Leave the lawn uncut and let a carpet of flowers grow... bees will love it

SITTING out in the garden, as we’ve all been doing rather a lot lately, you can't fail to notice the hum of bees and other insects. It’s part of the idyllic picture associated with a lovely summer, and most people would agree that it’s good to encourage these pollinators and help them to survive. After all, the production of many of our food crops depends on them, and it’s not too difficult to attract them into our gardens.

Bees need certain things to survive: access to water, pollen and nectar throughout the year when they are active. In the case of bumblebees, March to September is the critical time, honeybees a bit later – although with changing weather patterns, these times are altering. Bumblebees also need somewhere dry and sheltered around ground level to build their nests. Water for honeybees is used to cool the hive and dilute nectar to store as honey; pollen provides the main bee protein, nectar the energy source.

Bees 'forage' for nectar and pollen. An easy way to find out which plants they prefer is simply to watch on a sunny day, in your own garden, or somewhere with a wide range of plants, and see who visits – a very therapeutic and fascinating pastime in itself. Among the many different bumblebees, you will see also honey bees as well as other insects trying to look like bees as protective cover, such as hoverflies. You may also see smaller bees, often furrier than honey bees; these are solitary bees and include mason bees. If you are unsure about identifying the different kinds, there’s lots of info online.

It’s interesting to observe which flowers are preferred as bees are very specific in targeting them: it may be ease of access, distance from the nest/hive, or the quality of the nectar or pollen. Plants with multi-flowered heads, for example, with lots of tiny flowers close together, save the bees having to fly between sources, using up valuable energy. Good examples are sunflowers, Veronicasturm, Persicaria, Scabious, Allium family flowers such as chives with multi-flowered heads, and the flat plates of Sedum flowers, which are all loved by bees.

Some flowers have nectaries, which are easier to access for different bees. Flowers with long tubular petals are often only accessible to long-tongued bumble bees, whereas something like hardy geraniums, daisy flowers and foxgloves are very accessible. Simple flowers are easier than complex double varieties, and many cottage garden and wild examples fit this picture.

We get a lot of questions in the kitchen garden at Harlow Carr about the flowers of runner beans being bitten into. Short-tongued bumble bees are often responsible for this as they attempt to reach the nectar if they are unable to access it via the flower. Honey bees then take advantage of this.

The kitchen garden is not as great a place for bees as you might think: broad beans and scarlet runner beans are good, but French beans and peas are self-pollinated and of no interest to bees. Cucurbit flowers (courgettes and squashes) provide nectar and pollen in quantity, and if brassicas are left to flower, the bees are very happy. Fruit and flowers are of much greater use to bees, which is another good reason to have mixed companion plantings. In the spring, the Malus 'Evereste' (crab apple) hedge in the kitchen garden is alive with bees in its white flowers; in a bee-friendly garden you will always get good fruit set or pollination. It is vital that apples are cross-pollinated, but think about other fruit: plums, currants and raspberries.

Pollen is important for bees as a source of protein and food and to feed young bees. Some plants produce this in abundance – if you look into an open poppy flower, there are often several bees buzzing about collecting masses of pollen. Hollyhocks and their relatives Sidalcea have large central bosses of stamens covered with pollen, very accessible to bees. You will be able to see the pollen baskets on the hind legs of the bees, often yellow, although with poppies it will appear dark grey or blue. It is possible for beekeepers to find which pollen bees are accessing by making slides of pollen from hives.

Herbs are very attractive to bees. The very small flowers are accessible and often form carpets. Thyme and oregano, mints and salvias are all useful and attractive plants, and something like a lavender hedge provides a mass of nectar for foragers.

The recent hot weather and lack of rain has left us with parched lawns. I have left mine quite long on purpose and a carpet of flowers has appeared, from daisies and buttercups to clover, all of which provides a food source for many bees. It’s lovely to sit and watch them working, great not to have to mow the lawn and also better for it. Other leguminous plants loved by bees are the green manures we sometimes have in the kitchen garden such as Phacelia and clovers.

A range of forage throughout the year is needed: willow (Salix sp, especially the ones with showy catkins) provides early pollen, and bulbs such as crocus, bluebells and snowdrops are a great source of nectar. Hellebores have great late winter/early spring pollen and nectar in quantity. Mature ivy growing up trees produces a valuable late season nectar crop through to late autumn. The teasle is a very useful plant: as well as its flowers being very attractive to bees, its stem passing through the leaves forms a bowl that captures water, providing a great drinking pond for insects.

There is then a huge range of plants - ornamental, culinary, cottage garden, and wildflowers - that can be grown in gardens of any style to help insects by providing a source of food. With changes in farming practices, urban gardens have become much more important sites for foragers. Have a look at the RHS website plants for pollinators – https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/conservation-biodiversity/wildlife/plants-for-pollinators - you’ll find lists of garden plants and wildflowers for bees, and also links to other related sites.

It’s always good to just sit in the garden, listen to and watch these fascinating creatures – nectar for the soul you could say.