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28 April 2021

Gardening for bees

Discover the best garden plants for attracting early bumblebees and bees and follow our step-by-step guide to making your own bee house.
Gardening for bees
Jade Harding

Bees and other pollinators are vital to the ecosystem, and our own gardens can play a key role in providing them with sources of nectar and pollen. It’s an aspect that gardeners increasingly consider when choosing which plants to grow. 

There are 270 species of bees in the UK, from tiny solitary bees to large buff-tailed bumblebees. Some are easy to spot, but others need a bit of skill to identify; all are valuable pollinators. 

Different bees have their own feeding habits, preferring different flowers, depending on how long their tongues are, and of course, their own nesting habits. So, if you have a sunny wall or a bee ‘hotel’, you might even be lucky enough to have these insects nesting in your garden – with some even doing so in the ground.  

See our expert advice on how to grow different plants and flowers and find out which varieties were best on test. 

Plants that attract bees

It’s important to try to provide pollen and nectar for as many months of the year as possible, so we’ve organised the following list by the times of the year the plants bloom.

Late spring to summer

  • Foxglove You can grow many different foxgloves easily from seed and once planted, they will self-seed around shady parts of your garden, ensuring a steady supply of pollen and nectar for bees in early summer.
  • Delphinium Statuesque delphiniums, with spikes of large flowers, bloom in May, June and July. They buzzed with insects in our recent trial, but were more attractive to hoverflies, other flies, and beetles than bees.
  • Heuchera In our two trials of heuchera, we noticed that bees preferred the more common small, white or pink flowers to the larger, more colourful flowers some varieties produce.
  • Lavender Hardy English lavenders (L. angustifolia) are all popular with bees and butterflies.
  • Hardy salvia These tough and aromatic plants can be in flower for several months from early summer. Their blooms attract honeybees, bumblebees, and solitary bees in large numbers.
  • Hardy geranium Hardy geraniums generally flower from May to July, although some bloom for much longer, or will rebloom later in the summer if you cut them back, giving bees even longer to visit them.

 Mid-summer

  • Hebe New Zealand natives, hebes need well-drained soil and some shelter in winter to grow well here. Their flowers are popular with bees and butterflies.
  • Deciduous agapanthus Deciduous agapanthus are hardier than evergreen varieties, so are better suited for growing in the ground where they can produce a profusion of blooms for bees to visit.
  • Annual poppies Although the flowers may not last long, annual poppies are easy to grow from seed, make a colourful splash in mid-summer and are loved by bees.

Summer to autumn/first frosts

  • Aster Asters flower until the frosts hit and attract a range of pollinating insects that is unrivalled in our experience. These pollinators include a variety of bees, many different hoverflies, wasps, butterflies, and flies – the list seems endless.
  • Japanese anemone The large pink or white flowers of Japanese anemone add a glamorous touch to the garden as other flowers are fading and proved very popular with bees looking for a late-summer feed.
  • Dahlia Single-flowered dahlias are generally the best for attracting bees, but we found that some open-centred, semi-double and collarette varieties were also very popular.
  • Echinacea Echinaceas, often called coneflowers, are another US native plant that are a big hit with both bees and butterflies.
  • Tender salvia Tender salvias, which are native to Mexico and southern US states, are another good example of how growing some exotic plants can extend the feeding season for pollinators up to the first frosts.

Before you plant your new flowers make sure you're using one of our best composts.

Plants for early bumblebees

Bumblebees are some of the earliest pollinators to emerge, flying at low temperatures when many other insects don’t.

Most bumblebees will find food wherever they can so, although native flowers are always best, you don’t need to plant anything specific. However, in early spring there are few things that flower and can provide welcome pollen for these early-flying visitors. These garden plants are most useful for helping them.

  • Primrose Wild primroses add natural beauty to gardens in spring and early bumblebees love them. The fragile petals don’t support the large buff-tailed bumblebee queens, but worker bees, early bumblebees and hairy-footed flower bees will eagerly seek out the nectar-filled centres.
  • Hellebore Hellebores provide a welcome splash of colour in late winter as well as a plentiful food source for early-emerging bumblebees. The large flowers are held on sturdy stems, which provide great support for visiting bees, while the open cup of the blooms gives easy access to the pollen. The queen buff-tailed bumblebees are often found on hellebore flowers as early as February.
  • Hyacinth Many of us grow hyacinths indoors for Christmas displays, but they can look great in your border, too. They will also provide a needed treat for bumblebees. As well as offering nectar, the strong stems and closely clustered florets provide even the largest bumblebees a safe place to sleep or shelter from inclement weather. 
  • Crocus Coming in a range of colours, crocuses can brighten up lawns and bare corners in a spring garden. These fragile beauties don’t just offer pollen for early bumblebees – they also provide shelter during the night as the petals close around resting bees. 

