Planting Wild Flowers for Bumble Bees

Suzanne Noble, from Plantwild, with suggestions on how to support our native Bumble bee populations. - 03 April 2016

There are 24 species of bumble bee in the UK. We all know that honey bees are threatened at the moment, by viruses, colony collapse and pesticide use. Well, our native wild bees are suffering a similar decline, which is partly due to pesticide use, but mainly habitat loss as the number and variety of wildflowers in the countryside has greatly diminished. The bumble bees are our best-loved bees, they just look cuddly and we associate their hum with a warm summer’s day. You can encourage them to use your garden by planting wildflowers which often have more nectar and pollen than other garden plants. You can set aside part of your garden for wild flowers, or mix them up in the borders and in the lawn, to give the bees a haven.


A Wildflower Meadow in the Garden

Some bumble bee species(Bombus terrestris) have short tongues and can only reach the nectar in short-tubed flowers such as birdsfoot trefoil and meadow buttercup. They sometimes make a hole in the side of a long-tubed flower to steal the nectar without pollinating the flower. Long-tongued bees (Bombus hortorum) will go for long-tubed flowers such as honeysuckle or red campion, and large heavy bees (Bombus lapidarius) need to land on a large stable platform like a scabious or knapweed. Small agile bees (Bombus pratorum) are able to hang on to a drooping flower like vipers bugloss. Nature loves variety and fortunately, so do gardeners.


Bumble bee on Knapweed

The first queen bumble bees emerge in the spring in March and look for some nectar to give an energy boost after a winter’s hibernation. Put in primroses, violets, wood anemone, stinking hellebore and coltsfoot to offer a choice of nectar plants. Don’t forget your hedgerows. You can plant a mixed native hedge which gives early nectar from the blackthorn followed by a succession of nectar rich flowers followed by berries which the birds will enjoy.


Bee on Honeysuckle

The spring and summer brings a wide choice of wild flowers and garden plants but the bees need a lot of nectar and pollen to feed themselves and their larvae. You could convert a sunny part of your lawn to a mini meadow and include red clover, knapweed, field scabious, birdsfoot trefoil and wild marjoram. Plug plants are ideal for adding into an area of fine lawn grass. You could also plant up a shady border with foxgloves, bellflowers, bluebells and primroses.

 At the end of the summer there is another shortage of flowers. Plant yarrow, betony, devils-bit scabious, nettle leaved bellflower and spiked speedwell. These will keep the nectar supplies going into autumn when the queen bees are fattening up for hibernation. In sheltered parts of the UK Bombus terrestris will sometimes continue flying through the winter and they need a supply of nectar for energy. Ivy is one of the most important plants for providing this nectar in winter.


Bee and Devil's Bit Scabious

Don’t forget that insecticides will kill the bees as well as the pests you are targeting. And consider that one isolated plant is hard for a bee to find and may not be worth the journey. Plant in groups to make your garden worth a visit and you will enjoy the hum of the bumble bees right through to the end of autumn.


Suzanne and Keith Noble run Plantwild, based near Leominster in Herefordshire, where they grow wild flowers, native trees and shrubs, and also provide locally harvested seed to establish wildflower meadows.