Blooming Times: Bee Smart
by Flo Whitaker
Bees are in serious decline. Why not grow some bee-friendly plants and help put the sound of summer back into our gardens.
Astonishingly, there are approximately 250 different types of bee in the UK. Some species are extremely rare, occurring in a few specific locations. Others are far more familiar and can be readily seen in our parks and gardens, but all have been affected to a greater or lesser extent from modern methods of farming, gardening and habitat loss. Other pollinating insects have suffered similar fates which could have serious repercussions for us all. Simply put, if there were no pollinators in the world, the human race would starve.
Taking a wildlife-friendly approach to gardening makes sense in so many ways. We assume that our modest-sized plots can make no difference but, collectively, our gardens cover a million acres; ‘we’ are the biggest landowners in Britain! For some, the term ‘wildlife-friendly gardening’ conjures up an off-putting image of Steptoe’s Yard, but there are many garden- worthy flowers that also make excellent pollinator plants – even the tidiest gardener can do their bit for bees.
Springtime weather is notoriously fickle. Many bees perish due to cold conditions and lack of food. Early-flowering, pollen-rich plants can make all the difference to their survival. Snowdrops and aconites are usually first to flower; with hellebores, daffodils and crocus in hot pursuit. Shrubs such as camellias, viburnums, winter honeysuckle and mahonias will be eagerly sought out by hungry bees and if you have room for a small tree such as a hazel or ornamental cherry, so much the better. A crab apple will produce clouds of blossom as well as attractive autumn fruits for birds to enjoy. Herbs such as lavender, thyme, borage and oregano are particularly pollen-rich. Buddleias, foxgloves, alliums and lupins will provide food in early summer, while sedums, cone flowers and verbenas extend the larder into autumn.
Many annual flowers are favoured by pollinating insects. As the name suggests, annuals are plants that complete their life cycle in one year. They provide bursts of colour in the borders for little effort and are naturally fast-growing – it’s not too late to sow some now. Nasturtium and cosmos seed will germinate within a few days. Sow thinly in trays and prick out the seedlings when they have reached about 2 cms in height. Hold seedlings by their leaves – not their stems. It’s so easy to accidentally crush a soft young stem, with fatal results; whereas a torn leaf is seldom the end of the world as a vigorous seedling will quickly produce another one. Sweet peas are also beloved by bees. You won’t get prize-winning blooms from a May sowing, but the bees won’t care! Sweet peas hate root disturbance – sow individually in small pots and when the seedlings are approximately 6 cms high, pinch out the growing tips. This will create multi-stemmed plants, giving more flowering shoots.
If faffing about with seedlings is not your thing, Sweet Sultan (Amberboa), Candytuft (Iberis) and Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella) can be sown directly into the border. Rake and level the soil surface, removing any weeds. Sow thinly, then gently rm the soil with the back of the rake. This will push the seeds into the soil crevices. Water using a fine spray and cover the area with chicken wire or mesh to deter curious birds and pets. When the seedlings appear, remove the mesh and thin the plants to about 10 cms apart. It’s tempting to leave them all in situ but they need room to grow – be ruthless! A few twiggy supports placed between the young plants will aid stability and will soon be hidden from view.
‘Natural meadow’ gardening has recently become all the rage and certainly makes a brilliant habitat for bees. Whilst you don’t necessarily need a lot of space to achieve the look, it is more labour-intensive and artificially manipulated than it may appear. Apart from the world of fungi, grasses are the most successful group of plants on earth. Tough and tenacious; they’ll easily smother other plants. Meadow flowers thrive on poor soil – a garden lawn environment is too nutritious for them. Grass can be weakened by frequent mowing and raking but it’s often better to completely remove the turf in order to give meadow flower seeds a chance to germinate and establish, otherwise the seedlings will be outpaced and swamped by grasses. Greater success is often achieved by using a mix of field poppy, corncockle and corn marigold seeds as these plants enjoy rich soil and compete better with grass. Their vivid colours were a regular sight on agricultural land before the introduction of modern herbicides.
If you simply stop mowing an area of grass, anything can happen! Meadow plants such as red clover, bird’s foot trefoil and knapweed are doubtless already present in your lawn, but as the mower regularly cuts off their flowering heads you probably don’t notice them. Seeds are easily carried on the wind and exciting colonisers such as scabious and orchids may appear. Long grass also provides hiding places for wild creatures. My own wild flower ‘meadow’ measures a laughable 2 x 3 metres, yet supports all manner of plants, including bee-friendly fritillaries, cowslips and primroses. During the hot days of summer, frogs burrow into the damp soil below while busy blue tits swoop like acrobats, feasting on the seed heads above. My sole contribution to the scene was the initial planting of a dozen fritillary bulbs – nature has done the rest. Sometimes the secret to successful gardening is to do less.