Bumblebees do a lot more than just make honey. They play a crucial role in our daily lives by pollinating the food we eat and the plants we love. In fact, around two-thirds of crops require insect pollination. Bumblebees are particularly efficient at collecting pollen so, without them, our landscape and supermarkets would look very different.
Despite this, the bumblebee population has been decreasing at an alarming rate for many years due to loss of biodiverse habitat, chemical insecticides and global warming. It is, therefore, more important than ever to encourage and support bees as much as we can. By planting nectar- and pollen-rich flowers over a long season, we can help reduce this decline. In return, an abundance of pollinators will ensure flowers continue to reproduce and that crops successfully produce fruit and vegetables.
To encourage bees in your garden, try leaving a small area to go wild, providing great bee nesting sites. Many species like shaded, dry areas such as long grass, undisturbed compost heaps or underneath sheds or hedgerows. Tree bumblebees prefer nests high up, so will seek out bird boxes filled with nesting materials. Some species of solitary bee use tunnels as nesting sites so may appreciate ‘bee houses’ – specially designed nesting boxes containing logs filled with small holes, or small bamboo tubes.
Pollinating is thirsty work so as well as establishing nest sites, you can look after bees by providing a safe place to drink. Bees need access to fresh water, but often risk drowning in birdbaths or being eaten at rivers. An easy solution is to fill a shallow bowl with pebbles or marbles before adding water, to provide safe landing spots.
Create a bee-friendly habitat in your garden by planting native wildflowers and traditional cottage garden flowers. The more variety the better – tongue length varies among different bumblebee species so they can feed on different shaped flowers! They particularly like tubular-shaped flowers and can see purple more clearly than other colours. Use chemical-free pesticides which do not harm bees, and include early and late flowering plants in your garden to help bees when nectar supplies are low.
Early-season nectar plants include aubretia, bluebell, flowering currant, grape hyacinth, primrose, sweet violet, winter aconite, and wood anemone.
Mid-season nectar plants include buddleia, heather, lavender, mallow (Lavatera), sea holly, verbena, and wallflower.
Late-season nectar plants include coneflower, marigold, honeysuckle, ivy, michaelmas daisies, perennial sunflower, and red valerian.
Herbs include angelica, borage, catmint, chives, fennel, mint, rosemary, thyme, and marjoram.
A lack of flowering plants is one of the biggest problems bees face, so our gardens really are critical to supporting pollinators. By filling our gardens with pollinator-friendly plants, we can have a huge positive impact on the bee population and the future of British crops and flowers.