Blue (and Violet and Purple) for Bees

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that blues and purples are my favourite colours in the garden.

Some of the darker flowers have a lovely velvety look – petunias and the deep purple morning glory ‘Grandpa Otts’ spring to mind. They just ask you to stroke them! And at the lighter end of the range, soft violets and lilac-blues are delicately beautiful.

So I’m delighted to read that bees share my attraction to these colours and often prefer blue and violet flowers.

Scientists studying bees’ vision have discovered that, unlike us, bees can see ultraviolet light. This allows bees to see the ultraviolet patterns that flowers use to show them where to find nectar.

(There’s even a colour named ‘bee’s purple’, which is a mixture of yellow and ultraviolet light and is visible to bees but not to us.)

Blue Olearia-1064
This blue daisy bush (Olearia) looks like an aster but flowers in spring and early summer.

A German scientific study  of bumblebees also found that (in an area where violet flowers produced the most nectar), they preferred violet over blue. This allowed the bees to collect more nectar than bees that didn’t show a preference.

Apparently the world bees see is a mixture of mostly blue, green and ultraviolet, also yellow and some orange, but no red. Red just looks like a black to bees, but bees have an excellent sense of smell, so that flowers in the red colour range can attract them by scent.

There are already a number of bee-friendly plants in blues and purples in my garden.

Cerinthe (top photo) is a marvelous plant for pollinators because it is especially rich in nectar, giving it the common name of ‘Honeywort’. (This cerinthe was photographed in a garden I was visiting in the spring. The cooler temperatures at that time gave it a much darker colouring than my own plants had in the warmth of summer.)

Flowers of Geranium 'Rozanne' with lavender.
Flowers of Geranium ‘Rozanne’ with lavender – a combination sure to attract bees!

The geranium ‘Rozanne’ is now lazily flopping into the lavender bushes beside it, creating a partnership that pleases both me and the bees. This geranium flowers over a long period, so it really earns its place in a bee-border.

Another flower that is popular with bees and that self-sows around my garden is Centaurea montana – the perennial cornflower. It also attracts butterflies and moths, which means it works well as a pollinator magnet. The unusual flower shape and the combination of blue and magenta make it a lovely garden plant.

The daisy bush (Olearia) was photographed in a garden I visited in spring. Apparently it attracts both bees and butterflies – and I’m wondering if I can find a suitable space for one in my own garden…

As you might expect, I’m looking forward to checking out what violet, purple and blue flowers are best for bees. There will, of course, be plenty of other colours too. But, hey, I’m really pleased that my buzzy little friends share my colour preferences!

Flower of Centaurea montana
Centaurea montana is a very easy-to-grow plant that attracts bees, butterflies and moths.

Daisies: Simple but Pretty

Daisies – the kind you find in your lawn – are the first flowers that I remember being aware of as a child. (Though I was a few years older by the time I tried the fiddly task of making a daisy chain.)

Now, as an adult, I’m aware of the tremendous range of daisies – the different colours, sizes and growth habits that give each their own character.

That character can vary greatly because the daisy family (asteraceae) includes plants you would expect, e.g. asters, coneflowers, dahlias, marigolds – and a lot that are a surprise, for instance cornflowers, and, believe it or not, lettuce!

Echinacea 2486
The large flowers of echinacea give a naturalistic look to the garden.

The bold shape of the bigger daisies, such as echinacea, makes them a great plant to mix with more delicate plant forms for contrast. (I have lots of fennel and verbena bonariensis which create an airy feel, and wispy grasses give a softness too.) Add in other plant shapes – spires (veronica and veronicastrum maybe) and some bold leaves – and you have a border full of textural and architectural interest.

Aster-2466
This tall aster has flowers of a very attention-grabbing colour!

My own garden is in a state of constant change at the moment. (I think that most gardens probably are.) The main border that I’ve created over the last couple of years has filled out so much that the plants no longer have enough space. Some plants are busily setting seed everywhere while others have grown more than I expected. So there will be a lot of shifting plants around!

As I re-organize borders and create new planting areas, I hope to add lots more daisies, especially some of the late-flowering ones like heleniums and dahlias. (My plan is to create a garden that allows me the opportunity to take photographs over as long a period as possible.)

There will certainly be plenty of choice for me because the daisy family is vast, so there will be a colour, size and shape to suit any planting plan I come up with.

Doronicum-flm-645
Doronicum (leopard’s bane) flowers are a cheerful sight in spring and early summer.

Bees’ Needs: Flowers!

This week has been ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ here in the UK. This is an annual campaign where a number of groups come together to increase awareness of the needs of bees and other pollinators and ways in which we can help them.

Suddenly there seems to be a lot more interest in the role of gardens in helping wild creatures, especially insects and birds, to survive.

