Planting for pollinators
Many flowers are attractive to bees, with different types of bee varying in their preferences. In particular, long-tongued bumblebees such as Bombus hortorum tend to favour deep flowers, and of course short-tongued bumblebees such as Bombus terrestris prefer shallow flowers. Sometimes short-tongued bees rob deep flowers by biting a hole in the side of the flower so they can reach the nectar.
In general herbs and cottage garden perennials are good, and annual bedding plants are best avoided (because they have been intensively bred and have often lost their rewards or become so mishapen that insects cannot get in to them – also, many have been drenched in insecticides).
The following is a list from Dave, Goulson-Guaranteed to attract bumblebees to your garden. Star ratings (*) are from 1 to 5, and reflect his view of how attractive they are to bees.
Bombus terrestris queen robbing a broad bean flower.
Apples (Malus pumila) are a good source of forage for queens in April and May, and of course the bee visits ensure a good crop. All varieties are good, but some of the crab apples produce particularly profuse flowers and are very attractive.
Anise hyssop ***
(Agastache foeniculum) A great plant for bees, originally from North America. Can be hard to get seeds to germinate, and plants have a habit of dying over the winter, so generallty not for the beginner! However, the bees to love it. Variety Blackadder seems good.
'Granny's Bonnet'. A lovely herbaceous plant, flowers in spring. Nectar is hidden at the end of very long tubes, so it is visited by long-tongued bees – mainly Bombus hortorum – but also robbed by short-tongued bees such as B. terrestris.Tolerates shade, and usually self-seeds, every garden should have some.
(Allium sativum) Many garden varieties are available, these are bulb forming perennials. Some are very showy, with huge flower heads. Note that chives also belong to this genus, but they are mentioned seperately below.
(Alcea) A classic cottage garden plant, giant biennials growing to 10′ tall, very popular with male Bombus terrestris. Bees seem to go for the nectar but ignore the plentiful pollen, often becoming smothered in it. Needs staking or growing in dense clumps.
(Antirrhinum) Like their relative the foxglove, mainly visited by long-tongued bumblebees such as B. hortorum. Short-lived perennials, often grown as annuals.
Bee balm ***
(Monarda) An elegant, showy herbaceous plant, native to North America
Blue tansy *****
(Phacelia tanacetifolia) Perhaps the single most attractive plant for bees on the planet! An easy-to-grow annual, flowers in 8-10 weeks from sowing and keeps flowerring for quite a while. Incredibly nectar rich, bees go crazy for it. A North American native, easy to grow from seed. Sometimes sold as a green manure.
(Persicaria bistorta) A very tough, spreading, low growing perennial. Good ground cover. A bit hit and miss with bees, but seems popular with Bombus hypnorum in particular.
Globe thistle ***
(Echinops) Pretty and unusual perennial, with mauve flowers producing spiky balls on tall stury stems in high summer.
Butterfly Bush ***
(Buddliea davidii) A fast growing shrub, to 9′, great nectar source for butterflies and popular too with bumblebees. Young queen Bombus terrestris often use this to fatten up before going into hibernation in July/August.
Culvers root ***
(Veronicastrum virginicum) Lovely elegant spires of flowers.
(Erica spp) The spring-flowering garden varieties are particularly popular with early-emerging queen bumblebees, some flowering as early as February when little else is available. The summer-flowering native species are less valuable in a garden setting, though in the wild they are important foodplants for heathland bumblebee species.
Common lungwort ***
(Pulmonaria officinalis) A great early spring nectar resource for hungry queen bumblebees, visited by long-tongued species, especially Bombus pascuorum. An easy perennial, best near the front of a border.
(Cirsium rivulare) A great one for male bumblebees in high summer, this species is not spiny like its wild relatives and is quite at home in a herbaceous border. However, it does spread vegetatively and can take over a bit. Propagate from seed or root cuttings. Flowers July-Sept, up to 3′ high.
(Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens') An unusual annual, preferring sunny locations. Produces huge amounts of nectar, can be hard to keep this plant going.
(Nepeta) A fantastic cottage garden classic, extremely popular with bumblebees, and flowering for a long period from early summer to autumn. Very easy to grow, every garden should have some.
(Digitalis purpurea) No cottage garden is complete without foxgloves, hardy biennials that are loved by long-tongued bees such as B. hortorum and B. pascuorum. Tolerate shade well, but flower best in full sun. Freely self-seeds.
Jacob's Ladder **
(Polemonium caeruleum) Very pretty little perennial, up to 2′ tall, and often overlooked as a plant for bees. Easy to grow perennial, tolerates most conditions, flowers in May-June.
Crane's Bill **
(Geranium spp) Not to be confused with the gaudy Pelargonium, geraniums are hardy perennials that come in a broad range of colours, but most are moderately attractive to short-tongued bees. The wild Geranium pratenseis shown. They are great for ground cover in the front of a border. Geranium sanguinea also good, and the cultivated forms ‘Patricia’ and ‘Ann Folkard’.
(Lavandula) Everybody’s favourite, including the bees. A long-lived, hardy perennial (although susceptible to hard frosts in the far north of the UK). Flowers in July and August, and guarantees a cloud of bees. A bit tricky to propogate from seed, can be grown from cuttings.
