Bees have had a rough time of it over the past few years although with most of the news hitting the headlines is to do with naturalised honey bees and the terrible problems with CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). However, our native bumblebees have also been suffering population declines and no more so than the specialist, long-tongued bumble bees.
Unlike the honey bee, bumble bee colonies only store enough pollen and honey to last them a few days should poor weather – or even a temporary lack of suitable nectar rich flowering plants - prevent them from foraging for food. This makes them so much more vulnerable than honey bees to food shortages and therefore it’s vitally important for them to secure nesting sites which can provide constant access to nectar-rich plants throughout the spring, summer and autumn.
|Bumble bee nest|
Once the worker bees have matured, they take on the role of searching for nectar and pollen which, is in turn, used to help rear more workers. Towards the end of the season, the queen begins to stop the production of worker bee eggs, and instead eggs are laid to produce male bees and new queens. These new queens will then found their own colonies the following year, but if they are unable to find a nesting site that is able to provide a season long succession of nectar-rich flowers then the colony will fail and the bumble bees will die.
The single most important thing required for the success of a healthy bumble bee colony is this succession of suitable plants that will provide energy rich pollen and nectar for the whole season – it simply cannot be overstated enough. With the continual loss of habitat combined with the over use of systemic insecticides - which kill off both pest insects as well as beneficial pollinating insects - it has now come down to those of us who have a passion for the environment to repair the damage and provide the natural resources that modern farming and gardening practises have taken away from our native bees.
Below is a list of just a few of the pollen rich plants – and their succession flowering times - that could make all the difference to saving declining native bee populations.
Chives – This hardy perennial herb is an easy to grow and increases rapidly. Given a warm spring, chives can come into flower as early as the end of April and can last well into June – a time when there are few suitable plants are in flower. Chives will produce these wonderful ornamental flower heads which burst out into spherical clusters of small deep flowers with superb rich nectar – particularly favoured by early bumble bees – making it an extremely valuable, early source of food. Chives thrive in a medium, loamy soil in either full sun or semi shade. Not only will they grow well in most well drained garden soil, they will also do surprisingly well in window boxes should you be short of space or without a garden!
Ajuga –‘Catlins Giant’ – This hardy herbaceous perennial is as tough as old boots and can be planted any time provided the soil isn't frozen or waterlogged. They are generally trouble free with flowering spikes of deep blue flowers ideal for long tongued specialist bees.
White dead-nettle – Lamium species. Although this is a rather rare native plant to the British Isles, it is under commercial production so availability should be good from most plant retailers. As its name suggests it is similar in look to the common stinging nettle though fortunately, the leaves of this species are soft and not stinging. Its flowers are white, consisting of two lips with a wide-open "mouth" between them, and again are ideal for native long-tongued bees. They will happily survive in poor to medium soils and are suitable in a shaded position. Look out for other plants from the Lamium family as many of them are suitable as nectar rich plants for attracting bees.
Ribes – ornamental or edible fruiting currents – The family of flowering currants provides plenty of reliable performers for the spring garden, blooming every year without any special care needed or to be given. Perhaps the most ornamental variety is 'King Edward VII' which makes a compact, upright plant that drips with dark red flowers. Ribes will thrive in most ordinary, well drained soils in either full sun or light shade. Plants can be left un-pruned, but for the best performance it is worth cutting the branches that have flowered back to a strong pair of buds just after they have bloomed. For best results, top dress with a well-rotted farm manure in April. Look out for Ribes aureum alternatively known as R. tenuiflorum – which is a native to North America and commonly known as the golden or buffalo currant.
Agastache – another member of the lamium family, this fragrant plant produces upright spikes of tubular, two-lipped flowers develop at the stem tips in summer. The flowers are usually white, pink, mauve, or purple, with the bracts that back the flowers being of the same or a slightly contrasting colour.
Foxgloves - This native European woodland plant is now readily available in many cultivated forms, all of which are attractive to native bees. It is a popular biennial for shaded places, perennial if the flower stems are cut back promptly to prevent self-seeding. They are happy in most good soils but will require a healthy dose of well-rotted farm manure to get the most out of them. With some of the new varieties looking absolutely spectacular in flower, they are a must for the ornamental garden, just make sure that they are watered well in dry weather.
.Honeysuckle – This native European climber is an old favourite when it come to pollinating insects, and their rings of curved, almost tubular shaped individual flowers are ideal for long-tongued bees. Plant so the roots are in shade but the stems and flowers can grow out into the sun.
LATE SUMMER – EARLY AUTUMN
Monarda species – so popular are plants from this family with bees that its common name is known as Bee Balm. This native of North America has very distinctive flower-heads with each one consists of a large number of curving tubular flowers growing out from a central point. As the flowers mature they create a shaggy and characteristic dome of petals. The plant has a long flowering season, from early summer to early autumn, and blooms almost continuously if deadheaded periodically. It prefers a free-draining yet moist oil in full sun although it can tolerate semi shade.
Delphiniums - Delphiniums are one of the classic flowers of the traditional summer garden but keep away from the double flowering types are these produce little nectar and are unsuitable for bumble bees and other pollinating insects. Their tall upright spikes laden with intensely-coloured flowers are a feature of herbaceous borders, where they are best grown near the back to add height and drama. Although the flowering season can be relatively short, delphiniums can often be coaxed into producing a few later flowers if the flower spikes are cut down as soon as the blooms are over.
For related articles click onto the following links:
BEES AND BIODIVERSITY
BUMBLE BEES AND THE AMERICAN FARMER
CAN YOU KEEP HONEY BEES IN THE GARDEN?
EDIBLE CROP POLLINATION AND THE DECLINE OF BEES
HOW TO ATTRACT BUMBLE BEES TO THE SUBURBAN GARDEN
HOW TO CHOOSE PLANTS FOR HOT, DRY BORDERS
HOW TO GROW FOXGLOVES FROM SEED
HOW TO GROW LUPINS FROM SEED
PESTICIDES TOXIC TO HONEY BEES
The best garden flowers for bees
THE BUMBLE BEE