Not many walking past London’s Ritz Hotel would know that, high above them, three colonies of honeybees, each 60,000 strong, are happily making honey on the roof.
Similarly, rustic scenes can be found astride the top of Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, and Tate Modern and Tate Britain. And at the other end of the hospitality spectrum, there’s a small community pub in Kennington, South London, the Three Stags, where a swarm buzzes happily in the rooftop herb garden created by its landlord, providing delicious urban honey for the locals.
It’s not just businesses that are playing their part in preserving the nation’s still-threatened bee population – many homeowners are too. For even in the heart of the biggest city, terraces or small ground-floor gardens can provide perfect havens for a multiplicity of bees, butterflies, insects and other wildlife. All it takes is the right plants and vegetation set in some carefully landscaped zones and pollinators will thrive.
For example, a number of small, well populated planters and perhaps a rockery as well can offer great pickings for bees in search of floral feasting. Plant them in threes and fives, so it’s easier for bees to conserve their energy as they hop from plant to plant in search of pollen and nectar. And do make sure there’s at least two different plant species flowering at the same time.
Make good use of vertical space too, with planters and hanging baskets for climbing plants such as honeysuckle, jasmine, wisteria and roses. Fruit trees in tree cubes are also great at drawing in insect life, particularly bees as they start their lives in trees. And green walls offer rich feeding potential for all types of wildlife.
Small ponds have a part to play as well, though they need to be well filled with stones for bees to perch on as they imbibe, lest they drown themselves.
So, what do the experts say are the most bee-friendly plants? For honeybees, try Origanum Onites, Helenium Autumnale, Helenium SEF, Calamint and Sedum Spectabile. And for wild bees, Echium Vulgare, Stachys Byzantine, Stachys Sylvaticum, Lavandula Eidelweis and Veronica Spicata.
By no means is this an exclusive list: other plants regularly recommended for bee lovers include the roses Helleborus Niger and Hellebrous Orientalis, which grow well in pots; Echinacea Purpurea, a long-flowering border perennial which is rich in nectar through late summer and autumn; and Lavender Angustifolia, which is ideal for a mixed border, but it also makes an excellent edging plant.
These are all plants that flower from May to October, the ideal time for bee activity. Ivy, which flowers later in the year, is an important nectar source for bees’ winter preparations.
Bee experts say that native and non-native plants appear equally attractive to bees. Most bees don’t seem to mind as long as the plant’s structure allows them to reach the nectar or the pollen. Flowers with petals that form long, narrow tunnels are no good for bees, nor are flowers that produce little or no pollen like pansies or double begonias.
As the environmentally conscious landlord of the Three Stags knows well, wild and cultivated herbs are also bee magnets. A set of lightweight steel planters can accommodate a variety of herbs such as borage, which refills with nectar every two minutes, chives, lavender and sage, rosemary and thyme.
Lawns are pollinator-friendly zones, especially if you let the clover and weeds flourish, perhaps in just some small, dedicated patches which you leave unmown. And untended borders will also provide the right form of habitat for all types of wildlife.
Designing a garden that supports bees and other pollinators doesn’t require you to become like Steve Benbow, founder of the London Honey Company and the man who put those bees on the Ritz and the other grand addresses. Honeybees, he says, have changed the way he gardens. “Once I was mostly concerned with how humans perceived my space: now I think of the insects foremost.” But whatever you choose to do, remember the more wildlife you foster, the healthier your garden will be.
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