Blue (and Violet and Purple) for Bees

Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens' (Honeywort)
The common name of Cerinthe is ‘Honeywort’ and bees love it.

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.

Bees’ Needs: Flowers!

Bee on a borage flower
A bee enjoys the last of the borage 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.