The beautiful double Bee Borders in front of the Glasshouse Range have been created with some of the flowers bees love best and are abuzz from spring through to September with nectar and pollen collecting. But the Bee Borders are also a honeypot for visitors, as the chief characteristic that makes a flower attractive to bees also makes them excellent garden plants: lots of brightly-coloured flowers on sturdy plants, in this case massed in an exhilarating ‘cottage garden’ style.
Bees visit flowers for food: nectar provides sugars for energy whilst pollen provides proteins essential for growth. Many good bee plants have large, tubular flowers symmetrical along the vertical axis (rather like us). The lower petal is often lipped to provide a landing platform for the visiting bee. This specialised petal is also decorated with lines or spots, called nectar guides, that show the way to the nectar within. Foxgloves are a good example of this, and are used extensively in the planting along with snapdragons (Antirrhinum) and our native Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare).
The colour scheme for the Bee Borders is a beautiful haze of blues, mauves and violets together with complementary yellows, as bees can see this part of the colour spectrum best. Bees can even see a colour invisible to the human eye called bee ultra-violet, which characterises many nectar guides. They, however, are unable to see bright red – one of the reasons red is absent from the planting scheme. Bees forage for food from early spring until the first frosts, and the Bee Borders have therefore been planted to provide a succession of food sources and give a long season of interest.
Bees, and especially honey bees, are in a major decline worldwide due to a complex range of factors thought to include climate change, pests and diseases, colony collapse disorder (whereby the worker bees abruptly abandon a hive causing the colony to die), and a decline in wildflowers due to intensive agricultural practices. And yet, honey bees are vital to our food chain as pollinators of crops accounting for about one third of our diet. Honeybees are essential to fruit-set in tomatoes, coffee, grapes, apples and other fruits in the Rose family. They also ensure seed production for oils such as Rapeseed, and play a major role in pollinating crops such as clover to provide seeds for farmers.
Gardeners can play an important role in shoring up the bee population by including some of these beautiful flowers in their own planting schemes and borders to provide a rich food source, helping to keep bees healthy. Most of the bee plants in the Bee Borders are readily available from garden centres, and many are straightforward to raise from seed.