For centuries bees have been happily pollinating plants around the British Isles. However, since the Second World War, changing agricultural practices have eradicated almost all of the UK’s lowland meadows. Gardens are now a major refuge for wildlife. But how much do they help? A recent study in Plymouth, UK, kept a close eye on the bees to see how they coped in British gardens.
They found a lot of gardeners like to brighten up their surroundings with exotic plants. For some bees this is an all-you-can-eat buffet. For others like Bombus hortorum, the long-tongued ‘garden bumblebee’ (above), it’s more of a problem. They need native plants.
Fortunately they also found that planting just a few native species in your garden can be a massive boost to struggling bees. And some are very easy to grow.
Digitalis purpurea is a common wildflower in the UK. It likes cool temperatures and either sun or light shade. It’s a biennial, which means it won’t flower in the first year but in the second you’ll get a tall spike surrounded with bell-shaped flowers. These proved very popular with some of the bees in the study.
2. Welsh Poppy
Meconopsis cambrica can grow like a weed when it establishes itself. The easiest way to get it into your garden is to settle a plant pot there and let it self-seed. It’s happy in damp soil.
Rubus fruticosus is a double win for wildlife. Bees love the flowers of the plant. You might like the blackberries they produce, but so too will the local birds. If you want to grab them, you’ll have to be fast. They’re easy to grow from cuttings. Left to their own devices they’ll spread where they can, so you might need to cut them back every so often.
4. Smooth Hawksbeard
The RHS lists Crepis capillaris as a lawn weed. Lawns without flowers might make an ideal lawn for humans, but for invertebrates they’re deserts. Grass is wind-pollinated, so there’s nothing to eat there. A little tolerance of diversity in your lawn will give invertebrates somewhere to feed. In turn that will help all the other wildlife that feeds on them.
Ranunculus repens is the Creeping buttercup, and for many it’s another weed. If you want something more refined there’s Ranunculus acris, the meadow buttercup. They’ll add a sunny glow wherever they flower in the summer and as ‘weeds’, they’ll look after themselves. They’re also handy if you want to find out if someone likes butter quickly.
Gardeners can make a big difference to bee conservation
Dr Mike Hanley who led the study said:
Urban gardens are increasingly recognised for their potential to maintain or even enhance biodiversity. In particular, the presence of large densities and varieties of flowering plants supports a number of pollinating insects whose range and abundance has declined as a consequence of agricultural intensification and habitat loss… if native plants were to disappear completely from our towns and cities, the long-term survival of some of our common pollinators – like the ‘garden bumblebee’ – could be in jeopardy.
But there’s plenty of room for exotic plants in British gardens
While the study found some species of bee relied on native plants, others actually preferred the exotic flowers. Variety is important. Dr Mike Hanley added:
By growing a variety of plants from around the world, gardeners ensure that a range of food sources is available for many different pollinators.
So any work in your garden this spring will help bees buzz, feed and thrive in the summer.
You can download the study: Going native? Flower use by bumblebees in English urban gardens by Mike Hanley, Amanda Awbi and Miguel Franco for free.