Globe artichoke *****
(Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) Huge plants, related to thistles, with massive composite flowers that bees flock to in July/August. Grows to 6′ or more. You can of course also harvest and eat the buds, but try to leave some for the bees! A favourite with male bumbles.
(Centaurea nigra and Centaurea major) A common meadow wildflower, but takes well to the herbaceous border. Flowers July-August, partticularly favoured as drinking posts for male bumblebees.
Meadow Clary **
(Salvia pratensis) Many garden salvias are available, but I love the wild Meadow Clary, a rare meadow plant. Worth growing just to observe thepollination mechanism; when a bee probes for nectar, this triggers the stamens to curl down and deposit of blob of pollen onto the bee’s back.
(Lupinus) Lovely traditional cottage garden short-lived herbaceous perrenial, easy to propagate from seed. Most varieties produce little nectar, but bees like the bright orange pollen.
(Helianthus) Iconic, very tall annuals, producing spectacular dinner-plate sized flowers that attract many insects, including bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies.
Heavenly Blue **
(Caryopteris × clandonensis) A large, bushy perennial growing to 4′, profuse mauve flowers
(Origanum vulgare) A great all rounder, easy to grow, attractive to heaps of different pollinators, and good for cooking too! Perennial, self-seeds, growing to ~2′ tall, loves a sunny position.
(Hyssopus officinale) An understated, low-growing perennial herb, can also be used in cooking.
(Symphytum officinale) A very hardy perennial, great for the back of a herbaceous border. Very long flowering period, from May to August, and one of the very best plants for bees. Visited by long and short-tongued species, the latter often robbing from holes bitten in the tops of the flowers. Comfrey can also be chopped down regularly and used to make excellent compost. Can grow 5′ tall or more, and will smother smaller plants nearby. Doesn’t seed readily, but easily propagated.
Ice plant ***
(Sedum spectabile) A succulent herbaceous perennial, flowering in September, and loved by male bumblebees and butterflies. Grows to about 1′, can be spread by splitting plants.
Meadow foam **
(Erica spp) Bright, cheerful flowers easily accessible by bees.
Stinking hellebore **
(Helleborus foetidus) Flower in late winter, great for early emerging queens. Unusual looking herbaceous plants, usually less than 1′ tall.
(Onobrychis viciifolia) A rare perennial wildflower in the UK. Occasionally grown as a fodder crop. Stunning pink flowers, and like most legumes, popular with bees.
Sallow / pussy willow ****
(Salix spp) Trees, some growing to 30′ or more. Sallows are dioecious, being either male or female. Both produce catkins in early spring, and are very important sources of food for queens. The males produce pollen and a little nectar, the females only nectar. Dwarf varieties can be bought for smaller gardens.
Red Campion *
(Silene dioica) A lovely perennial wildflower with a very long flowering period, from May to September. Visited by Bombus hortorum. Readily seeds, and tolerates shade. Plants are either male or female.
Pincushion flowers ****
(Scabious spp) Lovely meadow perennial. Our wild Knautia arvensis is found on chalk downland. There are many garden strains and species. Flowers in July and August.
(Mentha spp) There are several wild species in the UK, and many garden varieties. Water mint is great for ponds, and is one of the most attractive for bees. Most flower July-September. Very easy to grow, but can be invasive, so best planted into containers.
(Armeria bottendorfensis) A lovely low-growing perennial plant found in the wild on rocky coastal headlands. Flowers in may and june. One for the rockery or in pots.
Viper's buggloss *****
(Echium vulgare) A stunning biennial wildflower growing to about 4′, flowering in July and August and absolutely loved by bees of all types for its copious nectar. Likes a sunny, well-drained site, and given this will freely self-seed.
Wall Spray **
(Cotoneaster horizontalis) Favoured by short-tongued species such as B. pratorum and B. hypnorum. Flowers in late spring, also provides red berries for birds in winter. A low-growing, spreading shrub, very hardy.
Wild teasel **
(Dipsacus fullonum) A biennial wildflower, grows very tall (over 6′) and rather spiky. However, makes a tremendous plant for the back of a border, the dead flower stems also provide great structure through the winter. Self seeds. Very popular with a broad range of bee species. Flowers July-August.
Tufted vetch ****
(Vicia cracca) A scrambling climber, a wildflower that takes well to the garden, and great for long-tongued bumblebees. Popular with the very rare Bombus distinguendus if you happen to live in the Hebrides or Orkney!
(Thymus vulgaris) There are a number of wild and cultivated species. Thymus polytrichus subsp. britannicus is said to be wonderful for bumblebees. Thymes also attract hoverflies and hobeybees in abundance. A lovely, low-growing, rambling plant for a pot, the cracks in a patio, or the front of a border.
(Wisteria) How can you not love wisteria? One of the most beautiful plants, with cascading tresses of purple flowers in spring. A legume, hence related to peas and clovers, a family much loved by bees for their protein-rich pollen. A woody climber, stunning trained along a south-facing wall or over a pergola.