Gardening for bumblebees

Whether you have a window box, allotment or large garden, planting bee-friendly flowers can help boost your local bumblebee population. In return, they will dutifully pollinate our flowers, crops, fruits and vegetables.

No matter what size garden you have, you can do your bit for bumblebees by planting at least two kinds of bee-friendly flower for every flowering period. Bee-friendly flowers are rich in pollen and nectar which bees can easily access throughout the year.

The best habitats for bumblebees are those that offer plenty of flowers to feed on during the entire active phase of the bees’ lifecycle (from March until October). 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

Bumblebees drink nectar through their tongues and the length of the tongues varies depending on the species!
Click here to find out more.

Creating a bumblebee garden...

The first thing to consider when designing your bee-friendly garden is the type of space you already have, is it sunny, shady, small or big?

The following plant suggestions are based on garden type, and they show the time of year that plant is in flower. This enables you to choose a variety of plants to ensure your garden is in flower throughout the bumblebee lifecycle (March – October).

Gardening is for everyone, so get the kids involved, your friends and local community and start growing a haven for bumblebees!

Shady areas

Even damp, shady areas can provide flowers to feed the bees! Below are suggestions for plants you could try in shady spots and at which times of year they flower.

Spring

Lungwort

Comfrey

Hellebore

Winter heather

Summer

Wild strawberry

Aquilegia

Monkshood

Borage

Autumn

Catmint

Mahonia

Ground ivy

Sunny areas

As we all know, many plants love to grow in warm, sunny spots and can provide plenty of food for bumblebees all year round! See our suggestions below for what you can grow in sunny places:

Spring

Crocus

Pieris

California lilac

Dicentra

Summer

Viper's bugloss

Foxglove

Lavender

Geraniums

Autumn

Verbena

Cosmos

Sunflower

Honeysuckle

Herbs

Bumblebees love the fragrant, flowery tops of herbs. Ensure they are planted in a sunny location.

Marjoram

Chives

Thyme

Mint

Sage

Rosemary

Remember, some species, such as the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), are active in winter and require nectar at this time.
You can feed winter-active bumblebees with Mahonia, winter heather, winter-flowering honeysuckle and snowdrop flowers.


Trees

Trees and hedging plants in flower can be a good food source for bumblebees. Hedges can also provide potential nesting sites.

Try apple, cherry, willow, plum, pear and blackthorn.

Lawns

Yes! Even your humble lawn can provide food for bumblebees if you allow species often seen as ‘weeds’ to flower.

Bees love clover, dandelion, bird's foot trefoil, vetch and cowslips. Traditional Victorian thyme lawns can provide an interesting low-maintenance bee-friendly alternative.

You could also try leaving all or a small section of the lawn to grow wild. This can provide ground-nesting bumblebee species, such as the Common carder bee, space to nest beneath the long grass.

Ponds

If you have a pond, you can grow water mint, purple loosestrife, forget-me-not, iris and meadowsweet around the outside of the pond to attract bumblebees.



Wildflower meadows and community projects

If you’ve got enough space in your garden, or have access to an area within your local community, why not create a wildflower meadow to provide bumblebees with food and shelter throughout their active season? Click here for our guide on how to create or restore a meadow.

Kew gardens run a project called Grow Wild which can offer funding and free seeds for community groups looking to transform local spaces in to bee-friendly havens.

On a larger scale, why not speak to your local council or authority regarding the mowing of parks and road verges? You could instead create and manage a wildflower meadow for people and wildlife to enjoy. Our Local Authorities pack provides guidance on how to go about contacting your local council to do more to help bumblebees.

Schools are great places for wildlife gardens and wildflower meadows – they offer so many opportunities for learning new skills, getting in touch with nature and making friends. The Royal Horticultral Society (RHS) offers an excellent resource through its Campaign for School Gardening.


 

Try out 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 learn more about bee-friendly flowers and the bumblebee lifecycle 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 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 (thankfully now banned in the UK) 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.


Helping bees in gardens is something everyone can do. We hope that this page has inspired you to make a few planting choices that can transform an outdoor space into a bumblebee oasis!


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