A few weeks back Charlotte and I gave a talk on some research we’ve doing on bees and plants. I’ve been looking at what bees collect from plants (pollen, nectar, propolis etc.) and hence, what constitutes a good bee garden? Charlotte’s been looking at wildflowers and trees for bees and has taken some fantastic pictures of her discoveries.
The interaction between bees and plants is such an incredible world to delve into. Charlotte points out that, when walking in the garden or in the wild, it sometimes feels as if a dormant part of the brain has woken up as you begin to notice the intricate, exciting, living world around you and that you are surrounded by living hubs of activity.
Amid this seeming chaos, the bee’s stunning talent for organisation and structure, never ceases to amaze me. Every action has a purpose and a meaning, embedded in rituals that make every step a step forward, a step in living and surviving. It makes me feel very humble and at times inefficient!
We’ve been in our house for just over a year now. When we arrived there was little more than grass, a handful of fruit trees and some empty beds. It was an interesting and slightly scary blank page for my first venture into the world of herbs, flowers and bushes. I knew little about flowers, other than how to appreciate and admire their shapes, color patterns and structure, but had always felt that there would be a time where I would be able to give them my full attention (and this is it).
Initially, I didn’t really think about bees much as I was deciding what to plant. I was mainly operating instinctively, remembering a certain name or color that I like. I hoped that having some flowers in the garden, whatever they are, would undoubtedly attract some bees. However, as I’ve become more aware of the beauty of bees and the challenges facing them, I’ve started to think very differently about what I put in my garden.
What came first the bee or the flower?
The colored flowers and primitive bees probably evolved together, the bee getting its food from the flower and attracted by its colour, the flower advertising its wares with colour to ensure its pollination.
Bees have this near symbiotic relationship with most brightly colored flowers, flowering shrubs, bulbs, fruit trees, herbs and vegetables. By planting an attractive, colorful, medicinal, fruitful, garden you can become a friend to the bees! With bees come a flurry of other creatures, including: butterflies, moths, ladybirds, an amazing array of different stripped hoverflies etc… It is really enchanting.
The Bee’s Harvest
The bee takes four elements from the flower: Pollen, Nectar, Propolis and Water. Each has a different role to play in the bee’s life and in the flower’s life. In brief (as this is a whole subject in itself):
- Nectar: a sugar-rich liquid produced by the plants. It is produced either by the flowers, in which it attracts pollinating animals, or by extrafloral nectaries that provide a nutrient source to animal mutualists providing anti-herbivore protection.
- Pollen: a fine to coarse powder containing the microgametophytes of seed plants, which produce the male gametes(sperm cells). Pollen grains have a hard coat that protects the sperm cells during the process of their movement between the Stamens and the Pistil of the flowering plants or from the male cone to the female cone of coniferous plants. When pollen lands on a compatible pistil of flowering plants, it germinates and produces a pollen tube that transfers the sperm to the ovule of a receptive ovary, this is pollination taking place.
- Water: used by the bees to cool down the hive in very hot weather
- Propolis: used like a glue in the hive to fix broken combs and to mummify any intruders that could contaminate the hive. Bees have done a incredible job for us with the discovery of propolis. Research has found that propolis forms the bees external immune defence system and makes the beehive one of the most sterile environments known to nature. It is antibiotic, anti inflammatory, antiviral, antifungal, antioxidant and antiseptic!
Planting a Bee-friendly Garden
When planting a bee garden it is important to think with the calendar. In particular, plants should be selected that flower at times when pollen is very scarce (inside or outside the hive) as should plants that flower in the autumn, which provide food for the winter.
Bees get most of their food from wild flowers so bee gardens are essentially a top up. However, they can also be an essential lifeline particularly in rural areas (like ours) where massive monocultures can render large areas of the countrysides barren as far as the bee is concerned for much of the year! We have a job to do I feel!!
