Letters to a beekeeper

Bees, flowers, Alys and Steve

Words: Alys Fowler

If you were on the hunt for a match made in heaven then you would automatically go for toast & marmite, fish & chips, Ant & Dec, and, of course bees & gardens.

Bees need gardens and gardens need bees.

Alys Fowler has got together with beekeeper Steve Benbow to write a book exploring the world of the insects which pollinate our gardens. The idea is that we will eavesdrop on their conversations, read their letters, try their recipes and admire their photographs.

Before the bees can do their thing, however, they need a garden so we caught up with them on a sunny day in late March where they were planting their meadow in a tucked away part of the garden behind Tate Britain. Usually it is where the staff go for fresh air and sandwiches and they joined Steve and Alys in the creation of the meadow - convenient as Steve has beehives on both branches of the Tate Gallery.

Bees are not that fussy - most plants will do - but there are some plants that are better than others.

Let Alys explain… “The plan is for the Tate garden is to be a small example of using perennial meadow plants ( it’s a Pictorial meadow mix) suitable for shady conditions. I think that many people have a shady spot that’s undervalued and this one way of showing what you can do with such a space for insects. The planting plan is a mixture of direct sown native and non native pollinator friendly plants, plus some plug plant so that is has body in year one. Direct sowing perennials are easier than people imagine, but you don’t tend to get a lot of colour in the first year. The plug plants fill that gap.

The best plants for pollinators are weeds, hands down. They are reliable in poor soils and have long flowering periods. This is a little bit of dilemma for gardeners, who don’t tend to love weeds. This also has rather brilliant socio-economic consequences as poorer neighbourhoods where no one looks after the garden, tend to have more pollinators than those where you have to keep up with the Jones (cutting your lawn is bad for pollinators as you tend to cut just as everything flowers for instance).

As most people don’t want weeds here are some nice herbs that turn out to be ace pollinator plants and you get to eat something too …

  • Thymus spp. - Thyme Orignaum vulgare
  • Oregano Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Rosemary Salvia officinalis Sage
  • Lavandula spp. Lavender
  • Mentha spp, - Mints
  • Carum carvi – Caraway
  • Petroselium crispum - Parsley (clearly only good for bees if left for second year when it flowers)
  • Petroselium crispum Radicosum Group - Hamburg parsley (hardier than normal parsley, edible root)
  • Nepeta – catmints
  • Salvia viridis – Clary
  • Satureja Spp - Savory both summer and winter)
  • Tanacetum vulgare - Tansy/ feverfew
  • Foenciulum vulgare – Fennels
  • Levisticum officinales - Lovage
  • Myrhhis odorata - Sweet cicely
  • Mitsuba - Japanese parsley GROWS IN FULL SHADE
  • Cichorium intybus - Chicory/Radicchio
  • Glycyrrhiza spp – Liquorices
  • Melissa officinalis ‘Aurea’ - Variegated Lemon balm
  • Artmeisia spp - Tarragon (though not Russian as it tastes rubbish)
  • Angelica archangelica - Angelica

Alys Fowler is a well known gardener, author, broadcaster and lecturer. Steve Benbow owns the London Honey Company. He gathers honey from beehives scattered across London and the UK.