Nepeta Six Hills Giant

If you want bumblebees offer them the plants they love. Here are a few easy, robust and long flowering magnets for long and short tongued bumblebees. Flowering times vary according to weather and the north is usually a month behind the south.

Words & Pictures: Vivian Russell

All catmints are loved by bees, but none more so perhaps, than Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ – much wider than it is high, and at (3’x2′) not much of a giant at all. Bumblebees, honey bees and solitary bees love this plant because of its profusion of small nectar rich flowers accessible to short and long tongues and on a warm summer’s day it is alive with rapidly foraging bees. Bumblebees visit as soon as the morning warms up and are the last to leave in the evening.

Flowering for many weeks from late June onwards, it will produce a second flush of flowers if cut back when first flush has faded. Catmints are members of the Lamiaceae family which includes agastache, hyssop, white dead nettle, marjoram, stachys, salvia, thyme – all of which are enormously attractive to bumblebees, and the closely related calamintha is particularly loved by the ginger Carder Bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum).

Echium vulgare 'Blue Bedder'

If you’re looking for a pretty, easy to grow, long flowering annual that is a magnet for bumblebees, Echium vulgare ‘Blue Bedder’ is fantastic. It’s a shorter, bushier, annual version of the wild bienniel Echium vulgare, producing flowers in a matter of weeks that just go on and on, visited all day by a steady stream of bees, their pollen baskets bulging with charcoal grey pollen.

Other easy annuals are nasturtiums (loved by the long tongued Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), red field poppies (Papaver rhoeas), borage and Phacelia tenacetifolia for short tongued bees. You can sow any of these directly into the soil, and they will self seed.

Lupins

If you want to take a really close look at the White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), grow lupins. This species isn’t as abundant as the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) with which it is often confused. Worker buff tails also have a white tail albeit with a faint margin of buff at the top, and their yellow bands are darker whereas the White-tailed Bumblebee has brighter, lemony bands with a clean white tail. But this fades as they age, so it is hard to tell them apart.

It doesn’t matter what colour your lupins are, the White-tail Bumblebee will visit them all. The June borders at Great Dixter have lupins in rainbow colours and these bees are all over them, filling their little pollen baskets with bright orange pollen. You might be lucky enough to spot a leaf-cutter bee (Megachile species) if there are lupins in flower when they emerge.

Borage

A member of the same family as Echium ‘Blue Bedder’, borage is a marvellous quick fix nectar source for short-tongued bumblebees, honeybees and solitary bees who also collect pollen. It’s dead easy to grow, flowers quickly and lasts until cut down by frost. The bees don’t seem to mind if the borage is white or blue, and if you look closely you can see the nectar literally dripping from the flower. I plant large patches of borage, raised in the greenhouse for early flowering.

The bristly borage family also includes the wonderful cut and come again comfrey and pulmonaria which are incredibly important bee plants early in the year that no garden should be without.

Nectar robbing aquilegia

Together with white dead nettle, comfrey, pulmonarias and cotoneaster, aquilegias are another five star plant for spring and early summer. It is used by bumblebees and other pollinators, regardless of their tongue length, because it can be nectar robbed. While long tongued bees forage legitimately, entering from below and collecting and therefore distributing pollen, the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) along with her partner in crime, the White-tailed Bumblebee, (Bombus lucorum), will simply bite a hole at the top of the flower to get at the nectar their short tongues can’t otherwise reach. They are known as primary robbers and they pave the way for secondary robbers, including the Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), honeybees and other insects to help themselves. Single aquilegias are obviously easier for the long tongued bees to access, but I was told by the specialist aquilegia grower Graeme Iddon at Chelsea that his double granny’s bonnets were covered in bees.

Comfrey is also readily robbed by bumblebees, and the low growing, early flowering comfrey Symphytum ‘Hidcote Blue’, is invaluable in March and April when resources are scarce.

Choice chives

Choice chives In the wake of our spring horribilis, there was much concern this year for the welfare of the short tongued, Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) who emerged very late indeed. All eyes were on the cotoneaster and chives, their favourite early summer plants. They will spend ages on chives, having a long and really good root round the nectaries.

Chives are visited by other bumblebee species and honeybees, and of course the whole allium family are great sources of pollen and nectar. A revelation for me this year, was the ornamental onion Nectaroscordum siculum, grown in profusion

Rescue remedies

Bumblebees need to attain a body temperature of 30 degrees C before they fly (at less than 27 degrees they can only crawl). If the temperature drops before they make it back to the nest, or they haven’t enough nectar (energy) to fuel their flight muscles, they get stuck, paralyzed by cold, and many die waiting for the sun to revive them.

You will often find male bumblebees stranded, as they never return to the nest once they have left and have to find alternative sheltered accommodation at night. When I find a bumblebee paralyzed with cold, I just cut the stem with the bee on it and bring it into the greenhouse, place it under a tent of horticultural fleece to warm it up. Received wisdom has been sugar water, but Dr. Nikki Gammans who heads the Short-haired Bumblebee reintroduction project in Kent, has just given me a new recipe – mixing 50% sugar with 50% honey on a teaspoon.

If the bee rejects this, I cut more of the flower it was feeding on, and place it under its chin instead. It takes about half an hour for the bee to recover and it will crawl around for a bit, then rev up its engine and fly off!

Red campion and white dead nettle

I know you won’t thank me for this, but if I could only have One Plant, it would be White Dead Nettle, Lamium Album. Why? Because it flowers, rain or shine, as early as February when the starved queens are emerging from hibernation and there are few flowers about, providing them with a great source of nectar at this critical time in their lives. When the flowers are small, the short-tongued queens can forage on it as well as the solitary flower bees, including the hairy-footed bee (Anthophora plumpipes). As the plant develops and the flowers get bigger, the long-tongued bees take over.

White dead nettle is the only bumblebee plant I know of that flowers continuously until the autumn, and you will always find bees on it.

White dead nettle doesn’t sting, and I don’t find it overly invasive, but you could grow it in a tub or large pot to contain it and place in shade, or part shade. Alternatively, try some of the lamium cultivars like the very pretty Lamium maculatum ‘Pink Chablis’ as ground cover.

Another native beauty for long tongued bees, flowering for many weeks in sun or shade, is the red campion, Silene dioica. What could be lovelier than a wild patch of red campion and white dead nettle?

Tongue on verbascum

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) is its tongue – almost twice as long as that of the short-tongued species, and nearly as long as the insect itself. You often see them flying towards broad beans or foxgloves with their tongue extended, but every so often the real anatomy of the tongue is revealed.

Far from being all of a piece, the tongue is a complex structure, composed of a pair of inner and outer sheaths which enclose the true tongue, an inner tube used to suck nectar into its honey stomach. The whole apparatus fits together like velcro and when not being used, is tucked under the bee’s chin. Where else could it go?

The best book on the subject is this, Plants for Bees by WDJ Kirk and FN Howes, and published by IBRA – the International Bee Research Association.

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