Feed the birds without spilled seed germinating and becoming weeds in your garden with these no-grow bird seeds.

How to make a solitary bee nest

  1. Drill a selection of holes of varying diameter between 4mm and 10mm in the face of the softwood block. The depth of the holes doesn’t matter, just make sure you don’t drill all the way through the block.
  2. Insert a metal hook in the top of the block and attach a suitable length of garden string.
  3. Hang at approximately head height in a sunny spot in early March. 

You will need: 

  • A block of untreated softwood measuring approx. 50mm x 100mm x 200mm
  • Drill 
  • Drill bits to create holes measuring 10mm, 8mm, 6mm and 4mm in diameter
  • Garden string for hanging

Not got a drill to hand? See our cordless drill buying guide.

Bees to spot in your garden

Follow our guide to some of the types of bumblebee you might spot in your garden this summer. See our gallery below or scroll down for more information on each type. 

  • Hairy-footed flower bee They emerge from early March and flit between flowers without settling, making them difficult to get a good look at. But it’s this flight, hovering in front of trumpet shaped flowers, such as cowslips or pulmonaria to feed, that identifies them. The males are gingery and the females are darker; almost black.
  • White-tailed bumblebee The white-tailed bumblebee only has one stripe of yellow on its thorax, another centrally on its abdomen and a white tail; so you have to really squint to tell them apart. If you can only see two distinct yellow bands (rather than three) you’re likely looking at a white-tailed bumblebee.
  • Buff-tailed bumblebee They are very similar to white-tailed and garden bumblebees, but the tail is more ‘buff’ than white. This is most obvious in the large female bees that emerge early in the spring, but the workers and males also have a thin buff stripe above their white tail. 
  • Garden bumblebee The workers and queens have a bright-yellow stripe at the front of the thorax and a thinner band at the rear that can blend with another bright yellow band at the top of the abdomen, with a pure white tail; males are much more yellow all over. They usually nest in undisturbed sites, but this can include compost heaps and raised beds. If you find a nest, mark it out so you don’t disturb the bees and they will be gone by the end of the season.
  • Red-tailed bumblebee The distinctive red-and-black colouring of the red-tailed bumblebee makes them easy to spot in the garden, though the males do have some thin yellow banding. They’re a social bee, forming colonies of up to 200 members, and will choose disused burrows and holes in rocks to nest.
  • Tawny mining bee These little insects are much smaller than bumblebees and even honey bees, but the females, with their rich auburn fuzz, are very attractive. Unfortunately, the more gingery males are less distinguished so are even trickier to spot.
  • Tree bumblebee It’s a large woodland-edge species that has a unique colouration, which makes it easy to identify; a ginger thorax and a black abdomen with a white tail.
  • Common carder bee These are the most common of the ginger bees and get their name from their habit of scraping off hair from leaves of plants, such as mullein or lamb’s ears, to line their nests. They have fuzzy ginger hair all over their bodies but sometimes look darker on the abdomen where they can go a bit bald. They are a social bee, building nests of up to 200 workers in old mouse holes, cavities in walls or mossy banks.
  • Early bumblebee As its name suggests, the early bumblebee is one of the first bumblebees to emerge in the spring and can be tricky to spot. It’s found in a wide range of habitats across the UK and looks similar to other bumblebees. However, it’s a little smaller and has a dull orangey-red tail; sometimes the yellow stripe on the abdomen is faded.
  • Honey bee Honey bees are much slimmer than their bumble cousins, and their golden hairy thorax and amber-and-black banded abdomen make them easy to identify. In fact, the only similar bee is the ivy mining bee, which is more ‘wasp-like’ in appearance and, as a relative newcomer to the UK, is only common in the south of the country. There is just one species of honeybee in the UK and most live in domesticated hives.
  • Leaf-cutting bee There are seven species of leaf-cutting bees in the UK, but they all look pretty similar; dark brown covered in lightbrown fuzz. Leaf-cutting bees are solitary bees, and it’s the females that scissor through leaves and use the pieces in their nests. It’s tricky to spot them unless they’re coming out of their nest holes or carrying a piece of leaf, but you might see their work in the notches left on your rose leaves.

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