Bees and bumblebees hold a special place in my heart. Not only because we rely heavily on them as pollinators but also because the buzz of a bumblebee brings back the happiest childhood memories for me. I try to offer them a habitat where ever I move so now that I live in England I had to brush up my gardening knowledge and read up on bee friendly plants that grow well in a temperate climate. Below I have made a list of the top 10 bee friendly flowers that we have gradually added to our garden.
Whenever I walk around in the garden during summer it takes me straight back to the days when I toddled around in my dad's garden. I was surrounded with the intense sound from a myriad of pollinator insects working hard at collecting pollen and nectar. I loved to smell every single flower and when I liked the scent I took the petals with me - much to the horror of my dad. Luckily enough a neighbour captured my rampage so I can share this early fascination with flowers that I had from very young age on. You may laugh at both my fashionable 80es clothes and what I did to those poor roses.
These days bees and bumblebees are sadly on the decline in many parts of the world and we all should do our best in giving them some of their lost habitat back. Instead of tiling your backyard or putting astro turf in your garden it would be great if we all could get at least one plant that can feed our bees.
Number one on my list of top 10 bee friendly flowers is a favourite of mine, the comfrey. This is a herb that was used extensively both in medicine and in improving the soil of gardens. We have two of these plants in our garden and the bumblebees flock around them every single day. If you can only choose one flower on this list this should be the one.
What is great about this plant is that it has very deep roots and does not interfere with crops or other flowers, it is known as a plant that digs deep into the ground to bring up nutrients for the plants around it. We have one of ours right next to a beautiful yellow rose and they form a great partnership. Monks used to make paste out of the leaves of comfrey to heal bruises, wounds and contusions. Although it is not recommended that you use this while pregnant or for internal use. Try to look for a hybrid that will not seed - these plants are extremely vigorous and will quickly take over if you let them. That also means that if you have an area in your garden that is looking a bit grim and needs covering up then comfrey might be the perfect plant for you. They handle shade to some extent and will happily grow in poor soil due to their deep tap roots.
Also known as the honey plant or scorpion flower. This flower is an incredible source of nectar for all types of pollinators. It looks a bit like a weed until it flowers but boy does it put on a lovely blue show. We try to use this plant as a filler in any open space we have as it is very undemanding. As long as it has some sun and water it will flower nicely. This plant grows readily from seed and in France they use this to improve soil as it has very thick, brittle roots that rot easily once dug into the ground. The flowers open consecutively rather than all at once so the bees have a longer harvesting season from the phacelia than most other plants.
Even though many people grow dahlias they choose the wrong one when it comes to feeding bees. Most modern dahlias are hybrid varieties where there is very little to no pollen for the bees due to the fact that the flower is totally covered in petals. We like to grow dahlias that are open with a nice, daisy like yellow centre. The bees and bumblebees absolutely love this as they need a lot of pollen to feed on and for building their hives.
Dahlias are incredibly easy to grow from seed. Once you have a good tuber going it’ll last for years if you make sure to dig it out if there’s frost on the way. Try to look for open varieties as these provide bees with a lot of pollen. They will need some sun to flower and if you make sure to deadhead the flowers once they are spent you will encourage the plant to keep producing buds until the first frost hits.
This is probably the most common type of flower in this list but extremely popular with the bumblebees nonetheless. You can get varieties that flower as early as May onward which add a lovely scent to any space and can be used to freshen up your wardrobe or in incenses.
Try to plant your lavender in a south facing position with plenty of drainage in the soil, especially around its roots. Lavenders hate wet conditions and will readily rot if they are standing in water. If you live in Northern areas it is best to go with an English lavender variety, these are by far the hardiest and will tolerate long winter rains. People who live in more southern locations can try other types like Spanish lavender or lavandula hybrids. Please note that the English lavender has the most intense lavender smell and will be best for using for aromatic oils and incense.
Probably not the most showy of the plants you could have, but has the advantage of being a spike full of little flowers that open gradually. This makes the access to nectar and pollen continuous for any pollinators. Hyssop will seed easily and is very simple to grow just about anywhere, it is found naturally in forests and so will handle shade perfectly well. We grow both giant hyssop and the more common hyssopus officinalis. They have a bit of a different flowering season so we get the maximum out of the nectar season for the bees.
Hyssop is commonly used as a medicinal plant in the middle east to relieve coughs and bind wounds as it has antiseptic values. If you rub the leaves it will smell like a refreshing mix between lemon and mint which will make you understand why it is a nice cold remedy.
Cosmos is a plant that never stops giving, it flowers from June until November and opens new flowers almost every day. Put this in the garden and it will feed the bees and bumblebees over a long period until late in the year. There are certain types of cosmos that will flower during November and December when most other things die down. These types often keep hungry hive queens happy and fed until they found their hibernation place for the winter.
Once you've sowed a cosmos in a spot in your garden it is likely to seed itself and keep giving you a show late in the autumn for many years to come. There are also some varieties of cosmos which are almost ever lasting. A good example is the cosmos atrosanguineus, which has a tuber that will keep growing back year after year if you keep it frost free. They come in all colours ranging from white, yellow and orange to the darkest purple. My favourite is the bright pink one that you can see below.
The name sort of gives this climbing plant away. It smells absolutely wonderful and some of the varieties flower for months on end. We have a huge specimen of this growing on a north facing wall. It flowers later than it would in full sunshine but it still keeps the nectar and pollen coming for many months.
Try any of the woodbine varieties for a show that starts in June-July and goes through right until the first frost. What is interesting about honeysuckles is that they are mainly pollinated by moths, making them an interesting plant to have next to an outdoor seating area where you sit late during summer nights. As the flower is shaped like a tube it is also very popular with the longer tongued varieties of bees and hoverflies.
Viper’s Bugloss or Echium
The Echium family of plants is a plant that I always suggest to people who live in drier areas with a lot of rocks or stone in their soil. Viper’s Bugloss is a plant that can withstand almost any temperature you throw at it. Much like the hyssop and phacelia it continually opens flowers throughout the season – meaning that is offers a very steady supply of food for pollinator insects.
The most common plant in this family is the Viper's Bugloss which absolutely loves baking heat, very little water and sun. Even though butterflies and bumblebees are the main pollinators of these plants we have seen quite a few bees stopping by for a snack.
If you are adventurous and want to try a really spectacular plant in your garden the echium family has a lot of them. Try finding seeds or a seedling from the echium pininana variety. They have flower spikes that will grow up to impressive four meters tall and flower for 7 months of the year.
Buddleia, or as I like to call it, the butterfly bush, is one of those shrubs that will attract butterflies like no other. It will grow into a small tree or large bush if you do not prune it back hard every spring – the big tip with this bush is that it only flowers on new growth. Keep in mind that this plant is very vigorous and will spread readily from seed if you do not remove dead flower heads or buy a sterile variety. They come in all sorts of colours but I prefer the deep purple version. While it mainly attracts butterflies I have often seen bumblebees sitting on the long, lilac flower spikes of this bush.
My top 10 bee friendly flowers end with the woodland sage or other types of sages are great for pollinators. They come in all sorts of colours and some have a wonderful smell if you brush past them. Sow them in an area of your garden where you are struggling with dry conditions and it will award you with a wonderful display of both scent and flowers. Sage is used extensively in cooking, but please use a culinary variety for eating as types like woodland sage can be a bit bitter in their taste. That being said, the culinary version of sage is also extremely popular with bees - and it will double up as a great herb to use in your kitchen.
If any of the top 10 bee friendly flowers listed above sparked your interest then please consider adding them to your garden. The bees would be grateful for just one of them but like many other good things in our lives: the more the merrier.