January - Bee Friendly Gardening

January 15, 2019 10 min read

January - Bee Friendly Gardening

Bee-friendly gardening - New Year’s resolutions

Horticulturalist, beekeeper and friend of Bee Good, Mark Patterson from ApiCultural writes about the flowers that are so important for our British bees.

While a few plants provide some forage for our bees in the depths of winter there’s limited material to write about. Therefore this month we take a look at what we can do to make our gardens better environments for bees all year round going forward into a new year.


Create habitat for bees

Bees need places to forage and find pollen, nectar, water and propolis. This can be achieved by planting the right types of flowers for them and incorporating a small water feature into your garden where bees can gather water.

Another sort of habitat bees need is nesting habitat where they can raise their offspring. For Honeybees, this is a beehive but for other bees this can be piles of decaying logs for them to excavate a nest burrow, a patch of sandy soil or clay bank for mining bees to dig out a nest tunnel or bundles of hollow plant stems and cardboard tubes for the likes of mason and leafcutter bees. These nesting habitats can be conveniently catered for in the form of the many pre-fabricated bee nesting boxes available from garden centres and online shops, or you can make your own – see my guide ‘how to make homes for solitary bees’ here: http://www.apicultural.co.uk/contact

Other ideas you could try include making a nesting cylinder for ground-nesting bees. You need to invest in a sheet of perforated metal sheeting which you bring together at the ends and fasten together with nuts and bolts to form a cylinder about 3 feet across. This is then filled with sand and or free draining soil to provide a medium which bees can burrow into. This design allows bees to nest in the top of the planter by burrowing downwards, but they can potentially also excavate lateral burrows entering through the many perforated holes in the metal sheet. Try using soft and sharp sand, cactus compost or John Innes loam-based soil with added sand. You can plant drought-tolerant flowering plants in the top too to provide cover as some bees prefer some vegetation cover near their nests while others prefer a more open aspect.

Lastly, the final habitat that bees need is overwintering habitat. For bumblebees, this is often a shallow hollow excavated in dry soil beneath tufts of grass or piles of decaying vegetation, compost heaps or for solitary bees hollow plant stems. Try not cutting back all your herbaceous perennials in autumn and leave some stems intact for insects to hibernate inside the hollow stems. Many solitary bees overwinter in their nest chambers. Dead hollow stems of plants like Bramble are important overwintering habitat for bees like the small Blue Mason Bee.

Blue Mason Bee

A male Blue Mason bee


Plant useful things in your garden

My gardening mantra is either the bees can eat it or we can. If a plant can’t fulfil either of these two requirements, then it doesn’t get a look in! Of course, most of the things that we can eat are also beneficial to bees, and other pollinators as the majority of vegetables do also flower and the fruits we eat need the bees to pollinate them.

The best plants for bees

Not all flowers are equally attractive or beneficial to bees and other pollinators. Attractiveness and benefit to pollinators vary a great deal with some plants being 100 times more attractive and useful than the worst. To complicate things not all plants are equally beneficial to all insects due to the shape and morphology of the blooms which may prevent all but a few dedicated visiting bees while others contain toxins which only certain species of bee are immune to the effects of. Great examples are the foxglove Digitalis Purpurea, Comfrey Symphytum officinalis and Everlasting Pea Lathyrus latifolia which are among the top 10 UK plants for sugar content in their nectar and the amount of nectar produced per hectare (kg of sugar/ha/year). These 3 plants should be a magnet for all bees having the greatest rewarding nectars among British Plants. However, Fox Glove and Comfrey are plants with deep tubular flowers which prevent all but the longest tongues from accessing their nectar meanwhile Everlasting Pea has both a deep nectary and tightly lipped flowers which require a long-tongued bee with a robust body to enter.

Bulking up your gardens by planting the most attractive and beneficial plants for a broad range of insects will provide the most benefit to pollinators while adding plants which are attractive or of benefit to only a small number of species helps provide food for more fussy specialists - often the species most at risk. There are many bees which are not generalists and will only feed their offspring pollen from a small number or a single species of plant. Plant a mixture of broadly attractive and specialist plants and choose plants which will offer flowers over a long season or plan a succession of flower types throughout the season.


