Let me introduce myself:  many of you know me as a beekeeper, but gardening has also been a passion for as long as I can remember.  I love plants and I am hoping that I can share my enthusiasm for bee plants with you.

Bees feed on nectar and pollen and need a continuous supply during the main part of the year if they are to thrive.  This is where gardens come into their own as they occupy more than 400,000ha (approx 900,000ac).  Many are small but, all planted with nectar- and pollen-rich flowers they can make a huge impact on the lives of bees, our own and the 270 species of wild bees.  So what are the best plants to use, bearing in mind that we want our gardens to be attractive to us as well? 

There is a basic rule-of-thumb: simple flowers are best, avoid highly-developed varieties.  Different species of bee have different requirements but providing a good mixture of flowers will keep them all happy.

Trees can produce a mass of nectar and pollen, so we are looking at pears, apples, plums and damsons, as well as the ornamental Malus spp. (Crab apples) and Prunus spp. (Cherries).  Smaller varieties and culinary fruits on dwarf rootstocks can be suitable for a small space, and all trees are particularly useful as they use the space above the garden.  While we are on the subject of fruit, soft fruits such as gooseberry and red and black currants are much loved by our bees and also by some solitary bees, particularly Andrena fulva.  It’s lovely to see these pretty little bees working hard on the shrubs, sometimes in great numbers.

Probably the most important source of food in the Spring are the willows(Salix spp.).  They come in all shapes and sizes from creeping ones to big trees and everything in between and their flowering periods extend over a long period, dependent on variety.  One of my favourites is Salix hastata, a small shrub with dark red stems.  Remember that willows have separate sexes so, although both male and female trees produce nectar, only the males provide pollen. 

Laburnum is a tree often seen in gardens.  It is brilliant for bumblebees and certainly helps their early nests, but honey bees do not use it.  I used to stand beneath ours and listen to the roar above me.

A less common, but beautiful tree is Cercis siliquastrum (Judas Tree).  It has an interesting shape and bears a mass of pinkish/purple pea-shaped flowers.

The laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) with which we are all familiar in hedges, is a prolific nectar producer.  Honey bees freely visit the mass of flowers, which individually are lovely, in late Spring.  At other times extra-floral nectaries underneath the leaves are also used.

Many trees are best planted in their dormant season but, with the availability of container grown plants, it is now possible to plant at any time, providing that there is a good supply of water.   A good plan is to sink a narrow pipe into the ground so that water reaches the roots and is not wasted.

Underneath the trees it is possible to grow many plants that bees will love.   One of the best, that I would urge everyone to grow is Helleborus orientalis (the Lenten Lily).  There are many varieties, producing flowers through white, pink to deep reds and they hibridise freely.  In a shady area they are the ideal plant, requiring little attention save to cut the old leaves off in September and occasionally divide the clumps.  Look inside the flowers to see the petals modified into little (usually) green cups containing nectar.  The stamens are numerous producing masses of pollen.  The sepals are the coloured part.

If you plant nothing else, grow Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Lily)

Bulbs are wonderful little plants as long as you remember to plant them in the Autumn.  This is something I am not good at as I prefer instant results, and bulbs need patience.   But, how wonderful when they pop up in the Spring.  One of the best is the Grape Hyacinth (Muscari spp.).  This is a terrific provider of nectar and pollen, much loved by butterflies and bumble bees, as well as our honey bees.  It does seed about and this can be a benefit or a nuisance, depending on your outlook and your style of gardening.

Butterflies, as well as bees, love Muscari (Grape Hyacinths)

A very small plant is Anemone blanda.  The daisy-like flowers can be purple, pink or white and a mass planting can look beautiful.  We have some which have spread themselves into our lawn, much to my husband’s annoyance and my delight!

Anemone blanda comes in pink and blue as well as white

The Alliums are a large group, flowering generally in late Spring.  Their lovely globe-shaped flowers are generally purple but there are also white varieties and a little yellow one.  Most are tall but there are shorter ones.  They are onions and their close relative, chives, (Allium schoenoprasum) is much loved by bumblebees, if allowed to flower.  Chives is a useful herb.

Spring flowers provide the pollen which is vital for the growth of a honey bee colony, the establishment of bumblebee nests and the provisioning of wild bee nests.

Next time we’ll think about Summer.

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.