Attracting bees to your garden

It was an absolute delight to have Dave Goulson on the podcast.  I read Bee Quest a few years ago and have a good friend who keeps bees, so I had some idea about the importance of bees for pollination of our flowers and agricultural crops.  More recently I read The Garden Jungle and in conjunction with talking to Dave, I got plenty of ideas to implement in my garden to be more bee and insect friendly.  Here are a few of these ideas:

spring, blossom, bee

Reframe your thinking on what green spaces should look like

Have you ever been walking down a street and become aware that one particular front garden has long grass and dandelions?  What did you think?  Was it a bit judgemental, thinking that the owner might be lazy or doesn’t care about their garden, or they’ve perhaps fallen out with their neighbours and this act of apparent neglect is a two-fingered salute to aggravate them?  Or did you pause and think, how lovely, look at that rich insect environment with all those beautiful yellow flowers in?  We have social norms about how things should be and gardens are supposed to be neat and tidy with monocrop grass lawns and no invasion of weeds, right?  Personally, I am a bit of a neat freak, so challenging my viewpoint was interesting, and it certainly made me reappraise how I look at gardens.  When I walk down the street now, I think what would I prefer to see – a landscape of dark concrete and paving slabs for those homeowners that have been practical about the time they can spend on a garden, or a wild, natural landscape encouraging biodiversity.  Its perception isn’t it.  I’ve stopped looking at dandelions as the scourge of the urban garden and am currently enjoying their bright show (although my husband is yet to be convinced of their allure in our garden).

Plant bee-friendly flowers

Yes, bees have preferences, in the same way that your favourite food might be spaghetti bolognese and mine might be curry.  So, if you want more bees in your garden, then you need to grow plants that will attract them.  Dave makes many recommendations in his books and you can often find garden centre plants labelled with an RHS sticker “Plants for Pollinators” (although do be aware that these plants may well have been grown in pesticide soil, more on that later).  We have dahlias in our garden, as my father-in-law, who was a landscape gardener, had an entire bed given to dahlias each year and I absolutely loved it. I thoroughly enjoyed plucking deadheads knowing that this would encourage more flowers; it is quite therapeutic to do this whilst listening to a gentle buzzing backdrop.  This year, I’ve planted some Catnip, which supposedly drives cats wild, perhaps not the best idea when we have 2 cats; and also, some Viper’s bugloss seeds.  I am not a natural in the garden, so growing from seed is unchartered territory; I remain hopeful.  

apple tree, apple, light

Plant a fruit tree

When I grew up, I was fortunate to have a back garden big enough to play in and contain several fruit trees: apple (climbable and a great place to spend time in), cherry, plum and elderberry.  I don’t think we made the most of all the fruit available to us, but at least they provided a haven for wildlife.  Fruit trees are a great attraction for bees as well as providing a readily available food source to us humans.  Other bee-friendly trees include willow and hazel.

Installing a bee hotel

When we think of bees, perhaps we envisage honey bees or bumblebees, but the largest variety of bees are solitary, meaning they don’t live in hives with all their mates, bringing food to their queen.  Of the 270 bee species found in Britain, 250 are solitary.  The females make nests in hollow stalks, holes and burrows, where they lay eggs and store pollen and the males’ pop in to mate before they die.  Some species don’t bother with making their own nests and steal others – how rude!  With habitat loss being an issue, it can be helpful to provide solitary bees with places to live, so why not help them out by making or buying a bee hotel.  Dave showcases many different bee hotels on his youtube channel; my husband kindly made one for our garden, with one of the simpler designs (not that he couldn’t master anything more complicated).  It is a wooden post with a log on the top, in a T-shape, with holes drilled into the log.  I’m hoping it will become a home in addition to a garden sculpture.  Other designs can involve grouping bamboo cane, or you can purchase ready-made condos.

Provide a water source

Bees like any other animal needs hydration, so placing a water source in your garden can be helpful.  Honey bees also need water for cooling the hive.  A plant tray with stones, pebbles or marbles can give the bees something to perch on whilst they drink, to prevent them from drowning.  It can take a while before the bees work out where the water is, but once located using their sense of smell, they return no problem.

Avoid using pesticides

Pesticides are chemical substances used in agriculture and gardening, to kill pests such as insects, small animals, fungi and plants.  Protecting crops and garden plants from voracious bugs is perfectly understandable.  However, pesticides are problematic as they negatively impact non-target insects too.  ‘Bug killers’ sold to the general public for their gardens contain hazardous chemicals; for example, acetamiprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide known to impact bees, is stated to be toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects.  Over the years, pesticides have been used widely, and many have since been banned based on their harm to other animals and human health.  (Rather disturbingly, banned substances are exported to countries that don’t have a ban by those that have banned them, including the UK; see this report by Greenpeace.)  This topic warrants an entire blog to itself; something for later then.

With all this encouragement in attracting bees to your garden, it won’t be long before you can sit back and relax in your garden chair and admire your garden to the sound of buzzing insects.