Our gardens have become a vital source of food for urban and suburban bees and in fact the variety of plants grown in gardens provides these pollinating insects with a fabulous pick and mix of flowers. Honeybees prefer to visit the same sort of flower in batches rather than an eclectic mix of flowers on one trip. So it is better to plant larger clumps of the same sort of plant than just one of each.
Often it is the early flowering plants that make a huge difference to the bees. In fact a few carefully chosen trees can provide essential early food for a colony of bees. One or two trees in a small garden can provide masses of pollen and nectar. Think about trees that provide vital food in the winter and spring. Alder is a very good source of early pollen; Crab apples and wild cherries have masses of pollen and nectar rich flowers fairly early in the season. Choose plants that are good for the garden, great for bees and have another season of interest or use. Fruit trees, bushes, canes and vines are perfect, they have beautiful spring blossom which provides food for the bees and then go on to provide fruit for the gardener too. Almost all types of fruit, except perhaps rhubarb, (which is botanically a vegetable anyway), need pollinators. Apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, currants, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries, cherries and more all need pollinating insects to transfer pollen from flower to flower, even a small garden can support a wide range of fruit throughout the year and produce a bountiful, fresh and healthy harvest.
There are many bee friendly herbs that are not just culinary plants; some can be used for medicinal purposes too. Great herbs to grow include thyme, lavender, rosemary, marjoram, borage, chives, catmint (nepeta), fennel, St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), lovage, hyssop and calendula (pot marigold). For vegetables choose flowering plants such as broad beans, runner beans, peas, mangetout, tomatoes, courgettes, squash, cucumbers, aubergines and French beans to provide nectar and pollen for the bees and plenty of fresh food for your family too.
Try to leave an area of your garden wild, where weeds and wildflowers can grow. This will help support all kinds of wildlife. Bumblebees like a natural wild area to nest and forage. Sow wildflower areas from seed, but don’t forget that many weeds such as vetch, clover, dandelions and daisies provide excellent pollen and nectar for bees and should be allowed to flower, if not in the garden, maybe in the wild area or on the periphery of the garden. For the rest of the garden choose plants that are native to the UK, that are not highly bred and that have single or open flowers where the flower parts are exposed for bees to gather pollen and nectar.
Popular bee plants include buddleia, lavender, sedum, clover, Echinacea, rudbeckia, verbena, helenium, weigela and many, many more. Check on the Internet for basic lists of bee plants, but also look at what grows locally and which plants attract bees.
Think about the structure of your garden especially if you are about to embark on a project. If your fences have blown down in the wind then consider replacing them with a mixed native hedge that will provide food, shelter and nesting sites for all sorts of wildlife.