(This week, the ‘Gardener’s World’ TV show was all about wild meadow flowers and ways that we can encourage some of the same plants into our own gardens. And the major garden shows – Chelsea and Hampton Court – have an increasing emphasis on planting for wildlife.)

In reality, the desire to help our bees and pollinators has been growing steadily over the last few years but now there is much more information about what gardeners can do. (And, I think, willingness in gardeners to do what they can to help.)

I’ll link to some of the best bee info websites that I’ve found at the bottom of this post.

A bee on a red scabious flower (Knautia macedonica).
Bees love this red scabious (Knautia macedonica).

In our garden here in Suffolk, I’ve tried to plant flowers that would be a good source of pollen and nectar over a long period. For early and late in the year, there is Mahonia and Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, but I really need to plant more early spring bulbs, especially crocuses, and flowers that will last well into autumn.

Among the most successful of the bee plants in the garden here are borage, red scabious, alliums, lavander and catmint.

At the moment there is a big patch of borage plants – they seem huge this year – and, although the flowers are almost over, the bees have been very busy here.

The red scabious  happily seeds itself all around the garden and you can usually find a few bees on its flowers. Verbena bonariensis does the same thing, cropping up all over the place and keeping not just bees, but hoverflies and butterflies happy too.

A beekeeper has caught a swarm of bees in a skep.
L: Checking that the bees are comfortably settled in their temporary home. R: Waiting for latecomers.

One year, I got a bit more than I bargained for when a swarm of bees decided to take up residence in the cherry tree in our front garden. Luckily a nearby beekeeper was happy to take them away to a nice new home. It was impressive to see how deftly he was able to shake them out of the tree into his straw skep. Once the queen and the majority of the swarm were safely settled in the skep, the rest of the bees gradually joined them by crawling in through a gap left for them. Frost fleece came in pretty handy as a way of discouraging escapees!

I hope to increase the number of bee-friendly plants in our garden and to encourage other wildlife too, probably by growing some wild plants in odd corners of the garden. The idea of having a small ‘meadow’ planting area appeals to me and may be a project for next year.

I’ll be writing more about bees and gardens soon. In the meantime, here are some helpful (UK-based) sites if you’d like more information about planting for bees:

  • The Pollinator Garden – site by Marc Carlton. This site has more information than anything else I’ve found so far. Great planting list with details of what kinds of bees the different plants attract. Comprehensive information, including how to build bee hotels, creating garden meadows etc.
  • Save Bees and Pollinators  – The Wildlife Trusts. Information about the importance of pollinators and the threats they face. Links to information about how you can use your own garden to help them.
  • RHS Plants for Pollinators  – Royal Horticultural Society. Has downloadable plant lists for garden plants, wild flowers and ‘plants of the world’.
  • The Bumblebee Conservation Trust – has lots of information about different bumblebee species and their needs. Their ‘Bee Kind’ tool allows you to find out how many bee-friendly plants are in your garden. (It’s massive and goes on for 34 pages but you can also use it to see just the best plants for bees by clicking on ‘Only Show Super Plants’ in the filter bar.)
A bee on Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis is popular with bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

A Rediscovery: Triteleia Laxa

Occasionally I come across something in the garden that I had pretty much forgotten about.

That happened last year when I was starting to clear an area of the garden that had become overgrown with too-rampant plants. (I have quite a few of these!)

I was delighted to discover these pretty little blue flowers – Tritelia laxa – still managing to survive, despite the tide of geraniums, Japanese anemonies, ivy and assorted weeds that was threatening to engulf them.

I haven’t seen them very often in the UK. Perhaps that’s because they are not thoroughly hardy and don’t like getting very wet in winter. Luckily for them, my soil is very well-drained and I guess that the weeds etc. have been protecting them from the winter cold.

Triteliea growing in a garden.
These triteliea flowers have managed to survive and multiply in a rather neglected corner of my garden.

The flowers used to be known as Brodiaea and you can still find the corms for sale under that name. They have several other names too, but the one that intrigued me is ‘Ithuriel’s Spear’. So I had to Google it…

Apparently, Ithuriel was the name of an angel who had a spear that could unmask any disguise by its touch. According to the poet Milton, he was sent to the Garden of Eden, where he used the spear to discover Satan, who was hiding in the disguise of a toad. (You can see that this must come from the sharp-looking tip of the flower bud somewhat resembling a spear.)

So now, as a result of that strange association I’m imagining myself wandering around the garden, trying to touch the frogs (haven’t seen any toads here) with a tiny blue flower. Somehow I don’t think they’d be too impressed! (Nor would the neighbours!)

Plant names seem to belong in a strange world of imagination and fantasy – but they can be amusing. And now I must go and take some more photographs of my rediscovered little beauties…

Triteleia laxa (also known as Brodiaea) 'Queen Fabiola'
Tritelia (aka Brodiaea) makes a great cut flower.