Here’s how to be a friend to bees this year

A bee with lavender, an excellent source of nectar.

A bee with lavender, an excellent source of nectar. - Credit: Archant

Make space in your garden to befriend bees. Helen Baczkowska and Rebecca Evans of Norfolk Wildlife Trust show us how.

Despite weeks of cold weather, it won't be long now until we start to hear the buzzing of our beautiful and hard-working friends the bees. Bees are the most prominent of the insects that service the pollinator-dependent flowers of our gardens and crops, working alongside butterflies, moths and hoverflies. There are more than 250 species of bee in the UK, only one of which is the honey bee (Apis mellifera) and about 25 of which are bumblebees, Bombus spp. The remainder, termed solitary bees, include flower bees, leafcutter bees and mining bees (Andrena species) which is the largest bee genus in Britain, ranging from as small as 5mm to as large as 17mm long.

Over recent decades, bees have suffered drastic declines across the country, predominantly as a result of habitat loss, increased pesticide use, disease and climate change. The good news is we can all do something practical to help bees and other pollinators. Our gardens have been found to be a hugely significant and valuable habitat for bees, particularly in urban areas, but also out in the countryside.

In order to not just encourage bees into your garden but ensure their survival, you will need to provide both food and homes.

Different species of bee need different nest sites. Bumblebees tend to nest in long tussocky grasses or old mouse holes so an untidy corner the garden is great if you have space. Many solitary bees nest in bare ground, such as a well trampled pathway or sunny bank.

In recent years, 'bee hotels' have become popular and can range from a few simple hollow canes bundled together to ornamental ones sold at garden centres. Details on making a simple bee hotel at home can be found on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust website: Hang bee hotels in a sunny site, sheltered from rain, and wait for the bees to investigate in spring. If you watch carefully, you will spot the female selecting a stem: she lays an egg inside with a store of pollen for the grub to eat when it hatches. Then she seals up the cell with a plug of mud, and starts again. A stem can end up with several cells and the young bees won't emerge until next year. Bee hotels located more than a metre off the ground will also be used by aerial nesting species such as mason bees and leaf cutter bees.

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Bees need nectar for flight energy and pollen to raise their young; attracting bees into your garden with tempting blooms will provide you with a colourful summer garden, as well as providing bees with essential nectar. Not all plants are good sources of nectar and plants such as double-headed dahlias are inaccessible to bees, so mix some bee-friendly varieties into your borders or containers. Food needs to be provided for the whole season so try to have something in flower from March to September (see panel for a list of pollinator favourites).

If possible, plant bee-friendly varieties in clumps; bees generally forage on the flowers of one plant species at a time, so a large block of the same plant is preferable to scattering plants throughout a border.

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Include in your selection flowers that have different shapes to provide food for a wide range of bumblebee species that may visit your plot. Different bumblebee species have evolved varied physical characteristics (most importantly tongue length) that make them more adapted to foraging on certain types of flowers. Short-tongued bumblebees are able to extract the nectar from flowers with an open shape, like brambles and raspberries, whereas long-tongued bees can reach nectar deep inside long, tubular flowers such as foxgloves.

Native wild flowers are great, though not essential and a small wildflower meadow is fantastic if space allows; if you are able to leave a patch of meadow that can be cut and raked once or twice a year, then this is wonderful for a huge amount of insects. If your garden cannot accommodate this, try an area of lawn planted with low-growing species like selfheal or white clover and cut a bit less often than a standard lawn – these species will cope with frequent cutting, will flower several times and will soon fill with bees.

Avoid using pesticides wherever possible, never spray open flowers and always follow the instructions. Good cultivation, cultivar selection, garden hygiene and using biological control should always be the first line of control and if pesticides are used, consider using short persistent organic products.

Finally, provide water for bees and other pollinators sometimes by having a shallow margin of a pond or a shallow dish of water filled with stones or marbles filled with water to provide a safe source of water.

As pollinators, bees benefit our gardens and allotments, but they are also fascinating to watch and wild bees and rarely aggressive to people. So, for a wildlife experience on your doorstep, take time this summer to sit down in your garden, watch a plant and observe the bees that visit it. You will be in for a treat.

So try these nectar-rich plants in your garden:

Wild flowers: Clover, knapweed, cowslip (an early nectar source), primrose (also an early source), scabious, ivy (great late summer nectar source), foxgloves, ox-eye daisy... and if you can tolerate thistles and cow parsley in a wild corner, these are good too!

Shrubs & trees: Cotoneaster, buddleia, apple, cherry, goat willow (early source), hawthorn, and black and red currants.

Herbs: Lavender, mints, sage, aromatics (such as rosemary and marjoram), and comfrey.

Ornamental plants: Many cottage garden plants are ideal for bees, so here are a few to try - sedums (late source), aster (late source), sunflowers , pulmonaria (also known as lungwort), autumn or winter crocus, snowdrop, wallflower, campanulas (bellflowers), snapdragon (antirrhinums), borage and geums

Helen Baczkowska is conservation officer and Rebecca Evans, volunteer conservation officer.

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