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9 easy ways to help the bees in your garden

Although there is encouraging news about the increasing numbers of the once-extinct short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) in the south east of England, bees in general are fighting for survival because of the adverse effects of climate change. That’s bad news for agriculture and also terrible news for gardeners who rely on these wonderful creatures for plant pollination.

Agriculture is increasingly becoming specialised, and single crop cultivation has decimated our hedgerows and wildflowers. But is there anything home gardeners can do to lessen the plight of this threatened species? Are there any steps you can take to make up for the loss of natural countryside habitats that bees once frequented?

Ladybrook Nursery’s top tips for helping bees in your garden.

Let the bees help you

You don’t have to be an expert, and you certainly don’t have to have a large garden. Small spaces can be attractive to bees too. If you only have a small space, try putting pots on the patio, herbs in a window box or using a hanging basket. Every effort, however small, will be of help to bees. It’s all about growing the right plants. Here you should let the bees be your guide. If you choose the right plants it will soon become apparent.

If you have a larger garden then try planting trees, shrubs and larger plants to provide height in your borders. A cherry or birch tree can form a backdrop to ‘layers’ of plants of different height and size closer to the front of the border. Low growing heathers and crocus in the front will provide colour and help feed bees in the barren months.

Season cycle

Like you, bees need food and shelter all year round – so think about seasonal planting.  Establish which plants will flower and provide the nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein) bees need. Remember that late winter is the time to sow seeds for spring and summer plants. Autumn planted bulbs will burst forth in spring. When the soil warms in the spring, try growing sunflowers that will rise through the year, and stand proud as they feed bees and birds alike, and when they’ve died back, cut them off but leave the stump and roots in the ground to return nutrients to the soil.

Be curious

Don’t worry about looking nosey; peek over the garden fence and see which of your neighbours’ plants are doing well, and are being visited by bees. If you like the plants the bees like ask your neighbour what they are or take a picture and ask your garden centre. For added impact when you’re at the garden centre, have a look to see which plants bees are visiting there.

Add variety

Bees need different plants for food – from trees, hedges and shrubs, to bulbs, herbs and grasses throughout the seasons. Small trees like hazel, holly and pussy (or goat) willow help bees at different times of the year. Ivy is a top food in autumn – try not to cut it cut it back until after flowering.

It doesn’t matter whether you prefer growing plants of vegetables: bees will love both. Try mixing them up if you feel like it: there’s no need to keep things formal and separate unless you want to of course. The greater variety of plant life, the greater the variety of bugs and birds they will support.

Bees are a valuable asset in a veg garden as they will help pollinate your vegetables – try French, runner and broad beans; aubergines, onions and peppers. They’ll do the same for fruit – from apples, pears and plums to blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.

Providing shelter

Insects need shelter like the rest of us. So let some of your lawn grow longer if you can. If you do feel the need to mow, try cutting less often and less closely as this will help to give pollinators places to feed and shelter among the grass.

Another cheap way to help is with a small wood pile in a corner where bugs can nest and feed. This micro-habitat will decay over time and give a natural look. Use logs or sawn off tree branches but avoid treated wood. Even a small heap of pruned branches and twigs will give shelter and can be placed out of sight at the back of a border.

Your compost may in time get occupied by harmless queen bumblebees and grass snakes seeking a place to nurture their young. Don’t worry, they will move on but you will be helping them significantly if you simply let them be.

Go easy with the insecticides

Bee-harming pesticides and herbicides are implicated in bee decline. When dealing with real pests like aphids is as easy as spraying them with jets of water or stripping them off with gloved hands.

Avoid peat-based composts

Help to keep our threatened peat bogs intact by using the many good alternatives that now exist. Public concern about the loss of these unique natural habitats has persuaded the Government to phase out the sale of peat in garden centres by 2020.

Sowing seeds

Growing from seed is growing in popularity, especially vegetables. It is a cheap way to get the full experience of tending through to maturity and is the ideal method for creating pollinator-friendly habitats such as wildflower meadows. Look for heritage and naturally ‘open-pollinated’ seeds which help keep the diverse genetic make-up of what is being grown – contributing to greater biodiversity.

Insects can be allies not enemies

Beneficial insects like hoverflies, beetles and ladybirds hunt aphids and other pests so treat them as allies not enemies. We can have great gardens and help bees and other nature at the same time.

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