How to make a bee-garden
Last year bees were declared the most important living being on our planet by the Earthwatch Institute, and with good reason too! Presently there is an alarming decline in bee population, which could herald the extinction of mankind as there is no way we could manually pollinate all the vegetables, fruit and legumes we need for our food production considering as much as 70% of all agriculture is dependent on bees doing their job. All this bad news is enough to make us feel despondent, but in fact anyone with a garden can make a difference and become a bee warrior helping to boost the bee populations. For those with allotments or vegetable gardens extending a slot for bee friendly plantings will be a double win, as harvests become much better with well pollinated flowers. (In fact there are some vegetables like zucchini for example, that simply rots instead of producing fruit if they are not properly pollinated.) For anyone with a garden there are some simple native shrubs and trees (like Goat willow Salix caprea or Hawthorn Crataegus) to plant, which will enhance the space while simultaneously caring for the bees. Not having green thumbs is no reason not to do it - all you need is to ensure you water the shrub once a week during the first year and then it will take care of itself as soon as it has put down its roots!
For anyone wanting to do a little bit extra for our tiny friends there are some very simple steps to make sure they have a good home in your garden, however large or small it is. Planning a succession of flowers is perhaps the most important component of a bee-friendly garden, as it provides a buffet table of food all summer long. Think about planting single flowered cultivars instead of double flowers, and including a native variety instead of an imported kind as native species of trees, shrubs and flowers have naturally developed to support native bees. For example Goat willow (Salix caprea) feeds and pollinates much better than a beautifully doubled flowered but sterile decorative Japanese Cherry. By adding a few shrubs or trees, climbers and perennials you can create a multilayered buffet even in a small space.
Here are some examples of good early spring plants:
Goat willow (and other trees or shrubs from the willow family Salix), Hawthorn (Crataegus species), fruit trees such as apples, cherries and plums, simple spring bulbs such as crocus, daffodils, native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) - not to be confused with the much larger but less fragrant Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and Scilla siberica, early flowers such as pulmonaria.
Lavender, honeysuckle (Lonicera, an excellent climber for fences and walls), clover (let it spread in the lawn!), calendula, borage, "woolly" plants such as Lamb's ear (Stachys), Mullein (Verbsacum) and foxgloves.
Late summer plants:
Buddleia, Abelia (there are various different shrubs in this species), asters, echinacea, Sedums, Argentinian vervain (Verbena bonariensis) and Japanese anemones.
In the vegetable garden, you may want to add flowers such as marigolds, cornflowers and borage either at the end of the row or intermittently between plants. Some studies show native varieties of blueberries attract more bees than cultivated varieties, so if you are thinking about adding berries this may be a great option.
Location is also important as bees like warm sunny spaces. Therefore, you might simply want to fill a sunny part of your garden with a bee-friendly border containing a rich succession of bee-friendly plants in different layers. Allowing grass to grow taller and wilder in corners of the garden creates valuable insect habitat, so let daisies and dandelions into your garden. I know this sounds preposterous but really there is no better bee plant than the humble dandelion! If possible, leave an edge where brambles and nettles can thrive as these two plants are wonderful food plants for many species of butterfly larvae and can add a quiet corner for ground dwelling bees to nest. Other great nesting sites for wild bees are thick tufts of grass, sheltered spaces such as nooks and crannies in dry stone walls or holes left from other inhabitants and hollow steams left from last years perennials.
And one last but very, very important thing: please don't use chemicals in the garden! It is one of the most important guidelines as weedkiller and insecticide chemicals are one of the foremost reasons bee and other insect populations are suffering so badly. There are always alternative solutions to gardening problems, so the use of chemicals should really be banned! If you need to combat weeds, using mulches to cover any bare soil will help. If you are worried about pests attacking your plants, a healthy population of insects will act as a natural pest control unit. If needed when growing speciality vegetables such as cabbages and kale that are known to attract pests such as cabbage butterfly larvae, the use of netting and fleece will act as barriers. For aphids there are natural predators such as ladybird larvae to help you keep roses and beans healthy. So, whatever the problem there is a solution that will be bee-friendly! If in doubt, ask Mr Google...