Gardening for bumblebees
What does a bee-friendly garden look like?
As a rule of thumb your garden should provide bee-friendly flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar which bees can easily access from spring until late summer. This will ensure that there is a good supply of pollen at all of the crucial times:
- When the queens are establishing nests.
- When nests are growing.
- When nests are producing new queens and males.
- When queens are fattening up ready for hibernation.
The greater the number of suitable flowering plants in your garden the better but you should aim for at least two kinds of bee-friendly plant for each flowering period. You can plant what you like in your garden so long as it doesn’t escape into the wild. You will find all sorts of exotic things in garden centres and catalogues which bees will enjoy.
Visit our Bee kind tool to see how your garden scores so far and to receive guidance on the best flowers to plant to make your garden even more bee-friendly. Alternatively, you can view a list of bee-friendly flowers by viewing our Gardening for bumblebees leaflet.
What to avoid
Some species have a habit of escaping from gardens and invading wild habitats nearby, for example, Rhododendron ponticum and Himalayan balsam. These are probably best avoided. Our conservation partners Plantlife (www.plantlife.org.uk) offer useful guidance.
Certain plants have flower shapes that bumblebees cannot use. For example, some flowers have petals that form long tunnels which are too long or narrow for the bees to feed from. Similarly, flowers with multiple tightly packed heads offer bees very little accessible food.
Other flowers may not be suitable because they produce little or no pollen and nectar, often as a result of selective breeding by horticulturalists for their pleasing appearance. Plants like pansies and double begonias offer little for bumblebees and other pollinators.
You should avoid using any pesticides in your garden. They are often labelled as ‘bug killers’ or something similar, but almost all of these can harm bumblebees, even if you don’t intend to harm them. Some pests can be controlled by simply planting certain other plants nearby, and you can learn more about this on the BBC Gardening website by clicking here.
Sourcing plants and seeds
Bee-friendly gardening can be enjoyed on any budget. Here are a few ideas:
Garden centres and nurseries: Plants will typically be large and established, but more expensive. They are usually on display for sale when they are flowering, which means that you let the bees choose for you – just put plants in your trolley that have lots of bumblebees feeding on them!
Recent research into garden centre plants has found that some ornamental plants on sale can contain pesticides, including neonicotinoids and fungicides at levels known to cause sub-lethal harm to bees. Although we do not yet know whether the net effect of exposing pollinators to contaminated food plants is positive or negative, gardeners wishing to lower the risk of exposing bees to these chemicals can buy from organic nurseries, plant swap with others, and or grow their own plants from seed.
Mail-order plug plants: A growing number of online shops sell trays of plug plants, including both garden favourites and wildflowers. The plants are well established with a good root system, but small. You will often need to wait a year until they flower, but this is a cost-effective option.
Seed packets: Available as part of your Bumblebee Conservation Trust membership pack, in garden centres, through catalogues and online. Only ‘annuals’ will flower in their first year. Very cost-effective.
Propagation: Many bee-friendly plants can be split at the roots or take well from cuttings. Why not make friends with other local bee-friendly gardeners through a gardening club or community group?
Wild seed collection: There are lots of native bee-friendly plants that look great in a border. Local wild plants will be well adapted to your soil type and climate plus will often be resistant to pests. You should never dig up the plants themselves, but if you mark their location you can return later in the year and collect some seeds. Try publicly accessible areas such as road verges or riverbanks and avoid private land. Never collect seed from rare plants or from places where the species is scarce.