Examples of some of the best plants to attract a broad variety of pollinators are


Plant variety


Flowering period

Pollinators attracted

*Helenium autumnal

July to October

Honey bee, Lasioglossum bees, Hoverfly, 4 species of Butterfly

**Oreganum vulgare  or Oreganum onites

June to October

Honey Bee, Lasioglossum bees, Andrena bees, Bumblebee, Melitta bees, Hylaeus bees, Hoverfly, 9 species of Butterfly

***Agastache foeniculum

July to September

Honey Bee, Bumblebees, 4 species of Butterfly, Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Hoverfly, Flower Bees,


July to August

Honey Bee, Bumble Bee, Megachile Bees

Lavender Gross Bleu

July to September

Honey Bee, Bumblebees, Lasioglossum Bees, Butterfly


June to September

Honey Bee, Bumblebees, Megachile Bees, Wool Carder Bee, Flower Bees, Butterfly, Mint Moth, Osmia Bees

Echium vulgare

June to September

Honey Bee, Bumblebees, Megachile Bees, Osmia Bees, Wool Carder Bee, Flower Bees, Hoplitis adunca, Lassioglossum, Pollen Beetles

Veronica spicata

June to September

Honey Bee, Bumblebee, Lassioglossum Bees, Hylaeus Bees, Hoverfly, Butterfly

Teucrium hiricanum

June to October

Honey Bee, Bumblebee, Flower Bees, Lassioglossum Bees, Hoverfly, Butterfly, Mint Moth, Swollen Thigh Beetles, Pollen Beetles, Wool Carder bees

Sedum Spectable

August to October

Honey Bee, Bumblebee, Lassioglossum Bees, Butterfly

(*) Solidago

Golden Rod

July to October

Honey Bee, Bumblebee, Xylocopa Large Carpenter Bees, Coelioxys Sharp Tailed Bees, Lassioglossum Bees, Butterfly, Beetles.


June to September

Honey Bee, Bumblebee, Lassioglossum Bees,


June to September

Honey Bee, Bumblebee, Lassioglossum Bee, Hylaeus bees, butterfly, hoverfly, pollen beetles, Solitary wasps


June to September

Honey Bee, Bumblebee, Lassioglossum Bees, Hylaeus Bees, solitary wasps

****Centaurea (Napweeds and Perennial Cornflower)

May to November

Bumblebees, Lassioglossum Bees, Megachile Bees, Osmia Bees, Hoverfly, Butterfly, Pollen Beetles

*****Cirsium (thistles)

June to September

Bumblebees, Honey Bee, Andrena Bees, Halictus Bees, Colletes Bees, Flower Bees, Long Horn Beetle, Swollen Thigh Beetle, Pollen Beetle, Butterflies, Solitary wasps


These suggestions are based on several years of data collection in studies into flower attractiveness to pollinators conducted by LASI and Rosybee Plants supplemented with results from the Agriland Project along with our own observations over the years in our London Garden.

(*)Solidago was shown by Rosybee trials not to be very attractive to bees however in my own garden I have 3 varieties which attract large numbers of predominantly solitary bees, blue butterflies, solitary wasps, hoverflies and pollinating beetles. On regular visits to the prairie plantings in London’s Burges Park and on my regular travels around North America, I have witnessed Golden Rod visited by an extraordinary range of pollinators. Solidago is the only plant in my garden on which I have seen sharp-tailed bees visit.

*The most attractive garden plant for bees in 4 years of trials By Rosybee.

** The most attractive plant for butterflies by LASI and top 10 plants for bees by both LASI and Rosybee trials.

*** The most attractive plant for bees in trials by LASI.

**** Centaurea nigra (black napweed) ranked 4th by Agriland project for the abundance of nectar produced per Ha and Centaurea montana (perennial cornflower) consistently in top 20 most attractive plants by Rosybee – in addition, Centaurea species have long flower season and prolonged usefulness to bees.

***** UK native plant producing the most nectar according to Agriland Project.

Some examples of plants which are beneficial to specialist species and are a good way to provide for fussy flower visitors to your garden.

Plant variety

Flowering period

Main benefitting pollinator

Everlasting Pea

May to August

Megachile Bees


May to September

Wool carder bee(collects hairs from the plant to carder its nest) Fork tailed flower bee

Bell flowers

May to September

Chelostoma campanularum, Melitta haemorhdalis Bumblebees, Honey Bee

Achillea (Yarrow)

May to September

Colletes davisanius wool carder bee(collects hairs from the plant to carder its nest)


April to September

Hylaeus Bees Honey Bee, Bumble Bee

Lamium maculatum

March to November

Bumblebeesand Hairy Footed Flower Bee


March to May

Hairy Footed Flower Bee


April to August

Hylaeus Bees


April to October

Hylaeus Bees, Colletes bees,Swollen Thigh beetles


April to July

Garden Bumble Bee

Yellow Loosestrife

June to August

Yellow loosestrife Bee Macropis europaeus


June to September

Pantaloon bee Dasypoda hirtyipes, Red Tailed Bumblebee,Honey Bee, Andrena bees, Osmia Bees

There are lots more planting suggestions on my ‘plants for pollinators pages along with downloadable guides for plants most suitable for different types of bees. http://www.apicultural.co.uk/contact.
There are also lots of resources on the LBKA website www.lbka.org.uk.


