As the hurly-burly of Summer fades we slide smoothly into Autumn, John Keat’s ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ but, as far as I know Keats was not a beekeeper so had no knowledge of the needs of our bees for nectar and, particularly, pollen to support them through the winter months.  Most of our wild bees have now vanished until next Spring but the honey bees will go on foraging as long as there is something to collect and the weather is sufficiently favourable. 

In our gardens we can still provide them with some food.  Some herbaceous plants will repeat flower if they are cut down after their first flush of flowers have died:  hardy geraniums and Knautia  macedonica are examplesCosmos will continue to flower if dead-headed regularly, and that rather invasive but lovely Verbena bonariensis just keeps going.  I can remember buying (actually paying!) for my first plant, when it first appeared on the scene.  I could have made my fortune if I had sold all the thousands of seedlings I have hoed off since.  Plant it at the back of a border, or even near the front as it is so airy that you can see through it.  That brings us to the Autumn stalwarts. 

Perennial asters, often called Michaelmas Daisies, are wonderful plants.  They come into their own just when the garden seems to be fading and come in a number of lovely colours, although the commonest is purple.  There are two groups: novae-belgii and novae-angliae.  The former suffers from mildew so the novae-angliae varieties are best.  They get their name from Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael on September 29th and the last of the traditional quarter days in the English calendar.

                                                                                                                              Michaelmas daisies

A plant that we probably all grow is Sedum (syn: Hylotelephium) spectabile, the ice-plant.  This is so attractive to insects that it is common to see bees trying to prise open the flower buds.  There are several varieties in a range of colours through white, pale pink to dark red, some taller than others.   A trouble-free plant in these days of low Summer rainfall, it can be used anywhere in the garden.

                                                                                          There are varieties of S. spectabile to suit every position

Golden Rod (Solidago spp) is an old-fashioned and not very popular plant among gardeners, but it can be a useful plant for the bees.  In the USA it is regarded as a late honey producer by some beekeepers and exists in copious amounts in the wild.  It is also naturalised in some area of the UK.  There are many species and some more modern, attractive varieties, some of which are smaller so fit in well in a smaller garden.  I have no personal experience of them so cannot advise.

Still in the herbaceous border, single dahlias should not be overlooked.  They do not produce any nectar but are good pollen sources and many will keep flowering until the frosts hit them.  There are small ones as well as the taller varieties and many growers are now finding that they survive happily if covered with straw or something similar over the Winter.

                                                                                                      Single dahlias give a good supply of pollen

Although most trees and shrubs are Spring flowering, there are a few that come into their own later in the year.  Ivy (Hedera spp.) is the most obvious although I hesitate to mention this as a possible garden plant.  It only flowers on the higher parts, when they are climbing upwards but, while not being parasitic on trees, it does cover them, is difficult to remove or control and can cause the trees to have a lot of weight on them in the Winter, which can weaken them.  It also competes with the tree for light.  Having said all that, it is a brilliant plant for wildlife, providing not only copious amounts of nectar for all manner of insects in the autumn, as well as giving birds, particularly the various thrushes, both native and migratory, a good supply of berries to eat.  It also provides a home for numerous small animals, including birds, who roost in it and may nest there in the Spring.  It also supports the lovely little solitary Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) that now has spread over much of the country.

Finally I must include one of my favourite plants.  For many years we grew Clematis rehderiana on a pergola.  Sadly we have now left that house and the pergola and I have nowhere to grow one.  It was always covered with masses of lovely fragrant ivory bells and was loved by all nectar feeders.   Beginning to flower in July, it would continue until late September or even later, if a frost did not intervene.  Totally hardy and merely needing cutting back to a few short stems in February and feeding, it was in many ways the perfect plant. 

                                                                                                            The ivory bells of C rehderiana

Most flowers will finish in October at the latest and that leaves us with November.  There we really have problems and I can’t help but empathise with the poet and humorist Thomas Hood who did not think much of November:

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –

Not strictly true of course but you get the idea.  November is probably best forgotten about and next time we will look at the Winter months which are at least full of the promise of Spring.

Photos:  Celia Davis

Author Biography for Celia Davis

Celia has had a life-long interest in insects but her life changed completely in 1980, when she became a beekeeper.   Since then bees have become a passion.

She has held many posts in her Association and has been associated with beekeeping education at all levels for many years, locally and nationally.  She holds a degree in Agriculture and was awarded a National Diploma in Beekeeping in 1994, writes and lectures widely on bees, beekeeping and other insects, and plants for insects.  She has had 2 books published.  She began gardening with her Grandad when she was a child and has an enduring fascination in plants, both wild and cultivated.  Until 3 years ago she and her husband tended a large garden in Berkswell, growing much of their own fruit and vegetables, and opening the garden for charity for many years.