Plants for bees

Posted: Friday 30 April 2010
by Kate Bradbury

The problem for bees is that their favourite food plants are often considered to be 'weeds'. They don't go for highly bred double-flowered dahlias, no matter how good they look in our borders.

Common carder queen bumblebee on jostaberry flowerMost gardeners are now aware of the diminishing number of bees. Bumble, honey and solitary bees are all in decline. On the whole, blame can be apportioned to loss of habitat: hedgerows are now scarce, while use of herbicides has depleted food, such as clover. Many pesticides just kill them.

Our gardens are fast becoming refuges for bees - especially some species of bumblebee, which are happy to nest in wild corners, bird boxes and under sheds. Many also come into our gardens to feed. Sadly some species of bumblebee rely on chalk grassland, hay meadows and other disappearing habitats that our gardens cannot provide for them.

Solitary bee on thistle flowerThe problem for bees is that their favourite food plants are often considered to be 'weeds'. They don't go for highly bred double-flowered dahlias, no matter how good they look in our borders. Bees like clover, dead nettle, bird's foot trefoil and thistles. I like most 'weeds' and am looking forward to my new lawn being colonised by trefoil and dandelions. I'm growing teasel, red clover, comfrey and lavender in a pot and it's going to look great in July. It will be also alive with the buzzing of bees (I hope my whole garden will be).

I'd love everyone to grow such plants in their gardens, but I realise this isn't realistic. Wild flowers (especially native and local strains) often provide the best sources of pollen and nectar for bees, but some ornamental plants are just as good. The key is to avoid plants which have been intensively bred (which contain little nectar) and plants with double flowers (the bees just can't get to the goods).

Here's a list of some of my favourite plants for bees:

1. Allium

2. Aquilegia

3. Birds-foot trefoil

4. Borage

5. Campanula

6. Cardoon

7. Catmint

8. Chives

9. Clover

10. Comfrey

11. Cornflower

12. Cranesbill geranium

13. Foxglove

14. Heather

15. Honeysuckle

16. Lavender

17. Poppy

18. Pussy willow

19. Raspberry

20. Red Campion

21. Rosemary

22. Scabious

23. Sea Holly

24. Sunflower

25. Teasel

26. Thistles

27. Viper's bugloss

28. Wisteria

I'm growing 21 of the above plants in my garden. Different bees have different plant requirements, so it's best to grow the widest range of plants possible for them, over a long period. Some bumblebees - like the garden bumblebee, Bombus hortorum - have really long tongues, so feed from plants with long corollas, like foxgloves and red campion. Smaller-tongued bees are generally less fussy. Buff-tailed bumblebees, B. terrestris have learned to rob nectar from plants with long corrollas, by piercing them and taking nectar from the side of the flowers. I was actually quite upset last year to see a buff-tailed bumblebee do this to my campion flowers. They were mauled beyond recognition.

Which plants get bees going in your garden?

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Plants for bees
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step

Gardeners' World Web User 30/04/2010 at 14:36

Inula hookeri is a great one for bumblebees and I find bees of all sorts love forget-me-nots. If, like me, you want a good harvest of beans you have to consider they need pollination which means lots of food plants. I respect so-called weeds for what they are - plants superbly adapted to our climate - which puts a different light on them in the garden. Lots of them have great uses for salads or tisanes and should not be disparaged. Try looking at your weeds with a magnifying glass and see them in a different perspective. A garden should not be just plants but insects and birds and mammals galore.

Gardeners' World Web User 30/04/2010 at 15:49

Green Alkanet. I have this plant in various places around my garden, in the sun, in the shade, just about everywhere. I allow this plant to flourish because the bees like this plant, particularly the Common Carder bee. I have bought two wild plants this Spring, Field Scabious and Wild Marjoram, for the bees and the butterflies. My local garden centre had a good selection of wild plants for sale a few weeks ago, and I went to this garden centre a week ago and noticed nearly all their wild plant are gone, which is good because it means there are people who are now appreciating the wild as well as the cultivated.

Gardeners' World Web User 30/04/2010 at 19:14

i have double flowered dahlias and they love them but hate every thing

Gardeners' World Web User 30/04/2010 at 19:56

You can see what plants the bees are working on by the colour of the pollen on their legs - watch carefully at to see the pollen coming in - mainly yellow at the moment but Horse Chestnut is just coming into flower and that is a deep red colour.

Gardeners' World Web User 01/05/2010 at 12:32

Pulmanaria? Lungwort

See more comments...