant a teapot
There is one last ‘cranky’ alternative. All bumblebees create new queens which survive the winter alone and underground. They are the next generation and, if you want to make a bumble queen happy, then choose a secluded area in your garden which will not be disturbed, partly fill an old kettle or teapot with moss, then bury it in your chosen spot, with only the spout sticking out and facing south or east.
Your pot might be best in a bank because you don’t want it to fill with water. The spout should be big enough for a bumblebee to get in and out. Hey, presto! You will be the only people in your area with a secret bumble bee stash.
My final piece of advice is that once you have spent all this effort attracting these wonderful creatures you will want to keep them coming, and the surest way of assuring that is by not killing them. This is so easily done without thinking. There are manifold products available to improve your garden and keep pests away, but most of them are insecticides and your new found friends are all, coincidentally, insects. So be very careful what you use.
Many fence, shed and general timber preservatives contain insecticides as well. There will be a list of contents on the side of the containers of all timber preparations and garden sprays. Neonicotinoid pesticides, those arch demons which have been blamed for the chronic decrease in pollinating insects, were banned by the EU for commercial use from December 1st 2013, but may still be available in some domestic products. So look at the label carefully before buying.