As a proud emblem of Manchester’s industrial past, the bee has always been a familiar symbol.
Growing up I wasn’t too keen on live bees after my cousin was stung on the soles of her feet at a picnic. A few years later, I received a nasty sting on the mouth from a bee in a can of pop, spending the next two days with lips like Kim Basinger. But my attitude towards bees might have been different if I’d understood how vital they are to our survival.
I took it for granted that they would always be buzzing around doing their job, but bee populations have plummeted in the last few decades. This is due to a number of factors including industrial agriculture which has removed the natural habitat of our native flora and fauna to devastating effect. Pesticides have played their part too, not just through farming but from domestic garden use. Climate change hasn’t helped either with wildly fluctuating weather patterns causing confusion to plants as well as wildlife.
During the past ten years in my village, I’ve watched gardens paved over and green spaces lost to housing estates. Although some of this has been necessary, every paving stone and brick is shrinking bee habitats and having a huge effect on the ecosystem. Reading about the decline in not only bees but so many native species, I resolved to turn my garden into a haven for wildlife.
Thanks to my interest in herbalism I’d already planned to fill my garden with native trees and plants, but as I researched I started to understand how important they are to bees. Over time, I’ve tried to supply bee-friendly plants all year round, beginning in Spring with snowdrops, crocus, lungwort and primroses. Next come windflowers and bluebells followed by bugle and aubretia. Spring-blossoming fruit trees like our plum and apples audibly buzz in late Spring and I allow the dandelions in my lawn to flower as an important early source of food.
Soon red campion, oxeye daisies and wild foxgloves take over areas of the garden, and I slowly remove them as they die back to make space for other useful flowers. In my herb beds I grow lots of chives along with large patches of oregano, sage and multiple rosemary bushes. Thyme and lemon balm, which was once aptly known as bee balm, are just as popular. I’ve also tried to grow the bee-friendly catmint on several occasions only to have every cat in the area decimate the plant in a matter of days. This year I’m growing some from seed alongside pennyroyal, which is supposed to repel cats, in the hope that planting them together will save my catmint from annihilation.
Most wildflowers are bee-friendly and it’s worth sowing some seeds even if you’ve just got pots in a backyard as they are low maintenance and attract all kinds of wildlife. I tend to leave the garden’s clayey problem areas to grow wild all year sowing borage, knapweed, lady’s bedstraw, poppies, cornflowers, corn marigolds, comfrey, cosmos and five kinds of mint which are all bee favourites. If uninvited wild bee-friendly flowers appear, like marsh woundwort, fox and cubs, buttercups and hairy tare, and so I leave them be. In last year’s heatwave, I managed to grow a large patch of vipers’ bugloss which various varieties of bees were fighting over. In the garden pathways I’ve let speedwell and clovers take over, much to the bees’ delight, taking care not to tread on them as I walk by.
By midsummer the lavenders I have dotted around keep the bees happy. In the past, I have tried pink monarda and hyssop which were less of a hit. I’ve sown yarrow in a couple of places, some wild, some coloured hybrids, and again they’ve not been quite as interesting to the bees as I had hoped. However, phacelia was a huge success and had them scrapping over the nectar just like the vipers’ bugloss. This year’s experiment is Devil’s-bit Scabious which is far prettier than the name suggests and was once colloquially known as bee flower.
I’ve consciously chosen bee-attracting roses, too, like the vigorous climber Paul’s Himalayan Musk on the back fence and a mix of shrub roses which they love. I’ve even used rugosa roses alongside hawthorn and box as hedging for them. Honeysuckle is another great favourite which I try to encourage wherever I can, training it through every available fence, trellis and even the boughs of our Victoria plum.
Alongside nectar, I always have water out in bowls or low buckets with stones in so they can safely drink. Some people also provide bee homes, I haven’t bothered with this yet as every year a swarm of tree bees takes up residence inside the fascia at the front of our house. They’re no trouble, although the entrance to their hive is just above the front door which is disconcerting for the poor postwoman who’s likely to get three or four bees buzzing around her head whenever she knocks.
By Autumn I’ve usually still got oxeye daisies which have re-flowered after Summer pruning, as well as a few repeat roses. This year I’ve grown some asters, specifically michaelmas daisies as well as salvia and verbena which are late flowering and full of nectar. Over winter, I have stinking hellebores and winter aconite and I’m training ivy up the fence for late feeding before hibernation.
There are many other plants that please the bees but I can’t fit them all into my little garden; some wouldn’t cope with our clay soil either so I’m just doing as much as I can. I don’t think it matters how small your plot is, even a few bee-friendly flowers can make a difference. This year I’ve spotted five kinds of bees including honeybees happily humming in and out of my flower beds as well as moths, dragon flies, butterflies and even a garden frog I’ve named Bellamy. Seeing this makes all the hard work worthwhile. To maintain our natural world, and our futures, we need bees as well as all our native species, so it makes sense to do whatever we can to support them.
Caution: If ingested, pennyroyal is toxic to cats.