How To Attract More Bees To Your Garden (And Why It’s So Important)

By Claire Mitchell Posted in the Gardener’s Corner – 30th June 2019.

To some, attracting bees into our gardens may seem like some slightly quirky rural fantasy.

And though it’s undeniably satisfying to sit in the garden and watch colourful bees go about their work, the fact is, they also desperately need our support.

This guide is for anyone that wants to see more bees in their garden. Whether you’re a keen gardener or are concerned about the dwindling bee population (or both) this article is for you.

Facts and Figures About Bees

Here are some facts and figures taken from a House of Commons report on the UK bee population (2017) which outline some of the issues:

– In the UK, there has been an overall decline in wild bee diversity over the last 50 years.

– 70 of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of food worldwide are pollinated by bees.

Why are pollinators like bees important?

– Plants that are not pollinated will not set fruits or produce seeds. Many garden plants and agricultural/horticultural crops need bees to bring about pollination by transferring pollen from the flowers’ anthers to the stigmas. These include most tree and soft fruits, and many vegetables including runner beans, broad beans, tomatoes, marrows and courgettes.

– Pollination services are critical for both ecosystem function and crop production and are estimated to be worth between £430 million and £603 million a year to UK agriculture.

– The review estimated that pollinators added approximately £600 million per year to the value of UK crops through increased yield in oil seed rape and the quality of various fruit and vegetables.

– Bumblebees and solitary bees that are able to collect nectar and pollen from a wide range of plants, including garden flowers, are thought to be maintaining their numbers and distribution. It is species that are more selective in their flower-visiting habits, or have special requirements for nest sites, that have declined and now have a more restricted distribution.

(House of Commons, Debate Pack Number CDP 2017/0226, 10 November 2017)

Advantages of Encouraging Bees Into Your Garden

Bees are a highly visible part of our natural world and their daily activities such as visiting flowers to gather nectar and pollen are a vital component of our ecological system. These substances provide food for our bees as well as for the larvae in their hives or nests. And in addition, by moving from flower to flower, they act as vital pollinators of numerous garden and wild flowers. Along with other insects such as flies, beetles, butterflies and moths, bee pollination is also essential for the healthy cropping of most fruits, and even some vegetables.

With some bee populations now falling to dangerous levels, attracting bees into your garden will help these vital pollinators to survive and help to sustain the essential diversity of our planet’s ecology. The rich diversity of plants growing in Britain’s gardens means these outside spaces, and the gardeners who tend them, are a rich resource indeed. It has been said that there are often more pollinators active in our nation’s gardens than are available in the surrounding agricultural landscape.

Clearly, bees will enhance the pollination and biodiversity within your own garden. But sustaining bee populations will also preserve a vital link in the natural food chain. That in turn will also help to preserve the quality of the English landscape for us and for future generations.

Another benefit of encouraging bees into your garden is that you will give yourself the opportunity to watch and study these fascinating creatures at close quarters. And as you learn more about their habits and behaviour, you will come to respect these tiny pastoral powerhouses even more.

As William Shakespeare once wrote: ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I.’ But which bee did he mean? And how many kinds of British bees are there?

Which Bees Will You be Likely to Spot in Your Garden?

There are more than 250 species of bee occurring in Britain.

To keep things simple, they are best thought of as belonging to one of three distinct groups.

1) Bumblebees

There are around 25 British bumblebee species, some of which can only be found in very localised habitats. Around mid-summer, when a bumblebee nest is at peak capacity, it will harbour around 100-200 bees.

In most gardens there could be around 8 common social bumblebee species as well as 4 cuckoo species. Young fertile female bumblebees (queens) are the only ones that overwinter – so there is no need to store food to sustain a colony. The queens of most species take winter refuge by burrowing into the soil to re-emerge on a sunny spring day.

It is the task of these queens to find suitable nest sites to raise the first generation of larvae. Once these bumblebees mature into adult workers, they assume the job of collecting nectar and pollen, leaving the queen free to carry on laying eggs. Male bumblebees and next year’s queens will have been born by mid to late summer. Then as the September-October months arrive, the nests are in decline with the ageing queen, males and worker bees all dying off.

If you should discover a bumblebee nest in a compost heap, or some other inconvenient location, try to leave the nest until the bees naturally die off in late summer/ early autumn.

Typical bumblebee

A Typical Bumble Bee

2) Solitary bees

There are about 224 species of solitary bee in Britain. They do not share the same social structure as the bumblebee. Each female builds a nest, breeds and dies before the new generation of her family arrives. Even though they are described as solitary bees, some soil-nesting species may still nest in close proximity

Other solitary bees may nest inside hollow plant stems, within soft rotten wood, take advantage of soft sandy cliffs or use the holes beetles have previously bored in dead wood.

