Why make a Bee Café?
Pollination is a difficult job. Bees fly more by force of effort than by aerodynamic efficiency, so they need a lot of energy to do it and can easily find themselves exhausted mid-forage if resources are sparse. While you might be able to help an individual exhausted bee with a bit of sugar water, a better way of giving your bees a break is to ensure that there is always a patch of bee-friendly flowers available for them. Somewhere to rest and have a ‘bee-style cuppa’: a Bee Café!
What is a Bee Café?
Simply, a Bee Café is a starting point in your wildlife gardening journey: a manageable piece of space that you can commit to keeping in bee-friendly condition, even if life and times get away from you in other areas. We suggest starting with a metre square, somewhere sunny (South / East facing), and somewhere that you can enjoy the flowers and insects too!
Plants in pots are perfect for Bee Cafés since you can swap them around as flowers fade and seasons change, but you can certainly declare a piece of soil as a Café – it might just need to be a bit larger to include enough plants so you don’t have to keep digging up and moving everything.
The key point is there should always be flowers there, keeping your Café blooming and open for bees-ness for as much of the year as you can.
With the UK’s weather set to continue becoming more erratic, it is becoming more likely that insects will find themselves out of step with the plants they rely on. A ‘false spring’ in February can cause hibernating insects to wake up too early with few flowers available to feed from; warm winters might cause some species to stop hibernating altogether (as seen in some urban bumblebee populations – and we’re not yet sure what this means for them); and even hot, dry summers can shrivel typical garden blooms.
Your Bee Café should always
be offering something tasty to
visitors. Think about the leaner
times of year – consider
investing in some winter-
flowering plants like winter
heathers, early Hellebores,
Mahonia or a wide, shallower
pot with crocuses and
snowdrops planted the year
before. Don’t be afraid to
move potted plants around!
As the old adage goes, a plant is only a weed where it isn’t wanted, and many of the species we might think of as weeds in the wider garden are great sources of nectar and pollen for insects (dandelions, thistles, ragwort, etc – all the usual suspects). Some of these ‘weedy’ plants are very reactive to changes in weather, with hardy natures and the ability to spring up quickly to take advantage of that brief warm spell. We should all be trying to taking a more tolerant approach to ‘weeds’ in our wildlife gardens anyway, but if you need to dig these plants up from somewhere, consider relocation rather than removal. Make up a rustic pot or pots of your ‘once-weeds’, practise some judicial dead-heading, and watch the bees enjoying a free meal.
Pots on shelves against a balcony wall.
A flower bed planted as a bee cafe, with lots of alliums.
A cafe of seasonal pots.
Pots on shelves against a balcony wall.
Some examples of Bee Café setups from the Buzz Club
Often overlooked, weeds can be great for pollinators. And free!
Bolted is Beautiful
Another often-overlooked source
of flowers are bolted leaf crops
and herbs. Brassicas (like kale,
radishes and pac choi) are
particularly prone to this, and
while the long scraggly shoots of
an overgrown crop is
discouraging for salad, the bright
yellow flowers that follow are very
attractive to pollinators (and many
are edible for us too). Parsnip,
leek and onion flowers are also
very attractive to pollinators. Many
flowering herbs are fantastic.
Some such as coriander and
fennel have shallow flowers that
are accessible to hoverflies and
tiny wasps that don’t have the
long tongues of some bees.
Move bolted windowsill herbs
outside, adding scent to your
garden and food to the café.
Like ‘weeds’, this is basically a
source of free flowers!
Keeping costs down
Keeping a constant bloom of flowers could seem expensive, but part of the idea for the Bee Café is to try and keep the costs down too. ‘Weeds’ are definitely free, and using bolted herbs / veggies is recycling; you may be able to get bolted plants, unwanted self-seedings or split up herbs (like chives) from friends and family.
Many perennials (such as fuchsias, or dianthus / pinks) can be easily grown on from cuttings, either from your own plants or amenable friends’. Growing from seed is another way to get bee-friendly plants; even if you don’t have much space to propagate, why not try out a ‘bin lid’ meadow or pot of wildflower seed? Make sure to take cuttings from plants that grow where pesticides isn’t used, and try to buy organic seeds if you can.
Is there an experiment?
The Buzz Club generally focuses on garden experiments, but 2020 has turned out to be a strange year for starting up new projects! We are looking into possibilities for more specific questions we can ask around Bee Cafés, but at the moment we’re interested in getting people engaged with their garden wildlife. It’s also something that could be set up in schools (or for home schooling) – thinking of ways to get the café running, getting to recognise the insects that visit, and thinking of fun features to add. We’d love to hear about them, and any questions you come up with!
Extra tips from the Buzz Club team
Allums are fantastic! Easy to grow and with displays ranging from the punk-hair purple clusters of garden chives; to the bobbing balls of ornamental varieties; to sprays of white flowers atop of garlic chives (very good in stir fries). Most varieties flower in
late spring / early summer,
but some like garlic chives
are later with their blooms,
and with a bit of planning
your can have these floral
fireworks for much of the
year. The seed heads are
Putting a ‘bee waterer’ in alongside your flowers adds another source of liquid for thirsty bees. A shallow dish of fresh water with pebbles / marbles to stand provides a safe drink. You’re likely to see honeybees the most (since they need a
lot of water to
make honey and
cool their hives),
but other insect
visitors will pop
in from time to
Remember you can submit any sighting of insects to iSpot – a citizen science project run by the Open University that helps you to identify wildlife, and collects together information from all over the UK. There are experts to check photos for identification and lots of help to figure out what
you’ve found, and the data
all helps out with improving
our knowledge of wildlife.
You can provide a helpful hangout for some of our overlooked pollinators by adding a hoverfly lagoon into your
Bee Café (near the back so
it doesn’t get too dried
out!). We have a whole
project on this, but
basically it’s a plastic milk
bottle with leaves / grass
and water inside to make
a hoverfly home.