Bees’ Needs Week 2021

The summer feels like it’s going by too quickly. (As always!) Already the flowers that I associate with late summer are starting to make an appearance. I’ve noticed the first pale pink flowers to open on my patch of Japanese anemones, and the echinacea plants (above) are now beginning to display their brightly-coloured daisies.

There are lots of flowers in the garden at the moment so there are also plenty of bees and hoverflies around. That’s very appropriate because this week has been the annual ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ in the UK. This is a campaign to encourage us to grow suitable plants for bees and pollinators and to allow areas in our gardens to be wild enough to create a habitat for them.

Bee on Cephelaria gigantea (giant scabious)

Interest in helping bees (and wildlife in general) has grown greatly in recent years, with many gardeners delighted to provide spaces for nature. Now local councils and other bodies are taking a more sympathetic stance too. They have been allowing areas of grass to remain uncut for longer and even encouraging wild patches and mini meadows in previously manicured areas.

It’s good to see the bees back again here after a couple of weeks that have been unusually wet and much cooler than normal. Certain flowers are particularly successful at attracting bees. Here it’s the various members of the scabious family that seem to always have bees and hoverflies around them.

The pale yellow flowers of the giant scabious (Cephalaria gigantea, above) are a recent addition to the garden and have proved very popular. Their impressive height makes it a little difficult for me to photograph the bees on them though! (They can get up to 8 ft. tall, but mine have still some way to go.) Scabiosa atropurpurea (below, right) is up to about 3 ft. tall, so much easier to photograph!

L: Honeybee on geranium, R: Bumblebee on scabious flower

The blue geranium pictured on the left (‘Mrs. Kendall Clark’) has finished flowering but geranium ‘Rozanne’ is ready to take over its role. However, although the bees enjoy it, there weren’t any on its flowers when I took my photographs.

I think the bees weren’t interested in the flowers of Rozanne because the lavender beside it was in full flower and more alluring. I watched lots of these buff-tailed bumblebees (below) buzzing from flower to flower, clearly intent on making the most of the nectar in the tiny flowers before they all go over. (Bumblebees have longer tongues than honeybees, which makes it easier and quicker for them to access the nectar in lavender than it is for honeybees. This means they tend to move around the flowers quite fast – so harder work for the photographer!)

Given how much the bees enjoy the lavender, I’ll plant more of it for next summer. (Angustifolia varieties are reckoned to be particularly good.) I’m very happy to be able to provide something for the bees here. It seems only fair when I enjoy going on a ‘bee-hunt’ with my camera – and of course, we need our bees!

You can read about Bees’ Needs Week and learn what you can do to help bees at these sites: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/ and https://deframedia.blog.gov.uk/2021/07/12/buzzing-for-bees-needs-week-2021/

Bumblebee on lavender

Something Sweet: Scabiosa columbaria ‘Flutter Rose Pink’

As you can imagine, I haven’t bought many plants during the pandemic. Recently we have ventured out to a few of our favourite nurseries and we have treated ourselves to one or two new plants.

This pretty scabious is one of the plants that appealed to me most. It’s an undeniably feminine looking flower, with all those frilly petals in a sweet shade of pink. I’m sure it will add something special to a border that has lots of smaller, simpler flowers.

Reading about it tells me that I can expect flowers for a long time over the year – right through from spring into autumn. (I’d noticed this long flowering period from the other plants from the scabious family already in the garden.)

‘Flutter Rose Pink’ should be happy here because it likes sun and good drainage. (It’s said to be drought-tolerant, which makes it very suitable for our East-Anglian climate.) The other scabious relatives in the garden include a smaller Scabiosa columbaria in a pale blue, the tall yellow Cephalaria gigantea, Knautia macedonica in reds and pinks and a very dark red Scabiosa atropurpurea. All of them do well here and generously seed themselves around the garden. I’m hoping the new scabious will do the same!

My new plant is a treat for me but will be one for the pollinators here too. I’ve found that the various scabious are extremely popular with bees, hoverflies and butterflies. Because they keep flowering until late in the year, they are a reliable food source for these insects. ( That’s especially true of the knautia, which can produce flowers right up to the start of winter. It’s great for frosted-flower photos and feeds the latest of bees.)

Now I just have to decide where to plant my new scabious…

Pink scabious flower
Scabiosa columbaria ‘Flutter Rose Pink’

Buzz! Buzz! Bee-lated Celebrations!

I’m a few days late to celebrate ‘World Bee Day’, but I will anyway because I think every day should be a bee day. (It was actually this lovely bee portrait by Steve Gingold that alerted me to the significance of Thursday 20th May.)

World Bee Day was launched by the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association and has been supported by beekeepers worldwide. There’s a website for World Bee Day that tells you all about the importance of bees and the essential role they play in the production of our food.

I think we’ve all become more aware of how much we need bees and that we need to do what we can to help them. There are some good books and websites to advise on planting ideas if you have somewhere to grow flowers for nectar and pollen. It doesn’t need to be a garden, pots on a balcony or window boxes can help. And the flowers in my images below (zinnia, scabious, salvias, and a perennial sunflower) are all very easy to grow.