Solitary bee

A Solitary Bee

3) Honeybees

The honeybee is the classic social bee and lives in colonies of up to 60,000. It is also the bee that produces honey, and thus is the species of most interest to beekeepers.

Within the hive, there will be the following types of bee:

Queen bee – She rules the hive, makes decisions, and lays her eggs.
Drones – The typical hive will contain several hundred male honeybees.
Workers – The majority of the hive population will consist of infertile female worker bees. Their various tasks include building honeycombs, gathering nectar and pollen, defending the hive against predators, and of course looking after the colony’s larvae.

Honey Bee collecting pollen

Honey Bee Hovering

Why is Our Bee Population in Decline?

Like many other wildlife species, bees are facing a whole range of threats, not only here in the UK but also in many other parts of the world. The major factors involved are: loss of bee habitats, the effects of our changing climate, the widespread use of agricultural and other pesticides, and of course the impact of bee diseases.

While any one of these factors would pose significant problems for bees, it is the way these hazards combine and interact which has led to the decimation of bee species. As a result of these influences, it is believed nearly 10% of European wild bee species may soon become extinct. And what harms our bees is also likely to wipe out other pollinator species.

1) Habitat Loss

Our UK landscape has been subject to a number of major changes in land use. These include a switch to intensive farming methods and unsympathetic urban development. As a result, rich, pollinator-friendly habitats have been lost or subject to significant fragmentation. The predictable outcome has been the degradation of the diverse food sources bees depend upon to maintain a healthy diet.

Bees require an abundance of flowers to sustain their foraging, as well as access to hedges, soil and vegetation which they use for nesting and as safe places to shelter. But, according to Friends of the Earth, 97% of our once-abundant wildflower meadows have vanished since the Second World War. This has left our native bees with just the tattered remnants of what was once their natural habitat.

With the loss of vital farmland habitat, bees and other wildlife are now increasingly dependent upon the availability of protected wildlife sites. Despite this, the UK government’s own statistics record that a mere 6% of habitats protected by EU legislation are rated as being in ‘favourable condition’.

i) The impact of intensive farming

Intensive agricultural practices favouring large open fields and a sterile monoculture are responsible for the disappearance of our traditional rural landscape: hay and flower meadows, lush hedgerows, a variety of tree species as well as other habitats such as ponds and low-lying water meadows.

The restoration of our farmland to include more of these natural habitats could benefit farmers by boosting the wholly free natural services our wildlife can provide: e.g. pollination and keeping down farm pest populations via natural predation.

ii) Our changing land use

New and intensive forms of land use have been responsible for the fragmentation and destruction of much natural habitat. More sustainable types of housing and urban development must avoid damaging our surviving wildflower meadows. There should also be a commitment to incorporate ‘green infrastructure’ which can be of vital importance to bees and wildlife populations.

And given they are responsible for the management of significant green and semi-wild spaces – including local parks and allotments, roundabouts and highway soft verges – local authorities too have an important role to play in safeguarding native pollinators.

2) The Disruptive Effects of Climate Change

As seasons shift and winters become wetter and warmer, scientists believe climate change may be disrupting bee nesting and their emergence in spring. This change may also be affecting the flowering schedule of bee food plants. Some bee species are adapting by moving northwards, but not all bees will be able to make such adjustments – bumblebees in particular may be unable to migrate north.

If apple trees are in blossom when the bees are inactive, this will affect a bee food resource. However, it will also have a significant impact upon pollination and subsequent crop yields. There could also be implications for bee health.

3) Pesticides Harm Bee Health

Even when used properly, pesticides can harm bees, limiting their breeding success and weakening their resistance to disease. Pesticide exposure has been found to impair honeybee navigation as well as bumblebee reproduction, and can render solitary bees sterile.

Though pesticides are designed to target harmful pests, their toxicity and intensive use are also wiping out bees and other beneficial insects. Neonicotinoids are particularly lethal. Bees feeding on contaminated pollen or nectar suffer damage to their central nervous system. This disrupts essential survival behaviours like feeding, homing, foraging and reproduction.

The spraying of herbicides in parks and on highway soft verges also limits the supply of forage plants which bees and pollinating insects use as a food source to sustain them throughout the year.

4) Bee Pests and Diseases

Beekeepers monitor their honeybee colonies to guard against pests and disease. One major threat is the varroa mite – a small parasitic creature which attaches to a honey bee, causing a strength-sapping disease – while fungal diseases can soon spread through a whole colony.

There is some evidence that certain honeybee diseases can also infect wild bumblebees. So by managing honeybee health, beekeepers can safeguard wild bees as well as their own domestic hives.

