There’s nothing quite like the lazy thrum of bees on a sunny day. Dipping in and out of the tubular echo chambers of a foxglove flower, settling on fragrant spikes of lavender or buzzing heavily skywards, pollen sacs laden with golden dust.
Bee on Hidcote lavender
But bees and other pollinators are having a tough time of it - which equals disaster for us too. Most flying, flower-visiting creatures are pollinators, taking pollen from one flower to another as they feed on pollen and nectar. A honey bee larva needs about 30 mg of protein from pollen to grow into an adult and three-quarters of British crops rely on these clever creatures for fertilisation. Very few plants are self-fertile, so without honey bees we’d have far fewer seeds and fruit. We’d have to pollinate our flowers and crops by hand.
There are places where this is already happening. Come spring in California hundreds of honey bee hives are brought in on flatbed trucks, frequently travelling for days to pollinate the huge almond orchards. In south-west China, bees have become so rare that farmers are pollinating fruit crops by hand using paintbrushes.
The blame for the decline of pollinators lies largely with pesticide use and the destruction of wild habitats, with a little help from climate change. A recent study, the first national survey in Britain, investigated 353 wild bee and hoverfly species and found they were missing from a quarter of the places they were found in 1980. Species affected include the wonderfully named red-shanked carder bee, large shaggy bee and lobe-spurred furrow bee. Thankfully there was also a little good news in the extended ranges observed in a small group of bees important in pollinating crops such as oil-seed rape – probably due to farmers planting wild flowers around fields.
If you don’t happen to have an entire field around which to sow wildlflowers in the verges, even the tiniest garden, urban or rural, can be a haven for pollinators. There are certain flowers they are particularly drawn to; flowers that are easier to spot and shapes that make it simpler for them to get at the nectar. Different species have their own preferences, but bees seem to love blue flowers and petals with spots or veins. Flies prefer dull whites and greens, and stinky flowers, like Helleborous foetidus. There are some 285 species of hoverfly in Britain, so they’re really important pollinators. Their small mouth parts mean they prefer tiny flowers such as those of the umbellifers: cow-parsley, Orlaya grandiflora and Ammi visnaga (still hugely popular with garden designers to create loose wildflower planting schemes). Anything orange is a hit too – marigolds and calendulas are a real draw.
As a general rule, single rather than double flowers are much easier for insects to feed from. In summer, foxgloves are a pollinator paradise; bees start at the bottom and work their way up, pollinating as they go. Any form of English lavender is also a winner with bees – Munstead is a good choice for a hedge that will buzz all summer long. Honeysuckle flowers are ideally suited to the long proboscises of moths and butterflies – less significant but still important pollinators. The autumn berries go down a treat with the birds, too.
For cracks in paving or hot spots that are dry and sunsoaked, plant low-growing thyme – it comes in many forms and the summer flowers are hugely popular with butterflies and bees.
To provide weeks of nectar for butterflies and bees, plant tall, willowy Verbena bonariensis in a sunny spot; it’ll self-seed so you’ll have it for years to come.
If you’re thinking of trees, any form of apple blossom or cherry blossom (ornamental or otherwise) is attractive to bees, whilst native hawthorn produces a bountiful froth of summer flowers for pollinators. This month, it’s the foxgloves, alliums and early geraniums, such as Geranium phaeum, that are attracting the bees in my garden.
If you plant it, they will come...
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer
P.S. On the 25th-27th May Plantlife is holding a national Bank Holiday Weekend count, inviting everyone to count the flowers in a random square in their lawn. Botanical Expert Dr Trevor Dines explains “This is citizen science at its most exciting. We’re calling on gardeners all over the UK to help us take the pulse of our nation’s lawns. By leaving our mowers in the shed for “No Mow May”, we’ll give billions of plants a chance to flower. Then during the late May Bank Holiday weekend (25th-27th May) our brand new Every Flower Counts activity will tell us which flowers take poll position on our lawns and how much nectar they’re producing. You’ll receive your own Personal Nectar Score showing you how many bees your lawn can support, and we’ll combine the results to show just how important the UK's lawns are for our beleaguered pollinators”. www.plantlife.org.uk