After the bustling activity of Spring, colony growth and the excitement of swarming preparations, we turn our thoughts to Summer. 

The beginning of June is often a dearth period for our bees, but one shrub which may help to alleviate this is Buddleia globosa (Orange globe tree) although not if you have a small garden as it gets big and is pretty boring the rest of the year.  Another genus of shrubs acting like a magnet for bees is Ceonothus.  There are many species and varieties in flower from May into early summer.   These range from ground-hugging plants to small trees and all bear masses of blue flowers.  Remember that some are quite tender and may need a sheltered wall.  Single roses can be useful sources of pollen but they vary widely and some are buzz pollinated so only of use to bumblebees.  Finally Cotoneaster spp. are  almost essential for the beekeeper’s garden.  Ranging from the ground covering varieties and the popular C. horizontalis, up to small trees they have small flowers rich in nectar and provide food for many species of bees.  Not many will have gardens sufficiently large to accommodate lime trees and the variety needs choosing with care but they are bee trees par excellence, yielding good crops of delicious honey.

Ceonothus sp.  A magnet for insects

The herbaceous garden comes into its own in Summer and the range of plants is vast.  Members of the Asteraceae are useful and include Cosmos and  Sunflowers.  There are shorter, branching sunflowers in a range of colours which are good for cut flowers as well as bees. 

One of the most important plant families is the Boraginaceae and here we find Borage (Borago officinalis) Phacelia (P. tanacetifolia) and Echium spp.  Phacelia can be in flower for many months from successional sowings.  It will self-seed but is not invasive as it is shallow rooted and can easily be hoed off.  I grow it in odd corners, often in the vegetable garden, and it is sometimes grown on a field scale or in conservation planting.

Echium sp. A member of the borage family

A group of plants that I value highly are the Persicarias (knotweeds). Questionably the best is P. amplexicaule.  Very easy to grow, having spikes of red, white or pink flowers and in bloom for months.  It appears to secrete nectar in the morning and the bees go to find other plants in the afternoon.   By streams and ponds Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) can be found growing in the wild.  Much loved by all insects, including bees, it has lovely tall spires of purple flowers, and grows to 1.5m in height.  If you have a large herbaceous border, it is a lovely plant for the back, and it does not need staking.  There are several smaller cultivated forms, which may be red or pink.  I love the one called ‘Blush’, an attractive pale pink but not so tough as its wild relative. 

Lythrum salicaria ‘Blush’ and Persicaria amplexicaule

The mallows are a useful group of plants and include the tree mallow (Lavatera olbia) a plant which can form a large shrub or be quite small, depending on variety.  The large purple form is very common, sometimes growing as an escapee on untended sites, but there are also some very attractive smaller ones with white or pale flowers and some are suitable for containers.  Smaller mallows (M. sylvestris and M. moschata) Common and Musk mallow respectively are lovely wild plants, usually purple but can be white. which can be used in the garden.  The pollen, which is abundant, is white or pale lilac, and the bees appear to be covered with flour after delving into the flower.

Lavatera  can make a shrubby plant

Although we have been concentrating on herbaceous plants, we must not forget the herb garden.  Virtually all the common herbs are attractive to bees and a variety of other insects and they are useful in the kitchen (although they should not be allowed to flower if using them for culinary purposes, a problem for the beekeeper cook).  Try thyme, marjoram, chives, mint  and rosemary.  Thyme comes in many forms and makes a lovely edging.  There are golden and silver ones.   It is best to grow two clumps of chives, cut one down and allow the other to flower, and then reverse the process.  Mint should be grown in a container, and do not let it escape as it is a pernicious weed with long wandering roots.  Again there are different types and I particularly like apple mint.  Rosemary is Spring rather than Summer, flowering.

I have found it difficult to limit myself to a few Summer flowers as there are many more I could have listed.  Many plants are now labelled as bee friendly, but this covers all bees and the needs of different types of bee vary considerably, especially as regards to flower length.  For example, bumblebees love foxgloves but you will not see a honey bee using them.  Garden centre managers are not, on the whole, too conversant with the bee world, but any flower that will help bees of any kind is good in my eyes.  Keep to the simple flowers and spread the flowering periods over as much of the year as you can. 

Next time we will look at those all-important Autumn flowers, which help our bees prepare for Winter.

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.