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Creating a buzz

by Hannah Stephenson

As the decline in bee populations continues, Hannah Stephenson looks at how gardeners can do their bit to lure these vital insects back to their gardens

For some time, environmentalists and horticulturists have been urging gardeners to let their grass grow a bit longer, leave at least one area of their garden 'wild' and create nooks and crannies in the form of log piles to allow wildlife to flourish. Now, with the recent launch of the government's Bee and Pollinator Strategy, a 10-year plan announced by environment secretary Elizabeth Truss, we can do more to encourage a "flower-rich habitat" to provide more homes for wild honey bees, bumble bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

Scientists warn that British bees are in serious decline, with 71 of its wild bee species under threat and more than 20 already extinct. Loss of habitat and forage are the main problems facing wild bees.

The strategy is supported by the government's Call to Action - Bees' Needs: Food and a Home, launched earlier this year on beesneeds.org.uk, which offers a wealth of tips on how to help these valuable creatures flourish in our gardens.

Guidelines include:

  • Grow more flowers, shrubs and trees that provide nectar and pollen as food for bees and other pollinators throughout the year - pussy willow, primroses and crocuses in spring, lavenders, meadow cranesbill and ox-eye daisies in summer, ivy and hebes in autumn, and mahonia shrubs and cyclamen in winter.
  • Leave patches of land to grow wild with plants like stinging nettles and dandelions to provide other food sources (such as leaves for caterpillars) and breeding places for butterflies and moths. Cut grass less often and ideally remove the cuttings to allow plants to flower.
  • Avoid disturbing or destroying nesting or hibernating insects in places like grass margins, bare soil, hedgerows, trees, dead wood or walls.
  • Think carefully about whether to use pesticides, especially where pollinators are active or nesting or where plants are in flower. Consider control methods appropriate to your situation and only use pesticides if absolutely necessary.

People should understand that the beauty of a flower has nothing to do with its nectar content. Modern plant breeding has tended to value showy flowers more highly than the welfare of the insect world, so the latest double begonia or frilly carnation probably won't attract pollinators.

Double flower varieties have extra petals but produce less pollen and nectar. For example, a study comparing four varieties of dahlia found that the double 'pompom' and 'semi-cactus' varieties were less attractive than open-flowered varieties.

Many good nectar plants have inconspicuous flowers and often old-fashioned ones are the best. Foxgloves, hellebores, wallflowers, red valerian, ice plant and Verbena bonariensis all produce loads of nectar, as do many winter-flowering heathers.

It's also important to provide good nectar sources for as much of the year as you can.

Social species like bumble bees need food for the queen bees in spring when they are founding the nest, throughout the summer for the workers to rear the young, and finally at the end of the season for the young queens to build up fat stores before hibernating for the winter.

Late-flowering, nectar-rich plants include dahlia, fuchsia (single varieties), Michaelmas daisies, marigolds, lavender and knapweeds. Ivy is a good autumn source of nectar for a range of species including honey bees, ivy bees and hoverflies, and is the larval food plant of the holly blue butterfly.

Herbs including chives, borage, hyssop, rosemary, sage, thyme and fennel are also rich in nectar, while less common perennials including Calamintha nepeta, Veronica and Liatris spicata will also attract bees and other pollinators.

Don't forget moths, which tend to be night-feeding - so include fragrant honeysuckle, jasmine, evening primrose and night-scented stock in your planting scheme.

And if you are still bulb-planting now, remember that wood anemones, scilla, chionodoxa and dwarf daffodils are all ideal for growing in grass, providing nectar for emerging bees in spring.

Best of the bunch

Pyracantha

As well as being a great deterrent to burglars, thanks to its spiky, unforgiving thorns, this tough, evergreen shrub produces an array of dazzling berries at this time of year in shades ranging from ruby red to bright orange and yellow. Often grown as a hedge, it should thrive in any fertile, well-drained soil. Good varieties include P. 'Golden Charmer', which bears clusters of small white flowers amid glossy green leaves in early summer followed by bright orange berries from autumn through winter, and P. 'Soleil d'Or', which bears vivid yellow berries. Pyracantha can also be wall-trained, which shows the berries off beautifully. On wall-trained plants, shorten outward and inward-growing shoots in mid-spring, trimming sideshoots to two or three leaves after flowering to reveal the berries.

Good enough to eat

Sage

If you are one of those organised people who like to pre-cook and freeze some of your dishes before Christmas, then sage and onion stuffing may be on your mind. Which brings me on to sage, that aromatic herb which comes into its own during the festive season. It should be planted in late spring or early summer in a sunny, sheltered spot with well-drained soil, ideally in a container with plenty of drainage material in the bottom. Water it in well and then in dry spells until it is established, when it will become more drought tolerant. Sage leaves can be dried in the summer for winter use. Leaves should be dipped briefly into boiling water then cold and laid out on baking sheets to dry in the airing cupboard before being stored in air-tight jars. You can also freeze sage by placing leaves on a tray in a freezer, then once frozen removing them and putting them back in the freezer in an air-tight container.

  • Move pots of agapanthus into a cold greenhouse or frame for the winter
  • Lift and store beetroot and salsify in boxes of compost
  • Continue to plant tulips and other spring-flowering bulbs before the ground becomes too hard to work
  • Spike lawns with a hollow tined aerator and brush grit into the holes to improve drainage
  • Pick off leaves that have fallen on alpine plants in the rock garden and replenish gravel mulches around them
  • Collect ripe berries and fruits from shrubs, clean to remove seed and sow in pots to raise new plants
  • Move ceramic pots and any which are not frost-proof into the greenhouse for winter
  • Check greenhouse heaters daily, using a thermometer to ensure they are not set too high and wasting heat
  • Continue to prepare the soil for planting new fruit trees and bushes
  • Prune out fruited canes of grape vines when the leaves have fallen

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