5) Invasive Species

While some foreign bee species, like the Carpenter Bee, adapt to the British Isles and cause no problems, this is not the case with every visitor. For instance, the Asian Hornet is a recently discovered arrival which could cause major harm to British bees if it ever became established.

Asian Hornet

A common wasp

A Common Wasp

How to Attract Bees to Your Garden

Like all creatures, bees need food, water and shelter to thrive. So the best way to encourage bees to visit your garden is to provide them with these three essentials.

1) Food Plants For Bees

WildflowersYou can plant bee-friendly trees, shrubs and plants in your garden. With different bee species active at different times of the year, it’s helpful to provide blooming plants and trees at every season. Bees forage for nectar and pollen: Sugar-rich nectar supplies their energy needs, while pollen is a source of protein and oils. Bees come in all sizes, and with varying tongue lengths – so aim for a diverse range of flowers with different features.

To help choose which will be best options for your garden, here is a list of bee-friendly flora arranged by season:

SPRING

– Trees and shrubs
Pussy Willow: Grow this small tree with fluffy catkins to feed queen bumblebees as they create new colonies in early spring.

Apple or crab-apple: Bees are major pollinators of these trees with attractive pink and white blossoms.

– Flowers
Lungwort: With spotted leaves and deep blue and purple flowers, this is an easy plant to grow in your garden.

Crocus: A colourful addition to your lawn, crocuses attract emerging bees who shelter overnight in the flower cups.

– Herbs
Marjoram: An aromatic herb with nectar-rich blooms, its pinky-white drifts will be humming with bees.

– Fruit & vegetables
Kale: All bees will flock to the yellow flowers if you leave one or two plants to ‘bolt’.

– Wildflowers
Cowslip: This meadow flower has yellow, trumpet-shaped florets which bumblebees will love.

Comfrey: Juicy comfrey flowers soon re-fill with nectar, which makes them very appealing to bumblebees.

SUMMER

– Trees and shrubs
Lavender: Its perfumed scent and purple flowers are a magnet for bees. Plant in a sunny spot and prune for new growth.

Hawthorn: Its spiky branches make hawthorn a good hedge plant. The white ‘May blossom’ will attract solitary bees, and the birds will eat the red fruits.

– Flowers
Monarda: This ‘bee balm’ is a striking feature plant which will draw long-tongued bees.

Phacelia: A sweet-scented bloom for bumblebees which can also act as a green manure plant.

– Herbs
Chives: Bees love the nectar in its bunched purple florets. This green salad herb can be eaten fresh from the garden.

– Fruit & vegetables
Strawberry: Grows well in beds, pots or window boxes. The tiny yellow florets in the middle are pollinated by various different bees.

– Wildflowers
Viper’s bugloss: This biennial with tall blue flower spikes grows easily and self-seeds on sunny, sandy soils. Highly attractive to many kinds of bee.

Wood forget-me-not: Its delicate sky-blue flowers can act as ground-cover and self-seed easily. Attracts solitary bees.

AUTUMN

– Trees and shrubs
Abelia: This evergreen ‘bee bush’ attracts bumblebees and honeybees to its scented white flowers.

Honeysuckle: Bumblebees seek out this sweet-scented, vigorous climber by day, as do moths by night.

– Flowers
Sedum: The nectar-rich flowers of this drought-tolerant succulent are favourites with honeybees and bumblebees.

Perennial wallflower: Its long-lasting colourful flowers attract bees of all kinds.

– Herbs
Sage: Bumblebees and leafcutter bees love the tubular flower spikes of this aromatic herb.

– Fruit & vegetables
Runner/Broad bean: Bright flowers attract pollinating bees seeking protein-rich pollen.

– Wildflowers
White deadnettle: In flower most of the year, this is an important bee plant.

Yarrow: Its white, umbrella-shaped flower-heads are easy for bees to access.

WINTER

– Trees and shrubs
Mahonia: A nectar-rich evergreen. Bright yellow flowers help overwintering bees.

Ivy: Flowering old growth on this evergreen climber is a late-year source of nectar for bees.

– Flowers
Winter aconite: Colourful, bright-yellow flowers bring colour to your winter garden and pollen-rich food for the bees.

Snowdrop: Snow-white flowers contain abundant yellow pollen to sustain emerging bees in early spring.

– Herbs
Rosemary: This long-flowering herb has flared blue/purple flowers attractive to most bees.

– Fruit & vegetables
Raspberry: Early-spring bumblebees are major pollinators of raspberry flowers.

– Wildflowers
Lesser celandine: Flowers early with copious yellow blooms loaded with pollen for your early bees.

Field speedwell: Its dense drifts of delicate blue flowers often hide queen bumblebees. Food plant for smaller bees.

