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How to design a bee-friendly garden

20 July 2022

With bee populations in decline it's a good time for gardeners to assess their garden for ways to make it more attractive to bees and other pollinators.

Bee sitting on a purple flower
Finding the right plants to attract bees is easy – there are simply thousands you can choose from

Bee populations around the world have been in decline for a number of decades. In the UK alone it's suggested that about 25 bee species have become extinct over the last 200 years, while other bee species have declined by up to 60% in 40 years. And it's not just bees either – other insects, many of them also pollinators, have declined rapidly, with British moth numbers dropping nearly 70% since the 1970s.

There are several factors which are likely driving this decline:

  • The loss of habitat due to greater intensification of agriculture, including loss of wildflower meadows and hedgerows
  • The use of pesticides and herbicides on the land over the last few decades, especially neonicotinoids which disrupt the central nervous system of insects
  • Disease and parasites are taking their toll. The varroa mite, for example, is a blood-sucking parasite which spreads disease amongst bees and can kill a colony within three to four years. The nosema parasite is also attacking bees. These have a more dramatic impact on the populations when honey bees, for example, are restricted to hives in bad weather
  • Short-term weather changes can have an impact, with wet summers being particularly bad as bees cannot fly in the rain. 

Although there’s little gardeners can do to combat many of the problems facing bees, we can do our bit to help them out by planting more-nectar rich flowers in our gardens to replace those lost in wild and agricultural spaces, along with making our plots more bee-friendly by providing the right habitats for bees to overwinter

The right plants to attract bees

Finding plants to attract bees is easy – there are simply thousands you can choose from. In general, old-fashioned, English cottage garden style plants or native varieties with simple single flowers are best for bees, as they tend to contain more pollen and nectar than exotics or plants with complex blooms. Roses, clematis, hollyhocks, geraniums, eupatorium, lavender and edible herbs with flowers, such as lavender, thyme, origanum, chives and borage are all ideal.

All these flowers are good for a bee-friendly garden:

  • Foxglove
  • Red campion
  • Honeysuckle
  • Lupin
  • Clover
  • Bird’s foot trefoil
  • Knapweed
  • Scabious
  • Teasel
  • Heather
  • Blackberry
  • Wild marjoram
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Chives
  • Borage
  • Hollyhocks
  • Mint
  • Comfrey
  • Lavender
  • Delphinium

Choose a selection of flowers that bloom at different times of year, especially early on when bees wake up and late in the year where nectar can be in short supply. For more planting ideas see how suggestions for wildlife-friendly plants and the best shrubs for a wildlife-friendly garden.

Winter plants for bees

With some species of bumblebee emerging as early as January it's good to have a few winter blooms for these queen bees looking to replenish their energy to start a new colony. Bumblebees are able to fly in cool temperatures because they are able to rev-up their flight motors chemically. This allows them to fly in cool weather, unlike the honey bee. In fact, five species of bumblebee actually thrive within the Arctic Circle. Crocus, cyclamen coum, pulmonarias, hellebores and winter aconite can all provide some early nectar. 

Many early spring-flowering bulbs prefer a woodland setting so pop them under trees and shrubs. Opt for those with simply-shaped flowers, not the petal-packed doubles. Simple narcissi, single-flowered snowdrops and wood anemones are all perfect. Hybrid snowdrops are more vigorous than the most commonly found form (Galanthus nivalis).

Read more about winter-flowering perennials.

A place to drink

Apart from adding the right plants, there are other ways for gardeners to help bees. Although we add water to the garden to attract aquatic wildlife or to provide a drinking hole for birds and mammals, this will also benefit bees. Like all creatures, they need to drink and a pond, bog garden, water feature or even a bird bath will provide them with much needed moisture.

Make yourself a bee water station by filling a dish with pebbles and topping with water. The pebbles will allow bees and other insects to land and crawl right up to the edge of the water. If you have areas with exposed water, such as water butts or a pond, a floating surface (such as water lilies or even some floating sticks) for insects to land will also help insects to drink without drowning. 

Somewhere to hibernate

There are around 250 different types of bee in the UK. Twenty four of these are bumblebees and there is one species of honey bee, but the rest are solitary bees. These insects often lay their eggs in the cavities left in trees or timber by wood boring beetles, holes in rotten wood or underground beneath leaf litter. So we can leave log piles for them or allow ivy to grow on dead trees to make sure these wild spaces remain for them. We can even buy purpose built insect houses for bees and other insects to hibernate in. Mount these solitary bee houses on a sunny fence or wall.

Consisting of a timber frame stuffed with pieces of bamboo cane, a female solitary bee will place a portion of pollen inside the tubular hole of a cane in spring and lay a single egg on top of it before sealing up the entrance with mud. The eggs hatch into larvae, which will feed on the pollen until new bees emerge the following spring.

Read more about bee hotels for solitary bees, or find out more about wildlife in British gardens.

Aiming to increase biodiversity in your garden? Find out about keeping a nature journal

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.