Reduce your reliance on pesticides

Pesticides do have their place but only as a final resort once other means of defeating pests and disease have been exhausted. Try mulching with compost and recycling garden waste to feed plants rather than chemicals feeds, try companion planting to ward off unwelcome pests and attract beneficial insect predators over chemical sprays. Pesticides find their way into pollen and nectar and accumulate in social bee colonies where they can exhibit a wide range of symptoms including reduced reproductive success, decrease life span of the individual insects, compromise immune response and tolerances to environmental stressors and increase mortality rates. When buying plants for your garden try and find out from the seller or the grower whether neonicotinoid pesticides have been used in the plant’s production – these pesticides are harmful to bees and long lived in the plant and surrounding soil meaning they can have effects on wildlife for many year to come.

Stop being so tidy in the garden

Try not to be too much of a compulsive tidy upper in your gardens. Try leaving small hidden away messy areas where vegetation is not cut back and tings are left a little wilder. This will act as a refuge for invertebrates which are less tolerant of disturbed areas.

Learn to plan ahead

If you want to provide for pollinators in summer then the time to plan your planting activity is now. Decide what space you have, plan what you intend to grow and start placing orders now so that come spring you can have plants delivered and planted that will flower come summer. Planning ahead is especially important for spring bulbs which are best planted when dormant in autumn – 5-6 months before they will come into flower.

Give no dig gardening a try

Spreading composts and biodegradable mulches onto your soil and allowing worms and other detritivores to take nutrients down into the soil is much more beneficial to most soils over conventional digging in. By refraining from deep digging and only adding organic material to the soil surface we replicate what occurs in nature by creating a nutrient rich, moisture retaining top layer above increasingly mineral based layers of soil. Most plants have the majority of their roots within the top 30cm of soil, even very large trees seldom have roots penetrating deeper than 2-3 feet and they are mainly for anchorage rather than water and nutritional absorption. The benefit to bees in no deep digging is that solitary species nesting in the soil don’t have their burrows disturbed and plants flower better. Digging frequently disturbs the buried seed bank meaning weed species can take hold, whereas no dig gardening results in far less seed bank disturbance and therefore a reduced weed problem. In the United States it has been found that many ground nesting solitary bee populations can triple on no dig farms compared to conventionally tilled crop fields as a result of fewer nest burrows being damaged.

Plant of the Month for January

Lonicera fragrantissmima the winter flowering Honeysuckle is a shrub forming member of the honeysuckle family with pale white or cream flowers emitting a sweet scent as it flowers through the winter months. Its flowers are attractive to Honey Bees which may venture outside of their hives on mild winter days but its most common visitors are the Buff Tailed Bumblebee Bombus terrestris whos nests are often active all through the winter. This winter the bumblebees were visiting my Loniocera bush on Christmas day to gather pollen and nectar.

Winter honeysuckleWinter Honeysuckle - Lonicera fragrantissima


Things to do in the garden this month

Plan ahead for summer. Plan now to provide the food bees and other pollinators need during spring and summer. Annuals can be sown in the coming months as temperatures begin to get warmer and will flower the same season but other plants take 2-3 years before they bloom. Buy them now as dormant pot grown plants and plant them out. If they have time to settle in prior to the growing season and spread their roots out they will establish quickly and put on a better display of flowers than if bought middle of the season whilst they are in bloom.

Trim late spring and summer flowering shrubs and lay native hedges. Most of the berries will now have been picked clean by the birds and its best to get this out of the way now before they plants begin to bud and produce catkins or flowers.

Lift and divide over crowded herbaceous perennials. After several years some vigorous perennials can outgrow their space in the garden or the entire clump of the plant may even migrate several feet leaving behind a dead heart where the original plant was centered.

By gently digging around the clump and lifting it out of the soil you can divide and separate healthy portions of the plant containing an abundance of strong healthy roots and emerging new shoots. Repositioned and replanted these will thrive better than if left alone and allows you to manage the space in your flower beds more efficiently. Any surplus dividing’s leftover make great gifts to friends envious of your bee friendly garden. Give them away and encourage others to grow them.

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