With bees in trouble, our gardens are vital fast-food takeaways for bees and other beneficial bugs. As well as serving up a varied menu of plants, they provide the shelter and nesting places bees need.
It’s a sad commentary on the declining state of nature that our gardens are proving to be better habitat for bees than our countryside.
It should be the other way round but our green and pleasant land has now lost much of its natural variety. Some areas have become more like industrial units, with huge fields of single crops replacing the hedgerows and the variety of plants bees need to thrive. This is why bees need our help, now more than ever.
Around 13 of the UK’s bee species are now extinct and 35 others are under threat of extinction. Experts say that in recent decades there has been an overall decline in the diversity of wild bees.
With the simple tips below, you can make your garden a bee paradise, and help other wildlife to survive in your garden and beyond.
1. Set up a bee garden right away
First of all, relax. You don’t have to be an expert or have sprawling grounds. Small spaces can be great gardens. And gardening is about trying things out.
There's no need to wait for the perfect sunny Sunday. Just start at any time and you can get a lot done even in fragments of time.
With bees as your guide, you are likely to make rapid steps in the right direction.
2. How does a bee garden grow? Choose bee-friendly plants
Start by planting something simple to suit your space, time and interests. Read our seasonal guide to plants for bees and other pollinators.
Pots on a patio, herbs in a planter or even a hanging basket can get you going and help bees – if you grow the right plants.
Trees, shrubs and larger plants will provide height in your borders. A cherry or birch tree can form a backdrop to "layers" of plants of different height and size closer to the front of the border.
Low-growing heathers and crocuses in the front will provide colour and help feed bees in the barren months.
3. Plant through the seasons to provide year-round bee habitat
Like you, bees need food and shelter all year round - so think about planting through the seasons. Which plants will flower and provide the nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein) bees need?
Remember that late winter is the time to sow seeds for spring and summer plants. Autumn-planted bulbs will burst forth in spring.
When the soil warms in the spring, try growing sunflowers that will rise through the year and feed bees and birds alike.
TIP: Leave flowers to turn to seeds in autumn and winter and let the birds feast on them. And leave the stump and roots in the ground to return nutrients to the soil.
4. Ask for advice on the best plants for bees
Peek over the garden fence or at your neighbours’ front gardens to see which plants are doing well, and which ones the bees like to visit.
If you like the look of any of them ask your neighbour what they are or take a picture and ask your garden centre.
While at the garden centre, have a look to see which plants bees are visiting there.
5. Plant a mix of bee-friendly seeds and grow plants, fruit and veg
Bees need different plants for food – from trees, hedges and shrubs, to bulbs, herbs and grasses – throughout the seasons.
Small trees like hazel, holly and pussy, or goat, willow help bees at different times of the year. Ivy is a top food in autumn – try not to cut it back until after flowering.
Do you prefer to grow fruit or vegetables? Bees will love both. You can even mix them up – there is no need to keep things formal and separate unless you want to.
If you fancy growing your own, the bees will help pollinate your veg – try French, runner and broad beans, aubergines, onions and peppers. They'll do the same for fruit – from apples, pears and plums to blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.
The greater the variety of plant life, the greater the variety of bugs and birds they will support.
6. Give bees shelter by letting the grass grow
If you have a lawn, give your mower – and back – a rest by letting some of it grow longer. When you do mow, cutting less often and less closely will help give pollinators places to feed and shelter among the grass.
TIP: Raise the notches on the mower to lift the cutting blade a few centimetres.
Read more about creating a mini wildflower meadow.
Another cheap way to provide habitat is with a small wood pile in a corner where bugs can nest and feed. This micro-habitat will decay over time and give a natural look. Use logs or sawn off tree branches but avoid treated wood. Even a small heap of pruned branches and twigs will give shelter and can be placed out of sight at the back of a border.
7. Save the bees and put away the pesticides
One thing to put away is the "bug gun". Bee-harming pesticides and herbicides are implicated in bee decline. It’s tempting to put a can of spray in your basket on a trip to the garden centre, but dealing with real pests like aphids is as easy as stripping them off with gloved hands.
8. Use peat-free compost to save wildlife habitat
Help keep our threatened peat bogs intact by using the many good alternatives that now exist.
Public concern about the loss of these unique natural habitats has persuaded the government to phase out the sale of peat in garden centres by 2020.
9. Grow from seed to create great bee habitats
Growing from seed is growing in popularity, especially vegetables. It is a cheap way to get the full experience of tending through to maturity and is the ideal method for creating pollinator-friendly habitats such as wildflower meadows.
Look for heritage and naturally ‘open-pollinated’ seeds which help keep the diverse genetic make-up of what is being grown – contributing to greater biodiversity.
10. Welcome beneficial insects in your garden
Beneficial insects such as hoverflies, beetles and ladybirds hunt aphids and other pests - so treat them as allies not enemies. We can have great gardens and help bees and other nature at the same time.
Letting bees be your guide and ally will help transform your patch, control pests naturally and get your plants and crops pollinated for free. That’s more than a fair trade.
Help make our gardens safe for bees
There are lots of things you can do to help – from growing bee-friendly plants to creating bee hotels.
You can also ask retailers including Homebase and Wyevale to remove bee-harming pesticides from garden plants.
This gardening guide was featured in Ethical Consumer's March/April 2015 magazine. For more wildlife-friendly gardening advice - including guides to peat-free compost, seeds and garden centres - download Ethical Consumer's free Wildlife-Friendly Gardening Guide [PDF].
First published on 17 March 2015