A buzz in the air: The best plants for bumblebees

Bumblebees have staged a comeback in Anna Pavord's garden - and she knows which plants to thank for it...

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The Independent Online

It's been a great year for bumblebees in our garden. Mostly, I suspect, because badgers have not dug up all the nests, as they usually do. I wonder what they are killing instead? They finished off the hedgehogs in this area, a long time ago. They roll them over and bite out their soft underbellies. While the hedgehogs are still alive. Brian May, can you hear me? How about a petition to save hedgehogs?

Of all the plants the bumblebees seem to like in our garden, the allium lookalike, Nectaroscordum siculum, has been top of the list. If you plant bulbs this autumn, you'll see the flowers early next summer. They have strong stems, up to 75cm/30in topped with a loose head of hanging bells, in a weird greenish-pink mix. As the flowers die, the seedheads turn towards the sky, presenting a whole series of little pointed turrets in a cream-buff colour. The dried-out heads last in good condition for several months.

There were times in early June when each separate bell in a single head of nectaroscordum seemed to have its own visiting bumblebee. But because of the shape of that particular flower, all you can see are the bumblebees' furry bottoms. For a full-on view, you need a flower such as the giant red oriental poppy, or its slightly smaller relative, Papaver bracteatum, which I grew from seed last year.

The poppy flowers don't last long, but in the great bowl made by each one's silky petals, the bumblebees roll round and round in the forest of stamens, their buzz getting higher and higher in pitch. Panic or pleasure? I try to avoid anthropomorphism, but it did look as though the bumblebees were having a good time in the big poppies and stayed there longer than in other flowers.

This last month, the flowers they have visited most have been larkspur, sea holly and teasel. The larkspur has been a star in every sense, not just in terms of providing f for pollinating insects. I sowed seed (a free packet stuck on the front cover of Gardens Illustrated magazine) last autumn, pricked out the plants into individual pots and planted them out in late spring.

They started to flower in June and, although only annuals, are still going strong two months later. They look rather like delphiniums, but they are much easier to grow and the foliage is finer, darker, fernier. They got up to about 90cm/3ft before they produced their long, strong stems of flower in vivid, penetrating blue. Some flowers are almost bicolour, the blue contrasting with a shade that veers towards purple. Whatever the colour, all insects seem to love them: bumblebees, cuckoo bees, hover flies.

But not honey bees. Of those, there are very few, but there are no hives close by and in West Dorset, at least, there is plenty of forage for honey bees, without their having to make a long journey into our particular valley. A beekeeping friend told me that each pound of honey represents 45,000 bee miles flown to gather it. It almost makes me feel guilty eating it. I used to have hives, but no more. We found out – the hard way – that my husband is allergic to their stings.

We had them because bees had been so firmly stitched in to my own childhood. My father had started to keep them in the Thirties and in his schoolmasterish way became a great expert, in demand all over the country for his demonstrations and expertise in judging. He was fascinated by the social structure of the beehive, for drones, queens and workers are all born from the same kind of egg. It is not heredity nor environment that gives a queen bee her position, but food. The larva destined to be a queen is fed exclusively on royal jelly and it is this that turns her into a queen.

It's a good survival factor for the colony. If the queen dies, a new one can be raised from any of the eggs in the brood chamber. The queen is fed, groomed and cleaned by her court of worker bees and they also collect a special substance she produces and share it through the hive. This pheromone acts as a password for the colony and binds them together as a unit.

My father was particularly intrigued by this pheromone and rather depended on it when he was handling his bees. He never wore any special kit, or a veil. But he always worked very quietly and smoothly and once he'd got the top off a hive, passed his bare hands slowly over the bees on top of the combs. He reckoned then that his hands became part of what the bees recognised and that, consequently, they would not sting him.

Because that's what he did, it's what I did too, when in our early years at the rectory, he gave me a couple of his old hives. By then, he'd stopped taking colonies up to the heather on the mountains. In his opinion, heather honey was the closest thing to ambrosia that a non-god would ever get.

But one day, I tried to do a job in a hurry – always fatal. I needed to put an extra comb into the brood chamber to fill a gap where the bees might start building wild comb. I lifted the lid of the hive, took off the crown board and looked down into the hive, seething quietly with bees. The combs have metal clips on the lugs either side to hold each one at a regular distance from the next. But one of the clips on the new comb wouldn't fit into the space between its neighbours. I bent down to see why.

At that moment the comb fell, thud, into place. The bees flew up, jolted into alarm. They were in my hair, down my neck, up my trouser legs. I ran for the house, stripping as I went: shirt on the top lawn, trousers on the drive, the rest by the back door. By the time I dived under the shower in the bathroom, I had nothing on at all. Except a load of bee stings. And the bees, poor things, had died in the stinging. It was a well-learnt lesson that one. Next day, I went out and bought a veil.


Pollinating insects need nectar which provides carbohydrate, and pollen which provides protein:

Wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) Tall, handsome native, biennial in habit. Pale purple flowers open in July.

Sea holly (Eryngium giganteum) A prickly silver biennial, up to 90cm/36in tall, which produces domed heads of tiny flowers.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Sun-loving, grey-leaved shrub covered from July-Sept with spikes of purplish flowers.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) Dwarf, aromatic shrub with flowers in slender spikes of dark blue.

Verbena (Verbena bonariensis) Stiff, upright perennial to 2m/6ft, flowering through late summer with small flat heads of lilac-purple.

Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) A British native, with gorgeous trumpet flowers of brilliant blue from June-Sept.

For a list of pollinator-friendly plants go to the London Beekeepers' Association site at lbka.org.uk. For a copy of my father's book, 'Bees and Beekeeping' by AV Pavord (Cassell 1970) go to abebooks.co.uk