Blooms for Bees

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I recently studied at Ryton Organic Gardens for an RHS qualification in horticulture.

The gardens are home to a number of projects and small businesses, including the citizen science project Blooms for Bees, a collaboration between the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, the RHS, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Garden Organic and Hozelock.

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The aim of the project is to promote and improve gardening for bumblebees, by helping the researchers to better understand which flowers bumblebees like to visit, something about which surprisingly little is known.

There’s lots of advice on the Blooms for Bees website and in their videos about what to plant in order to keep bees fed as well as possible, for as much of the year as possible:

Provide blooms throughout the year

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It’s important to grow plants to provide a continuous succession of flowers from spring until autumn to support bumblebees throughout their life cycle. In recent years there have been increasing records of winter-active bumblebee colonies too, so we also need to consider the value of winter flowering plants.

Early-flowering plants like hellebore, pulmonaria and brunnera are important food sources for queen bumblebees coming out of hibernation, and for solitary bees.

Provide a range of flower shapes

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The different bumblebee species have evolved varied physical characteristics (most importantly tongue length) that make them more adapted to foraging on certain types of flowers. Short-tongued bumblebees are able to extract the nectar from flowers with an open shape,  whereas long-tongued bumblebees can reach nectar deep inside long, tubular flowers such as foxgloves. I’ve had loads of bees on my Cerinthe major ‘Purparescens’ this year which has a similar tubular shape. Include a selection of flowers that have different shapes to provide food for a wide range of bumblebee species that may visit your garden.

Blooms for Bees also advises avoiding fancy cultivars- complicated, frillier blooms where there is less pollen produced or it’s difficult to access. I’d say as long as you have plenty of bee-friendly plants, it’s ok to add the odd pom pom dahlia for your own enjoyment!

Plant in clumps

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This was an interesting revelation for me: bumblebees generally forage on the flowers of one plant species at a time, so a large block of the same plant is preferable to scattering plants throughout a border.

Don’t be too tidy

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Dead flower spikes provide good shelter for bees and other insects during the winter so leave some in place. Alternatively you can cut dried out hollow stems, tie together a clump and hang them up to create a bee hotel.

Over everything I’ve carefully grown from seed this year, in my garden the bees have flocked to the clover that pops up in the lawn. Many people would consider this a weed but it’s a fantastic food source for pollinators and I’m more than happy to leave it there.

Provide water

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Bees use water not only to drink, but also to dissolve stored honey, and to regulate the temperature of the hive. They spread a thin film of water on cells containing larvae and eggs, and then fan vigorously to increase the airflow and evaporate the water which leads to cooling.

One very simple way of providing water in the garden, which I do for pollinators and birds alike, is to leave out plant saucers to catch rain water. Rainwater is better because it doesn’t contain as many chemicals as tap water, and the saucers are nice and shallow, which provides easy access.

‘The science bit’

You can help the Blooms for Bees project by downloading their app for Apple or Android and recording bee visits to a single plant in your garden  over a five minute period. There’s a handy identification guide on the website to help you to tell your Buff-tail from your Field Cuckoo.

By submitting your findings you can help to build the knowledge base about which bees are attracted to which flowers and improve recommendations about which flowers should be grown to help support bee populations.

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