Bees are familiar visitors to our garden, often loved but sometimes dreaded because of the fear of being stung. Bees are actually vital to a functioning ecosystem as they are important pollinators of many plants, including many of our crops such as apples, pears, strawberries, tomatoes, courgettes, beans, peas and many more! In fact, 30% of our food is pollinated by bees. As with many other animals they have suffered a decline in recent years due to the loss of flower-rich habitats and the use of pesticides. All the bees found in Britain are fairly docile and will only sting if they are trapped or if their nest is attacked.

Several types of bees are easily recognized. The main ones are honey bees (originally native to southeast Asia but now widely naturalized), bumble bees and solitary bees (including mason bees).

Honey bees live in large colonies, sometimes tens of thousands, and sometimes form swarms. They are often kept by man in hives to produce honey. Although honey bees are not generally aggressive they can sting if provoked.  Bumble bees are larger, attractive bees and generally very furry. They can sting, but rarely do so. These bees can sometimes be seen out for nectar as early as January and February, if the day is warm enough. Bumble bees live in small colonies, often in nests built in the ground in an old mouse hole or similar cavity. Solitary bees are much smaller and live alone or in loose groups making small holes in the ground or in banks or walls.

Planting a selection of flowers that provide good sources of pollen and nectar right through the year is very important, especially for bumble bees which can be seen during any month of the year on warmer days here in Devon. Bees will travel a long way from their nest to find pollen and nectar which results in ‘good’ gardens literally buzzing with life on a sunny day.

Bees are really interesting creatures – look out for some of their more unusual behaviour. For example, some bumble bee species cannot reach down to the nectar in some flowers (such as Aquilegia).  Their solution is to bite through the side of the flower at its base to steal the nectar in that way! Other bees collect pieces of leaves and are responsible for the neat holes you may find in the edge of leaves on plants such as rose and fuchsia.

Bees are easy to encourage by planting a good selection of pollen and nectar rich flowers, but if you really want to help them you can also provide nest sites. For the really keen there are traditional hives but these do need managing and some care to live around. A simpler option is to make a bumble bee nest box which is fairly small (about the size of a small shoebox). If the garden is big enough then have two or three to give a choice to the bees, you may even get more than one nest!

How to attract bees to the garden

  • Plant nectar and pollen rich plants in your own garden. These will also attract other insects and, in turn, birds. Bee flowers include heathers, comfrey, foxglove, aquilegia, rosemary, Michaelmas-daisies, teasel, azalea, clover, thyme, mint, sage, bramble and thistles. Find different plants to provide flowers throughout the year.  For best results plant in sunny sheltered areas and put plants into clumps rather than scattered about.
  • Make nestboxes. For bumble bees you need a box about shoebox size with a hole in the side of about 2 cm and filled with dry hay. You can also use a large upturned flower pot standing on some stones to lift it off the ground. For solitary bees tie a bundle of bamboo canes (cut to six inches long) together and bury them horizontally in sloping ground, with a sunny aspect, so that one end is visible. These may also be used for hibernation sites.
  • Avoid the use of pesticides – they kill the good insects as well as the pest species.

Helping bees in the wider countryside

  • Encourage the use of pollen and nectar rich plants in council planting schemes.
  • Encourage the use of plants that flower all year round to support insects that may have emerged early from hibernation.
  • Avoid the use of pesticides which kill bees.
  • Encourage wild flower areas on road verges, in the corners of public spaces and on hedgebanks.
  • Restore and replant orchards which provide good nectar sources for bees in late spring and harbour lots of other wildlife to boot.