How to make your garden bee-friendly

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood

Bees are a precious and very necessary insect for the world's ecosystem. Here's how to encourage them to thrive in your garden

Insects are currently suffering a catastrophic population drop and bees in are being hit particularly hard. One-third of the UK's bee population has disappeared over the past decade and reports have revealed that over 24 per cent of Europe's bumblebees are now threatened with extinction. Overuse of pesticides, along with climate change, loss of habitat and CCD (a sudden desertion of the queen by worker bees) have all contributed to this alarming decline, so it's now more important than ever to help them out in any way we can.

We’ve been trying to do our bit by squeezing as many bee-friendly plants as possible on the allotment and we’ve recently installed a beehive in an effort to tempt a swarm to share our green space. Our beehive is slightly different to the sort you see gown-wearing, smoke-squirting beekeepers poring over, eager for honey. Whereas a beekeeper would typically purchase a swarm, we are trying to lure in wild bees in by providing a naturalistic habitat for our apian pals. It’s more akin to a bird box than your traditional, white-walled honey trap.

Our hive stands around four feet tall—the main body sitting on four collapsible legs—and points in a southerly direction with a 15ft clearing in front of the entrance holes to allow the bees a clear flightpath to their nest.

To keep the path free from weeds, we have laid a thick weed-suppressing mat and covered the area with wood chips for good measure. We installed ours in mid-May, which is prime swarming season, but bees will gather and search for a nesting site up until late July. Although honey is not our aim, we do have the option of fitting honey boxes to the main body should bees decide to reside.

We’ve also been doubling down on the bee-friendly plants that we grow. Here’s our top five that complement the hive...

 

Lemon balm 
Melissa officonalis

This bushy, rampant perennial belongs to the mint family. You’ll often spy it lurking in kitchen gardens where it is grown to lend lemony flavours to savoury dishes, salads and sauces. 

As well as boasting excellent culinary credentials, lemon balm has enjoyed a long association with beekeepers—the plant has historically been placed near beehives to placate the appian inhabitants and to hopefully prevent them from swarming off to pastures new. 

The clue is in the name: Melissa officinalis stems from the Greek word Melissa, meaning honeybee. 

 

Courgette
Cucurbita pepo

Bees love big showy blooms, and a flowering courgette has those in spades. Courgettes are one of the easiest plants to grow, hence their profusion on allotments up and down the country. 

A gardener bolstered by the courgette’s hardy, bountiful nature can get carried away and sow numerous plants, but to avoid the inevitable glut of knobbly sausage-shaped cucurbits come summer, follow the cucumber code: one plant will supply enough veg for a single person over the season.

 

Rosemary 
Rosmarinus officinalis

Another favourite of the bees. We’ve got a few rosemary plants growing down on the plot which get routinely plundered for gin and tea making purposes. 

Happily, rosemary is a plant that responds well to frantic pruning as this helps the plant from becoming leggy. 

Rosemary honey was highly prized by the Romans, who couldn't get enough of its aromatic, amber nectar. We are hoping our furry pals make a bee-line for our plants.

 

Raspberry
Rubus idaeus

Our raspberry bed typically throbs to the hum of bees, but his season we’ve had a rather prolonged battle with the bindweed that lurks amongst the canes and constantly seeks to drag down and strangle the forming fruits. 

We’ve found that the angry tussling of bindweed vines causes more damage than good—the best way is to wind the weed free from the raspberry stalks (clockwise) before gently tugging at the base whilst trying to pull up as much of the root as possible. 

Bees will feed on bindweed flower but, like us, they much prefer the raspberry.

 

Common Rue
Ruta graveolens

Rue is a native of the Balkan peninsula and loves dry, rocky soil. Our allotment is situated next to a quarry and we often forget to water our plants, so we have inadvertently created ideal growing conditions. 

It’s not the most obvious choice for an allotment grown herb, but we use it as an adjunct when creating some of our more unusual tasting beers. Our rue is always alive with all kinds of insects, who flock to feast upon its showy yellow flowers.

 

For more information on our beehive, buzz on over to gardenersbeehive.com