How you can lure bees into your garden in Spring

Sean Brady, horticulturalist at Blarney Castle Garden shares some advice on how to encourage bees into your garden at this time of year
How you can lure bees into your garden in Spring

Bush vetch is a great source of pollen in the garden and hedgerows.

BEES and pollinators are essential to our gardens. Without their help, there would be few fruits, flowers, or vegetables.

There are many things we can do to make our gardens more attractive to pollinators and help them survive the cold, almost barren days of early spring when they’re waking up and getting active.

One of the easiest things to do is simply to grow plants that are rich in nectar and pollen; not all provide these basic needs. 

Many modern hybrids are sterile and don’t offer sustenance to pollinators.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a beautiful garden and still encourage bees and other insects to visit. By growing a good mix of flowering plants, you can provide a wealth of nectar and pollen for a wide range of bee species.

The national biodiversity centre says: “Most pollination in Ireland is carried out by bees. This is because bees feed their young exclusively on pollen so are entirely focussed on collecting it from flowers to bring back to their nests. 

"In Ireland, we have 98 different types of bee: the honeybee, 20 different bumblebees and 77 different solitary bees. In providing us with the service of pollination, these bees are helped by other insects like hover flies, butterflies, and moths.”

 Cotoneaster flowers are loved by pollinators and the berries that follow feed the birds. 
Cotoneaster flowers are loved by pollinators and the berries that follow feed the birds. 

Our gardens provide bees and other pollinators, with the nectar and pollen they need to thrive, as well as nesting habitats. Nectar gives them the energy to fly and forage, while pollen provides their larvae with the protein they need to grow.

When planting for pollinators, you should choose single, open flowers where you can see the central part of the flower, so the bees can see and access the nectar and pollen.

Different bees are active at different times. Some emerge from hibernation as early as February, others are still flying in November. To give them the best possible chance to thrive, it is important to grow flowers from late winter to autumn, all year round if possible.

From a bee’s perspective, an ideal garden would be almost completely wild, with a year-round supply of flowers and plenty of untidy nooks and crannies to nest in. But of course, not many active gardeners would be happy with a state of complete chaos.

It is possible to take a middle path, growing a selection of plant species that attract and feed all kinds of pollinators, as well as providing some areas of suitable habitat for a vast amount of solitary native bee species. Carefully nurtured gardens may look wonderful, but often offer little to support the local bee population.

Many flowers bred for beauty, particularly double- headed blooms, contain little or no nectar that is easily accessible for bees. 

To make matters worse, many gardens offer only a few varieties of flower, with blooming compressed into a few short weeks rather than providing season-long nectar supplies. 

Add to this the common obsession with tidiness, where paths and other areas must be free of flowering weeds, and a large proportion of modern gardens do not give bees much reason to stick around.

Heather provides an early source of food for bees.
Heather provides an early source of food for bees.

The top 10 plants for pollinators in 2020, according to a recent study based on 1,800 records submitted to the national biodiversity centre, were,

1. Dandelion

2. Bush Vetch

3. Clovers (Red and White)

4. Heather

5. Cotoneaster

6. Bramble

7. Knapweed

8. Thistles

9. Apple Blossom

10. Willow

As you can see, a lot of these are considered weeds, so maybe we need to do a re-think of our garden designs if we truly want to help pollinators.

Other garden plants that attract pollinators are:

CROCUSES

As a late winter/early spring flower, bees rely on these to provide them with nectar in the cold winter months. A really bright and attractive flower, they will look great in your garden.

Crocus tommasinianus is a great source of food for early flying pollinators. 
Crocus tommasinianus is a great source of food for early flying pollinators. 

In spring, they like to be planted in soil that drains well and can be placed in sunny spot. In autumn, this type of crocus will grow well in soils that drain easily and must be planted in full sun.

BLUEBELLS

Pollinating insects love them. In early spring, bluebell-covered fields and woodland floors are often overrun with bees, butterflies, and hoverflies. Keep an eye on the bluebells as they can spread easily.

BORAGE

One of the most important plants for bees, it is a pretty blue/purple so it brightens up your garden.

CRAB APPLE TREES

These are stunning and produce fabulous pink and white flowers around spring that are abundant in nectar for bees. Better yet, crab apple trees pollinate other apples, so if you’re trying to grow your own edible fruit, they’re a great choice.

Cotoneaster horizontalis

This species — along with all the cotoneasters, but surpassing others in popularity — offers pollen and nectar to insects, as well as berries for birds. It has attractively coloured autumn foliage and an architectural form for either ground cover or as a wall plant. It produces small, white-blushed pink flowers in May, and are inconspicuous until the hum of bees make you stop.

Ligularia sibirica

A perennial herb of Aster family (Asteraceae), 30-125 cm (10-50”) tall. It has ribbed bare stem, in the bottom it is the reddish-purple or green, flowers are yellow. It is winter-resistant, winters without shelter. It is a good plant for pollinators. It flowers in July and August. It actively secretes nectar and pollen, so is eagerly visited by bees.

Sanguisorba officinalis.

A perennial herb of the family Rosaceae with the height of 20-80 cm (8-30”). Flowers are small, dark, almost black-purple, assembled in oval, 1-3 cm (1”) long heads on long stalks. Flowers in July/August. Bees actively collect pollen from flowers and nectar.

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