bee foraging borageCreating a Perfect Garden for You and the Bees

By Sarah Holdsworth, Horticulturist and Devon BKA

There is no better model of gardening for wildlife and ourselves, than nature itself.

By, essentially, mimicking the best of nature’s symbiotic relationships, we can design our gardens as we would an edible forest garden or permaculture area, reduce the amount of maintenance our garden needs and increase its yields. By planting mainly perennials, including trees and shrubs, and self-sowing annuals, we instantly have the basis for a self-renewing, self-fertilizing and self-maintaining garden.

We can reduce or eliminate pest control chemicals by providing food and shelter for birds, animals and insects that will keep insect pests in check without destroying them outright. We can reduce garden maintenance to mulching, some pruning, occasional weeding and minimal pest or disease management. Creating a garden that is perfect for bees and for us entails creating a whole garden ecosystem, which is far more than the sum of its parts. The rewards of this stewardship will be the harvest of herbs, fruits, vegetables, nuts,seeds or medicinal plants for decades or, perhaps, centuries to come. The cogs in this wheel of life that make it all possible are the pollinators, mainly bees, so it very much makes sense to design our gardens with bees in mind.

Wild versus cultivated plants

A major consideration will be our choice of plants. Perhaps, little over one hundred years ago, this would have been a simple process of elimination arriving at the most desirable plants which are open-pollinated;that is pollinated by insects, usually bees,which transfer pollen from flower to flower leading to fruit and seed set. Now,we are faced with a plethora of red-herrings. Looking for the perfect plants for bees and other pollinators has become much harder than our grandparents could possibly have imagined. The reason for this is that plant breeding has become a competitive hobby and big business. Most ornamental plants now for sale in garden centres are modern hybrids known as cultivars. They are bred for certain traits such as dwarfing, larger blooms, different colours or double blooms. They are propagated on a large scale by vegetative cutting, which means they are genetically identical. They have no need for pollinators, most produce no nectar or pollen and most are sterile. Of the few modern cultivars that do produce nectar,e.g. some modern lavender cultivars, their phytochemical constituents including nectar and pollen have been altered at a genetic level, and may not have the same properties as their wild forebears.

It has been observed by some beekeepers that bees prefer to visit the original wild form of Lavandula angustifolia than its modern cultivars. And as any medicinal herbalist will tell you: You can only use a wild plant unaltered by plant breeding as herbal medicine, because hybridising plants can sometimes create toxicity in the plant cells. Only with the original wild herbs can you trust the phytochemical effects gleaned from thousands of years of tried and tested assurance. Research also shows that bees and animals respond in a similar way as humans to phytochemicals in medicinal plants, such as those with antibiotic or antifungal properties. It is interesting to note that bees often seem to favour plants with medicinal properties.

An exception to the acceptability of cultivars for use as ideal bee forage plants is the huge array of wonderful varieties of tree fruits, such as apples, plums, gages, cherries, pears and bush fruit such as currants, raspberries and strawberries. For most of these, the seed does not always grow true to type. However, the seed is viable and sometimes reverts back to its wild form if grown. The resulting plants will also produce pollen and nectar for pollinators, who, in turn, help to produce fruit for us.

The other exception is the array of old vegetable cultivars, all of which came originally from their weedy-looking wild ancestors. The old varieties were painstakingly bred over many years by our forebears. Vegetables were pollinated out in the field and each year, from say F1 to F10, with ‘F’ being one generation, seed was selected only from plants with desirable characteristics. These old varieties are known as ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ varieties and they do grow true from their viable seed, which is often saved and passed on as gifts from year to year. The seed cannot be sold legally due to Defra’s uniformity and licencing rules, and sadly, the high cost of these licences to growers is resulting in the disappearance of these seeds from catalogues. They are rapidly being replaced by F1 cultivars, produced in laboratories in just one plant generation.These F1s are not open-pollinated, their seed cannot be saved and, like the modern ornamental cultivars, they often either produce no pollinator reward or the pollen is unsuitable or inaccessible.Crucially, in contrast, all the old varieties of fruit and vegetables were bred with and by pollinators. The arrived at ‘variety’ was, and still is, open-pollinated, just like wild plants, and they produce ideal nectar and pollen rewards. It will be a very sad day for us, for bees and other pollinators if or when these wonderful old varieties disappear.

Plant open-pollinated and rare varieties

Our starting point in looking for perfect plants for our self-sustaining garden is to dismiss the artificially bred, non-insect pollinated, modern plants. Instead, we need to seek out ‘open-pollinated’ varieties and wild species, insect or bee-pollinated plants. These wild species are the original, stable, genetic source of all our cultivars, old and new.As they have done for millions of years, wild plants will cleverly continue to adapt and evolve to stressors such as climate or atmospheric change, develop resistance to various diseases and even develop strategies for outwitting pests. The moot point for discussion here, is that these wild plants exist as they are, only because of their symbiosis with their pollinators.Without pollinators we would lose all these wild plants. Of course,there are some wind-pollinated wild plants, notably grasses, wheat,rice and maise, but also most annuals, such as oilseed rape and sunflowers, that will benefit from bee pollination with a slightly higher yield and better ‘fitness’, although they will set seed without it. An annual has only one chance to set seed and if it does not set seed it will suffer species decline. The majority of plant species used as food or medicine by humans are insect, mainly bee pollinated. Without realising it, while we have been planting sterile hybrids originating from wild plants in our gardens, their wild ancestors are being displaced in the wild and many are now threatened with extinction.

How can we choose heritage varieties?

