Tuesday, 23 July 2013 13:44

Bee Friendly

"Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower"

Extract from Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’

After such a long dreary winter, how nice it is that the sun has finally decided to come out. In the sun and warmth, flowers open, and bees take full advantage, having only a limited period in which they can forage for nectar. Last year was a disaster for bees; prolonged rain kept them in their hives for long periods, and honey harvests were poor as a result.

It has been well reported that bees are already facing significant threats from disease and loss of wild flower meadows over the past couple of decades. Honeybee numbers have halved over the past 25 years while numbers of bumblebees have fallen by around 60 per cent since 1970. We need to take the threat seriously and gardeners can do a lot to help, by creating bee-friendly habitats. Planting any old flowers is not the answer, however. Just as we have our favourite foods, scientists at the University of Sussex have discovered that there are some significant differences in how attractive ordinary garden flowers are to bees.

The best plants were found to be the Mexican giant hyssop (Agastache), which was particularly good for bumblebees, while honeybees liked borage and lilac sage (Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain’) best. Wild solitary bees are apparently partial to marjoram, and Greek oregano. Lavenders were also popular. In contrast, some geranium species and popular types of cactus and pom-pom dahlia were barely ever visited.

Often seen as a pest, it was however common old ivy (Hedera helix) that was one of the most important plants for providing food for bees, as well as for birds and shelter for hibernating animals. Honeybees apparently rely upon ivy for the majority of the pollen and nectar they collect during the autumn months, a crucial time when they are trying to build up stores for the winter and feed their young. It takes a while for ivy to produce flowers and they are not easy to see, so people can be forgiven for not thinking of it as a flowering plant at all.

Of course ivy can be problematic in the wrong place, but according to the RHS it is unlikely to damage a wall with sound masonry and provides insulation against extremes of temperature. Contrary to popular belief, ivy doesn’t strangle or hurt trees either and only needs to be removed if you want the bark to be visible for aesthetic reasons. So if you’re worried about your walls, let it scramble up a tree instead or use it as ground-cover in a shady hard-to-plant corner. Wherever you let it grow please let it grow somewhere and give bees a friendly helping hand.

For more information on other bee friendly plants, go to
http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Plants-for-pollinators

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