Image: Bee in meadows, Millennium Country Park, Martin Rogers

Following the cold winter months the appearance of spring flowers is always a welcome one, and are not alone in appreciating these blooms - many animals are dependent upon flowers for their survival. Bees are probably most commonly associated with flowering plants and the gentle hum of the busy bee becomes an increasingly familiar sound as we move through the year.

In Britain there are approximately 270 different species of bees, some living socially in colonies, but the majority leading solitary lives. You’ll no doubt be familiar with honey bees, but did you know there are 24 different species of bumblebee in the UK? There are about eight social bumblebee species and four cuckoo species that you could encounter in your garden. Cuckoo bumblebees, such as the southern cuckoo bumblebee, behave in much the same way as their avian namesakes – taking over the nest of another bumblebee so that the workers inside will raise her young.

The majority of bee species here in the UK – around 90% - are solitary bees. Although they are generally less well known than their larger and furrier cousins, they are equally as fascinating and are extremely effective pollinators. As their name suggests, rather than living with other bees they create their own nest. The red mason bee is a common garden visitor, and is most easily identified by the bright ginger fur covering its abdomen. These bees create their nests in small holes and cavities, and will commonly take up residence in a ‘bee hotel’. They collect mud to create interior cells inside their nest for laying eggs into, and also to seal up the entrance.

Another solitary bee that readily inhabits bee hotels is the leafcutter bee, of which there are seven species in Britain. These bees cut small sections from leaves and mix these with saliva to create the building material for nest cells. If you notice small holes cut out of your garden plants (roses are particularly popular) you may have received a visit from a leafcutter bee. 

Bees in trouble

As pollinators, bees are of vital importance to people. Without them, many food and plant crops would not be pollinated. Bees are also vitally important in the natural world, and an essential link in numerous food chains. Unfortunately, many species are in decline due to loss of habitat, climate change, pesticides and disease.

Image: Bumblebee, Martin Rogers

Planting for bees

The good news is that, as a nation of gardeners we can do a lot to help our populations of bees by introducing plants to our gardens which are rich in nectar and pollen.

Most double flowers are of little use to bees. Some are bred without male and female parts, while others have so many petals bees can't get to the nectar and pollen to collect it. This is the main reason why single dahlias are popular with many bees, while doubles are usually ignored. The single-flowered rose family, which includes crab apple, hawthorn and potentilla, are irresistible to our buzzing friends, as are the flowers of fennel, angelica and cow parsley, and sedums. Tubular-shaped flowers, such as foxgloves, snapdragons, penstemons and heathers, are also favourite feeding places for bees.

It’s important to provide flowers across the seasons so that, particularly early and late in the year, bees still have available food sources. It’s also vital to avoid using pesticides on your plants, as these are fatal to bees and other insects.

Image: Wildflower meadow planted for bees to enjoy

What to grow for bees throughout the year

Spring flowers

Bluebell, bugle, crab apple, daffodil, flowering cherry and currant, forget-me-not, hawthorn, hellebore, pulmonaria, pussy willow, rhododendron, rosemary, viburnum, thrift (Armeria maritima).

Early-summer flowers

Aquilegia, astilbe, campanula, comfrey, everlasting sweet pea, fennel, foxglove, geranium, potentilla, stachys, teasel, snapdragon, thyme, verbascum.

Late-summer/autumn flowers

Angelica, aster, buddleia, cardoon, cornflower, dahlia (singleflowered), delphinium, eryngium, fuchsia, globe thistle, heather, ivy, lavender, penstemon, scabious, sedum, verbena bonariensis.


Get the kids involved

Youngsters are often fascinated by bees and there are lots of bee identification resources online that are perfect for bee-spotting in the garden. Try

You can also get children to do some hands-on conservation for bees by making a simple bee hotel.

Cut the ends off a plastic drinks bottle and fill with cut sections of hollow bamboo canes. Tie string around the middle of the bottle and hang in a sunny position in the garden. Keep an eye on your creation to see who is moving in!

Image: A bee making use of a homemade bee hotel

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