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5 ways to plant for honeybees in the city

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Georgina Wilson-Powell

14 May 2018

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Whether you've got a window box, balcony or a nearby community garden, this is how you can make a start to help save the bees. Bermondsey Street Bees' co-founder and honey sommelier, Sarah Wyndham Lewis talks to us about how even balconies can work harder for bees.

The fate of the humble honeybee has become a microcosm of our uphill struggle to change the course of the tanker that is climate change.

In urban settings, green space is shrinking all the time, whilst in the countryside we’ve lost as much as 90% of our upland and lowland heath, native broadleaf woodland and hedgerows on which bees depend for food.

Lack of forage is one of the key reasons why honeybees, bumblebees  and so many other bee species have declined so consistently. And while it’s great news that the government are backing a ban on bee-harming pesticides, we can all do more to help the UK’s bees thrive, even if you’re living in a shoebox in a city.

Sarah Wyndham Lewis’ new book Planting For Honeybees has everything a bee-loving beginner needs to know and here she shares with us her top five ways city dwellers can get planting for bees.

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Sarah Wyndham Lewis has become a honey sommelier and expert on honeybee plantings

Balconies and patios can be seasonal buffets for bees

Did you know honeybees only visit one type of flower at a time, so planting in clumps saves their energy and will really help them. And our busy friends need to forage from March to September (and beyond if it’s warm) so planters need to think about providing food for most of the year.

So what should you plant?

Mix climbers with bushes, flowers and herbs for a mix of scents and colours in your garden.

In spring try Wallflowers, Forget Me Nots, Rosemary, Clematis and Wisteria.

In summer, add some Poppies, Roses, compact Buddleja, Lavender or Lemon Verbena. In the Autumn, try some Sweet Mignonette, Verbena, Yarrow, compact Hebe or Fennel.

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Mix up your flowers to give honeybees forage all through the spring, summer and autumn

Got a roof terrace? Invite the bees up

While roof terraces can be exposed spaces, by choosing hardy, wind-resistant plants that are able to withstand such a harsh environment you can provide handy forage for bees.

Screens add protection for climbers while bushes and small trees will offer a large quantity of food for bees.

Some of the best climbers are: Clematis, Climbing Rose, Ivy and Virginia Creeper.

Prefer to stick to bushes and trees? Try  a compact Ceonothus in the late spring or Lilac bushes or Olive trees to provide early forage.

"Many edibles such as artichokes, carrots, beetroots, onions and brassicas are harvested for eating before they flower"

It’s time to grow your own

Bees also love an edible garden, so planting strawberries, raspberries, beans, carrots, garlic, parsnips, broccoli and pretty much anything else isn’t just good for you, it’s good for the bees.

Fruit and veg can be planted in pretty much any size pots or even a tower system like this one if you’re short on floor space.

Remember that many edibles such as artichokes, carrots, beetroots, onions and brassicas (e.g. cabbages and cauliflower) are harvested for eating before they flower. So, for the sake of the bees, share the crop.  Also don’t pinch the tops off all your herbs – leave some to flower.

Generally with edibles, plant a bit more than you need, so that you can take some for your kitchen and leave some unpicked, to flower for the bees. 

Not all living walls are created equal

While living walls are a welcome addition to any city and often green up and cheer up an urban space but they’re not all planted with bees in mind.

If you’re thinking about adding a living wall anywhere then try and mix in as many honeybee friendly plants as possible.

These include Sweet Pea and Hellebore in spring; Sweet Marjoram and Aster/Michaelmas Daisy in Summer;  Nasturtium and Oregano in Autumn and Winter Crocus and  Winter Pansy through the end of the year.

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Did you know a single bee might visit up to 100 flowers per trip?

Understand a wildflower meadow

Wildflowers play an important role in food for bees but just planting wildflowers willy nilly isn’t going to save the species. Bees need huge quantities of plants - a single bee might visit up to 100 flowers per trip - and the odd seed packet sprinkled on any old soil isn’t going to cut it.

Like everything else, wildflowers have a specific role to play and they still need to be managed by occasional mowing otherwise they’ll be lost to invasive or competitive species.

So which wildflowers are most bee-friendly?

Daisies and Dandelions are great bee-friendly wildflowers as is the Rosebay Willowherb and the humble blackberry bush.

For more information on what to plant for honeybees in any space, check out Planting for Honeybees (Quadrille) by Sarah Wyndham Lewis.

Article sponsored by

Bermondsey Street Bees

Sarah Wyndham Lewis and her husband Dale Gibson co-founded the sustainable beekeeping practice Bermondsey Street Bees in 2007. Named the UK's 'Small Artisan Producer of the Year' in 2016, they produce award-winning honeys and supply many leading chefs. They also run an education programme, working hands on with community groups, government and businesses to sponsor and plant durable honeybee forage in London, which is Europe's most densely hive-populated city.

Discover more about Bermondsey Street Bees now

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