If you’re in the UK, Dave Goulson’s ‘Gardening for Bumblebees’ is very good, for both planting suggestions and information on the lives of bees. But if you’re in the US, you’ll probably find that ‘Pollinator Friendly Gardening’ by Rhonda Fleming Hayes is more useful. (I thought it looked very interesting and would have bought it if it had been relevant to the bees and native plants here. You do need to read something based on your own area to get the correct information for where you live.)

Websites by local wildlife trusts are also likely to tell you what flowers are good to plant in your area. For the UK, I’ve found the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has an excellent site with lots of information about gardening for bees, identifying the different bumblebee species, and the lifecycles and habitats of bumblebees. I like the site set up by the UK Wildlife Trusts too – they have a good section on bees. (I would suggest checking out your nearest wildlife trust or organisation if you live outside the UK.)

I have a lot to do still in my own garden to make it really useful to bees for as much of the year as possible. It feels like something very worthwhile that I can do to help increase the numbers of bees around. And if most gardeners plant what they can for bees, while also avoiding the use of pesticides, we will together make a big difference.

Every day should be a bee day!

Finding a Balance: Weeds for Wildlife

This week I’ve been looking out for bumblebees on white deadnettles here. The white deadnettle (Lamium album) is an excellent wild plant for the queen bumblebees that have just emerged from hibernation in spring. The flowers, which are already opening now in April, are a great source of nectar and pollen when there isn’t much else around.

We have a lot of bee-friendly plants in the garden and I’m trying to develop this further by planting to provide for bees and other insects for as much of the year as possible. This is causing me a bit of a dilemma at the moment because this particular deadnettle runs rampant in my garden.

Deadnettles are members of the mint family and this one is determined to take over as big an area as possible. Before I knew that it was such a good bee plant, I’d spent years trying to remove it from the garden, with very slow progress. (I doubt that it was deliberately planted by anyone – most likely it just ‘arrived’.)

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of books about gardening for wildlife. They all recommend the white deadnettle for bees, moths and beetles, so I feel that I really shouldn’t get rid of it all. At the same time, these books don’t mention how invasive this plant can be.

It’s a UK native wildflower, but can be bought as a garden plant (presumably for a ‘wild’ garden). As you probably guessed from the name, it looks just like a nettle – except for the rings of white flowers around the stalk – but thankfully it doesn’t sting.

So now I’m wondering what to do. I have noticed that there are a couple of different species of bumblebee that visit the flowers. (Not many yet. It’s been quite chilly and if I was a queen bee, I’d have popped back to bed for a bit longer!) I really don’t want to deprive these bees of their food source but I know that the moment I turn my back on the deadnettle, it will reach out and grab the rest of my garden. The bees might then be really well-fed, but everything else will be swamped.

The best answer is probably to grow some of this over-enthusiastic plant in large pots. I’ll have to watch that none of the roots escape through the drainage holes, or else it will be off, racing through the garden again, with me in pursuit.

As you can see from the photo below, ladybirds like deadnettles too. Maybe I’ll get to like it eventually!

Ladybird on deadnettle

A Ray of Sunshine: Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

At this stage of the summer, there are fewer flowers around for me to photograph. So I’m grateful that the perennial sunflower, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, has done well this year.

In previous years this plant has struggled to survive. It would really prefer to be growing in a more fertile soil with a bit more moisture. Instead, it’s in a rather impoverished area that was close to where the roots of the neighbours’ conifers must have been.

Those huge trees were taken out a couple of years ago and the border on this side has been slowly recovering ever since. I thought the heat and drought of this summer would make the helianthus suffer badly, so I remembered to give it an occasional thorough watering. And I’ve been well rewarded with a healthy plant that’s just a little taller than me and covered in radiant yellow flowers.

The bees seem happy with the result too, and have been busily visiting the flowers. (That pleases me especially, because I want to keep up the supply of flowers for the bees and other pollinators for as long as possible in the year.)

Maybe next year I’ll try growing some of the bigger annual sunflowers too, if I can find the space. Talking of space, I’m waiting to see how far this sunflower will spread – some say that it can be invasive. But for now, I’m very happy to see these sunny little flowers brightening up my garden and feeding the bees.

Honeybee on a flower of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

Allium Christophii: Star of Persia

We’ve just had our first little bit of rain in weeks. The garden has been desperately dry, with small cracks appearing in the ground in the worst areas. So this rain is a huge relief!

At the same time, we’ve had the sunniest May here since records began in 1929. Wonderful for sitting out in and giving us lots of flowers everywhere, but making it even harder to keep up with watering.

Many plants have suffered in the heat, but a few have coped well. One of the best has been Allium christophii, which seems quite unbothered by drought. As long as it gets lots of sunshine and has well-drained soil, it’s happy.

The allium leaves become yellowed and dead-looking by the time the flowers open. These can to be hidden by planting the bulbs with something that they can grow up through.

When the allium flowers are over, there are the lovely dry seed heads to give an interesting display for the rest of the summer. You may find seedlings if you leave the heads – or you can just cut the heads and bring them indoors to display. (Allium christophii will also multiply by bulb offsets.)

One big bonus of growing alliums is that they’re highly attractive to bees. I’m trying to increase the number of good plants for pollinators and other insects in my garden, so these really earn their place.

These alliums are well settled in my garden. I have two areas where there are spreading clumps of them and it’s a delight to see the flowers increasing every year. They’re so pretty that I won’t mind if they get a bit invasive. That just means that there will be more for me to photograph!

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.