Below are some lists I’ve collected of Bee friendly plants for use in Bee gardens:
Annuals: Annual plants are those that complete their life cycle from seed to seed in the course of a single season. In general, planting in full sun will always attract more bees than in shady areas. Bee-friendly annuals include:
- Alyssum: oblong-oval leaves and yellow or white flowers
- Balendula: pot marigold bright yellow/reds/oranges
- Balsam (impatiens glandulifera): Himalayan balsam, flowers between June and October
- Borago officinalis: herb blue flowers
- Candytuft: white coton ball flowers
- China aster: native of China, daisy family wite, purple and yellow flowers
- Collinsia: 25 species Smallflower Blue-eyed Mary and the Violet Blue-eyed Mary
- Convolvulus: bind weed family 250 species delicate white bell like flowers
- Coreopsis: yellow flower (a bit like a marigold) also called tickseed
- Cornflower (centaurea cyanus): in blue, purple, pink and white, not as common in fields anymore, very pretty flower
- Cosmos: variety of flowers very common to english gardens
- Eschscholtzia: poppy family short bushy bottom with delicate yellow/orange flowers
- Gaillardia: “blanket flowers” red center with yellow tips
- Lavatera: tree mallows, rose mallows, royal mallows or annual mallows. White,pink or red petals
- Limnanthes: meadow foams small bushy flowers yellows/white
- Linum: includes common flax white/blue flower
- Malope: ornamental plant,pink flowers
- Nemophila: baby blue eyes
- Nigella: cottage garden flower/blue with red stamens:
- Rudbeckia: Daisy like yellow orange heads
- Sapononaria: Soapwort
- Scabious: Rich nectar soft lavendar blue,white,lilac
- Viscaria: Sticky catch fly, purply pink flower
- Zinnia: White, chartreuse, yellow, orange, red, purple, and lilac.
Perennials: Plants that live for more than two years and are usually capable of flowering every season. Bee friendly perennials:
- Achillea (Yarrow): very common in headgrows
- Anchusa: small blue flowers
- Aubrieta: Hardy violet pink white flowers
- Bears breeches (acanthus)
- Campanula: “Little bell” purple color
- Canterbury bells: Blue, purple, mauve
- Catmint: long flowering season, fills the june gap!
- Centaurea: Thistle like flowering plants
- Cynoglossum: Hounds tounge, furry blue purple flower
- Epilobium: Small bushy plant pink flowers
- Erigeron: Greek early old man white hairs soon after flowering
- Eupatorium: Commonly called bonesets, thoroughworts or snakeroots.
- Fuchsia: Beautiful delicate red flower
- Golden rod: Golden yellow flowers in clumps on long stems
- Grannys bonnet (aquilega vulgaris)
- Helenium: Sneezeweed based on the former use of its dried leaves in making snuff, inhaled to cause sneezing that would supposedly rid the body of evil spirits.
- Lenten rose (helleborus x hybridus)
- Lythrum: loosestrife
- Michelmas daisy
- Monkshood (aconitum)
- Myosotis: Greek mouses’s ear, yellow center, blue leaves
- Rosa bracteata: “mermaid” tall climber, long flowering single climber
- Rosa primula: early flower spreading shrub
- Sedum spectabile
- Sidalcea: Checkerblooms or checkermallows.
- Single flowered roses: “dunwich rose” pimpinellifolia, “canary bird” early flowering
- Statice: Sea Lavender, Statice, or Marsh-rosemary
- Winter aconite (eranthis hyemalis)
- Barberries (Berberis spp.)
- Cotoneasters (Horizontalis Microphyllus spp.)
- Escalonia (Escallonia “langleyensis”)
- Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea)
- Shrubby Honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.)
- Snowberry (Symphoricarpos Albus): Long flowering season, rich in nectar
- Tree Heath (Erica mediterranea)
- Yellow Buddleia (Buddleia Globosa)
Early Spring Bulbs: Plenty to choose from:
- Bue Siberian Squills (Scilla)
- Snow Glories (Chionodoxa)
A Living World of Plants.
It strikes me as incredible how much nature talks. Just like a person there maybe symptoms of ill health, caused by poor growing conditions, abuse or sometimes neglect. There can also be signs of positivity and greatness, such as when you see a tree or a plant and just by looking at it you are filled with joy. As in all things, the more conscious and respectful a gardener you are, the more rewards you will get. Never forget the importance of stopping and looking. Recently, I watched a wasp catch and sever the head of a housefly and then carefully carry the body off. It was like stepping out of my reality into another.
The more tuned in we become, the more we will love and appreciate what nature is, gives, lives and the more we will work to save and protect it. Part of me thinks that if you took the most angry, selfish greedy, unemotional fat cat and took him by the hand, led him into an ancient forest to stop look and listen at what is under around and above us then somewhere inside something will have stirred and moved him, like a dried leaf on a half windy day just enough to pick it up and turn it on its side. Just as Charlotte says, it is in all of us.
As long as the bees continue to buzz we will continue to be.
Humble Solitary Bees are also important pollinators and becoming more so with the decline of hive bees. However, they spend most of their time looking for somewhere to nest. You can give them somewhere to live (so that they can get on with the important businesses of pollinating and reproducing) by building a Bee hotel! Bee hotels are easy to create and great to do with kids!
A couple of websites that sell ready made bee hotels:
Bees for Development
Based in the UK, Bees for Development promote beekeeping as a tool for rural economic development throughout the world, with a strong emphasis on countries in Africa.
Photography Copyright © Mark Watson 2010