Bee Friendly Gardening - A Handful of Hints and Tips

Pulmonaria, often called 'Lungwort'

I'm grateful to a couple of people on a Facebook group called Save the Bees for inspiring this post. They were asking about making gardens bee friendly and although plants will vary depending upon where in the world you live, there will be some constants. So I think it's worth my while sharing a bit of my own experience.

Please note that I'm not a botanist, and I'm not a bee expert although I have friends who are, and right now there's a pot of delicious local honey sitting in my kitchen cupboard. I'm a casual gardener. With a fairly big cottage garden to maintain, I like to keep things as wildlife-friendly and as easy to manage as possible. That means not being too keen on everything being tidy and well manicured, which is probably just as well in my case!

Here are a few plant suggestions:

Pulmonaria or lungwort (above) is an early flowering plant that the bees love, in this garden at least. The plants grow quite large, and you can split them in the autumn and spread them out. The leaves are supposed to look like little lungs, and the plant was popularly thought to be good for chest complaints in olden times. If you want to know more about this notion, look up Doctrine of Signatures. Whatever you think about that, the bees in my garden, especially the big, fuzzy bumble bees that seem to be everywhere right now, love the flowers. And it doesn't mind the ground frosts that we still have at this time of year. It droops a bit and then picks itself up as soon as the sun shines.

Another early flowering plant that bees love is the crocus - so remember to buy and plant the bulbs in autumn. You can put them in tubs and pots as well as straight into the garden. You can also sow wild flower seeds in the autumn, because many of our seeds need a frost to get them started and you can buy packs of mixed seeds online or in your local garden centre.
Borage grows like a weed here and you can grow it from seed. Sometimes it's known as 'bee bread' because the bees love it so much. And if you really want to amaze your friends, you can pick some of the bright blue flowers, put them in ice trays with water, and make very fancy ice cubes for your Christmas drinks. (Don't worry - it's edible.)

Hardy summer shrubs like buddleia will bring you bees and butterflies and they smell lovely too. Honeysuckle is easy to grow, will spread out along a fence or through a hedge or a tree, and will reward you as well as the bees with its lovely scent over a long flowering period. Go for the common honeysuckle rather than anything more exotic to start with.

If expense is an issue - and it usually is - look for plants that you can propagate yourself, by taking cuttings. And look for herbs in particular because they'll last for a number of years.  Lavender is one of my firm favourites for attracting bees and it has the added benefit of being very easy to grow and maintain even from seed  - and you can cut and dry some of it for your own use as well. There are many different varieties of lavender, some hardier than others. If you don't want to be bothered with seeds, you'll find small plants in your local garden centre that you can grow into good sized flowering shrubs. They grow so fast and so easily that you really don't need to spend money on bigger plants. They'll flower over a long period from early summer onwards and you can grow them in tubs or pots or directly in a flower bed. Like many shrubby herbs, they like to be dry, so they thrive on neglect. You can (and should) cut them back quite hard in winter, and they'll come again in spring.

Another herb that bees love is rosemary, although this doesn't flower over as long a period as lavender - but it's a great culinary herb as well. Thyme flowers over a long period, smells gorgeous and will spread out beautifully. Sage is good, and so is mint, if you leave it to flower, which most people don't.  Be warned though - unless you want it to take over your garden completely, always grow mint of any kind in a pot. It's virtually indestructible, and likes to spread itself out in all directions.

My best bee plant of all, and I have a lot of it, is probably bog standard oregano that has masses of purple flowers in late summer, and just goes on and on and on till the first frosts. It's always
alive with honey bees that don't seem to mind at all if you want to pick a bit for your own use.

In summer most of the small, flowering annuals that you can grow in tubs and pots will attract bees. One of my more recent bee friendly discoveries is a plant called bidens, that comes in several varieties. I've become obsessed with this little plant over the past couple of years. These come from the aster family and again can be grown beautifully in pots, although you can put them straight into the garden if you like. Even the variety names have 'bee' in them - bee dance or bee alive for example. They form cushions of bright yellow or orange daisy-like flowers in summer and they just go on flowering, if you remember to dead-head them, until the first frosts finally finish them off. The bees adore them.

As you can see - I like container gardening!

I could go on and on: teasles, heathers of all kinds, bluebells, bee balm... There will be many other possibilities, depending upon where in the world you live, and your local garden centre or seed merchant should be able to advise you about conditions and plants.

But really, there's no great mystery. Simple native plants are often best. Bees seem to like blue, white and yellow colours. Try to ignore the weeds. After all, one person's weed is another person's wild flower. And a great many of our 'weeds' - dandelions for example - are, when  you look closely at them, very beautiful flowers. The bees think so too.

Above all, don't use pesticides if you can help it, and if you do have to resort to them, look for something that is bee friendly. You can buy soap based sprays that will control various unwelcome bugs like aphids, whitefly etc and as long as they're not sprayed directly onto the bees, they should be fine. We used to use a path weedkiller on the old stone flags just outside the house, but since we discovered a small wand flame thrower in our local hardware store, we use that instead. My husband recollects that he once set his sister's hedge on fire with something similar many years ago - so do use with care: not on your hedges or anywhere close to dry shrubs!