2) Water For Bees

Garden water bowl for beesBees require access to water throughout the year because nectar and pollen contain very little moisture. They also need water to dilute and access the crystallized honey they store.

If you use a shallow tray or terracotta saucer as a water supply, add plenty of pebbles to assist bees and butterflies which can drown in deeper water. The only drawback is that such sources can soon dry out on hot days unless they are replenished. One way to avoid this is to use a deeper container with plenty of corks floating on the surface which bees can then use as drinking platforms.

3) Shelter For Bees

a) Build a log pile

Log pile

A log pile suited to insects and bees

To provide a natural shelter for bees and other wild creatures, leave a pile of logs and dead branches in a corner of your garden. If possible, place your log pile under trees or shrubs to give some extra shade. If you can loosely fill some of the spaces between the logs with twigs, moss and leaves, this will be especially appreciated by your bee visitors.

Drilling deep holes into the log-ends will certainly make the pile more appealing to garden bees and also other insects.

Over time your logs will be sure to rot and probably accumulate more leaf litter, which will further enhance the value of the patch as a wildlife habitat. Eventually, you will acquire a messy wood pile which remains undisturbed for many years – not a particularly difficult management task!

b) Purchase a custom-made bee sanctuary

Bee home/log

A typical bee log

A garden bee house will provide a suitable nesting site for some bees, and you will get a lot of pleasure from watching their activity.

Make sure you choose one which offers good protection from rainy weather. Most commercial models will have hollow bamboo canes to accommodate the bees. If you can get a variety of different sized holes (diameters between 2–10 mm), you will be able to attract some different bee species.

Your bee ‘hotel’ should have a solid back to eliminate draughts, and should be sited against a wall or fence. Choose a south-facing position which is not subject to direct sunlight. Also note that this kind of shelter is designed to house solitary bees only. It is unlikely to attract wild bumblebees who prefer larger communal nests not really suitable for a garden project.

Bee Predators

The natural enemies of bees include some mammals and bird species, plus a few insects and insect parasites.

In the wild, badgers are the main bee predator. If they find a nest they can dig out and eat the contents using their powerful claws. Protecting any vulnerable nests is a matter of using material which bees can penetrate, yet keeps the badgers out. You can sometimes achieve this using a metal grid. Other opportunists such as fox, weasel, mice and shrew may occasionally take bees as food.

Birds that will often eat adult bees include shrikes and spotted flycatchers. Flying bees are occasionally taken by swallows, while robins and great tits will catch a bee and then rub it against a branch to remove the sting before consuming their victim. Honey buzzards also specialise in attacking bee nests and consuming the honey and bee larvae they find inside.

The impact of parasites such as the varroa mite on wild bees is little understood, but other predators and parasites include wasps and flies. Many of these lay their eggs inside bumblebee nests or on live bumblebees.

Garden Pesticides

The use of chemicals for garden pest and weed control can be a real problem for wildlife. For example, the chemical sprays used to eliminate aphids and greenfly can kill bees too. If you think it’s essential to use such products, try to apply them at dusk when the bees will have ceased their activities and retired for the night. A mixture of citrus peel and water is often a good way to deal with aphid infections, and if you can attract ladybirds to your garden, they are voracious killers of aphid populations.

Chemical control is a controversial and much-studied issue. In particular, the ‘neonic’ chemicals (neonicotinoids) – mainly thiacloprid and acetamiprid – are thought to cause bees real problems and have now been banned across Europe. While flupyradifurone has been marketed as a safer insecticide, some scientists believe this alternative causes similar problems to the neonicotinoids.

What to do if You Notice a Bee Swarm in an Undesirable Place

It happens to some of us from time to time.

You come home from work and notice a persistent buzzing noise from somewhere in your home.

After careful investigation you find it; a swarm of bees hidden somewhere you really don’t like.

It could be near a doorway or path or even inside your home.

Bees have been known to swarm in the most unusual places, including on cars (see video below).

In general, it’s best to leave the bees alone.

However, while they are endangered they aren’t a protected species.

Rather than forcefully trying to disturb the nest or heaven forbid, trying to destroy it with wasp killer chemical from the local DIY store, we suggest you call a local beekeeper.

Beekeepers often remove honey bee swarms and sometimes for free or for a very reasonable fee.

Solitary bees, bumble bees, wasps and hornets are not usually favored by local beekeepers. However, you can always take a few photos of the bees in your home and email them to your local beekeeper and ask for advice.

Check this video showing a bee keeper removing a swarm:

External Websites Worth Exploring

The House of Commons debate pack 2017

SOS Bees (by Greenpeace)

WWF report into bee population decline (PDF)

Bee fact sheet (10 interesting facts)

Michigan State University report into bumble bee decline

By Claire Mitchell. Posted in the Gardener’s Corner – 19th July 2019.