How can we distinguish between modern F1 hybrids and old heritage varieties of vegetables when buying seed? Between wild or artificially altered plants when looking for ornamental plants? There is a code of practice in plant labelling which stems from Carl Linnaeus, the brilliant eighteenth century, Swedish botanist who thought up a system for plant classification and naming. This is now known as the international code of botanical nomenclature, and the international code for cultivated plants. And luckily for us,horticulturists have had the good sense to adopt this practice and stick to it. When a plant or tree is labelled correctly it will bear first the genus then the species name followed, in lower case letters, either by a subspecies (subsp) or naturally evolved variety (var) without quotation marks. Labels you should avoid will bear the genus, then species name followed by a modern name written with the initial letter of the name in capitals, and quotation marks. It is this modern latter part of the name that shows it is a modern hybrid clone. This sounds at first complicated, but it is really quite simple! Here is an example of correct labelling for a wild species tree and a shrub, and some of their modern cousins:

Crataegus laevigata. Genus is followed by species. This is a wild hawthorn tree, with good forage for bees.

Crataegus laevigata ‘Plena’. This is a double-flowered white cultivar named ‘Plena’.

Crataegus laevigata ‘Paul’s Scarlet’. This is a double-flowered and red cultivar. Both these cultivars have had their nectaries replaced by extra petals. They do not, therefore, produce nectar. What a shame!

Leptospermum scoparium. This is a wild manuka species,producing copious nectar.

Leptospermum scoparium ‘Red Damask’. This is a double-flowered cultivar, which does not produce nectar.

The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century. The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by estimated 20,000 flowering plant species, upon which many bee species depend for food, could be lost over the coming decades unless conservation efforts are stepped up. Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to seven billion people.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director 

There are hundreds of small, independent growers and nurseries in the British Isles that grow a wide range of wild species plants and other old open-pollinated cultivars. When choosing plants for your bees there are basically five questions you need to ask: 

  • Do the flowers provide nectar or pollen or both for bees?
  • Do they flower in our temperate climate? Many plants are from warmer parts of the world and although they grow, some do not flower in our lower temperatures.
  • Are they either open-pollinated old varieties or original wild species? Both are ideal bee plants.
  • Will the soil type and situation in my garden suit the plant?
  • Plants that provide a larger area of flowers are more attractive to honey bees. Therefore, if space is limited grow a shrub or small tree rather than an herbaceous plant. The reason being that once honey bees have found a good source of food they return to the hive and recruit other workers. Therefore, they respond better to a ‘mass’ of flowers and will often ignore a single herbaceous plant. Gardeners often do not have space to grow four or five of the same plant together, but the same ground area covered by a shrub would be attractive to them. Bumblebees and solitary bees do not get recruits by dancing, work more on their own and so will work just one plant.” Dr Mick Street

Sources of information

I have listed in the table a selection of some of the best plants that provide useable nectar and pollen for bees. There are also lists drawn up by various organisations. Notably, the BBKA has a list showing clearly many species which provide serious forage for bees, assuming of course they are original wild species unaltered by modern plant-breeding.

Make your garden ‘your own’

Once you have found the perfect plants and planted them, this will just be the start of a blooming relationship with your garden. We all develop our own style of gardening and there is plenty of available advice for those who seek it, but if there is one last tip I would offer, it is this. To garden successfully, do not think you need anything else but time and your own two hands ... okay and certainly some good trusty tools such as forks, trowels, and a grass-cutter or scythe ... and, perhaps, some sheep to control areas of grass and weeds from growing beds. But, if you have a well-balanced garden that is in tune with nature, it will be brimming with wildlife. And what you do not need is the vast array of poisonous chemicals that manufacturers would have you believe you do need. These not only kill a target pest, but also all the other innocent insects and wildlife that would otherwise keep the target pest in check. It is a trap we can all fall into, unless we take the plunge and trust the natural world. For me, many years ago, it felt like I was taking a giant bungee jump when I finally ditched every single chemical, including soap, for aphid control. Ever since then,my garden has grown stronger and healthier, as have the plants and wildlife in it, including my bees.

I will leave you one final quotation, which shows that growing plants the organic way produce more nutritious and vital foo plants–bees desperately need as many nutrients as they can get. And, as we know, plants express their nutrients in their pollen and nectar.

... work builds on a previous study by the team–involving experts from the UK, USA, France, Italy, Switzerland and Poland–investigating the composition of organic and conventionally-grown crops....a study, also published in the British Journal of Nutrition,showed that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops and contained less of the toxic metal cadmium.We have shown, without doubt, there are composition differences between organic and conventional food. Taken together, the three studies on crops, meat and milk suggest hat a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.These quotes are taken from research

by Professor Carlo Leifert, Professor of Ecological Agriculture at Newcastle University

Sarah's list of Garden Plants Particularly Good for Honey Bees and Hardy in the British Isles

Whether we use our green space for pleasure or as a vegetable plot, we can all enjoy the rewards of planting for bees. It doesn't matter if your garden is a balcony, allotment, window box, hanging basket, pots and tubs or a swathe of green open space, we can all provide honey bees and other insect pollinators with a banquet of pollen and nectar throughout the year.   

By planting the right type of plants and trees, we provide a larder for honey bees and other pollinators, habitats for wildlife and, in addition, pollination by bees provides food for us and other wildlife from birds to insects. So, by planting for bees, everyone is a winner.

Our BBKA leaflet Ten favourite flowers to attract Honey Bees which you can print at home is available above.

For the keen gardeners and scientifically minded, please see the excellently researched BBKA Special Issue on Flower Families for Forage

Also on the shop is the delightful book Planting for Honey Bees which makes an ideal gift for gardeners