Wildflowers for bees: how to attract bees to your garden

Wild bees and other pollinators are in decline. But there are things you can do in your garden to help reverse this trend by making your garden bee-friendly.

Wherever you live in the UK, you should be able to entice around six bumblebee species to your garden, and possibly even ten. In return for getting your garden buzzing, pollinators will ensure your plants continue to reproduce through seed and that many fruit and vegetable crops such as apples, strawberries and tomatoes successfully set fruit.

Five tips for attracting bees to your garden

1 Create diverse plantings

Close-up of red tailed bee
Red-tailed bumblebee

Aim for a good variety of pollen rich flowers that have different flower shapes and a range of flowering periods from early spring to late summer and even throughout the winter if you can.

Bumblebee species have different length tongues that are adapted to feed from different shaped flowers. For example the longest tongued species, Bombus hortorum, prefers deep flowers such as honeysuckle and foxglove.

In general, avoid plants with double or multi-petalled flowers. Their flowers are filled with petals and pollinators find them difficult to access. The flowers also often lack nectar and pollen.

2 Plant wildflowers and native species

Native plants have evolved alongside our native insects and some of our rarer bees tend to favour native wildflowers. There are other benefits to wildflowers too.  They are often easy to grow and thrive in the average garden, being hardy and much more resistant to slugs and mildew than other garden flowers.

Some trees and shrubs are also great for bees as they provide masses of flowers in one place.  Choose winter and early spring flowering trees such as apple, wild cherry, willow and hazel. We sell UK sourced and grown native trees. See the list of wildflower below and visit our native tree shop.

3 Don’t use pesticides

Garden chemicals containing neonicotinoids (thiacloprid and acetamiprid) are still approved as an insecticide for home and garden use and are available today at most garden centres and DIY shops. Read the label and avoid using them.

4 Make a bee house

Buy or make your own bee house

Create insect houses in to your garden to provide nesting sites for solitary bees and insects. Different bee species require different habitats.

You can make your own simple bee house or you can buy a commercially made bee house. Fix bee boxes in a south-facing spot but not in direct sunlight. Also make sure the entrance points downwards so that rain doesn’t get in.

5 Retain lawn weeds

Lawn weeds such as dandelions are excellent bee plants, providing vital pollen early in the season.  White clover attracts masses of honeybees, while the longer tongued bumblebees prefer red clover. If you can’t bear to let your lawn grow, consider leaving a patch that’s less frequently mown to give them a chance to flower.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust offers good advice for bee-friendly gardening.

Top nine bee-friendly wildflowers to grow in your garden

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

Perennial bulbs, with stunning blue bell-shaped flowers that have a sweet scent. They look spectacular when grown in groups. Make sure you plant true native British bluebells.

Bluebells grow well along a hedge or under trees and provide a great early food source for bees.

Flowers: May to September. 

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Tall, hardy biennial with pink trumpet-shaped flowers. Foxgloves tolerate shade well, but flower best in full sun. It freely self-seeds.

This classic cottage garden plant is loved by long-tongued bumblebees such as the garden bumblebee (B. hortorum) and the common carder bee (B. pascuorum).

Flowers: June to September. 

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

A very hardy perennial, and great for the back of a herbaceous border. It prefers damp places but will grow almost anywhere.

It has a long flowering period that’s loved by bumblebees, especially long-tongues species. Short-tongued species such as the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) often bite through the side of the flower to reach the nectar.

Flowers: May to August. 

Clovers (Trifolium species)

Red clover (T. pratense) and white clover (T. repens) are adored by bumblebees. Red clover in particular is a favourite with many of the really rare and more common bumblebee species.

Clovers aren’t particularly showy as garden plants, but they can grow well in a border. They grow better as part of a wildflower meadow area if you have room.

Flowers: May to September (red clover); April to October (white clover). 

Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa)

A beautiful thistle-like wildflower. It produces dozens of large vibrant purple inflorescences on tall stalks that act as magnets to pollinating insects.

Greater knapweed is a common meadow wildflower, but it also looks fabulous among other plants in a herbaceous border.

Flowers: July to September. 

Hellebore, stinking (Helleborus foetidus)

An unusual looking native evergreen perennial plant. It has light green bell-shaped purple-edged flowers that hang from a thick upright stem. It gets its name from the unpleasant smell of its crushed leaves.

Stinking hellebore flowers in late winter so is great for early emerging queen bees. It grows well in shady spots.

Flowers: January to May. 

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

Honeysuckle

This native plant is a vigorous climber and a great addition to a wildlife garden. In summer, its highly fragrant, tubular, pink and cream flowers are buzzing with bees and other pollinators. It is a common species in hedgerows and woodland.

Train it up a wall, fence or over an obelisk. If you prune it hard it thickens up to become an ideal nest and roost site for birds.

Flowers: June to September. 

Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)

A stunning biennial plant for a herbaceous border, with spikes of vivid blue flowers up to 60cm tall. It will attract a cloud of bumblebees in high summer.

Viper’s bugloss is perhaps the best single plant to attract long-tongued bumblebees to your garden. Much loved by almost all species, and it looks great too.

Flowers: June to September. 

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

Small white flower

An ancient woodland plant and one of the most beautiful wild flowers of early spring. It’s star-shaped flowers have 6 white petals around a green centre with yellow stamens.

It tolerates poor soils in both shade and sunlight. Plant it in the shade under trees and shrubs, or out at the front of the border in full sun.

Flowers: February to May. 

Let us know if you’ve seen a bee yet this year

Spring is here and bees will soon be buzzing around your garden again. As part of our Nature’s Calendar project, we ask people to record when they first see queen red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarus).

Look for them from March onwards. Queens are up to 22mm long and have a big, black, round, hairy body with an orange-red tail.