We all know about the struggle bees have faced over the last few years which has driven an increase of hobby beekeepers. The good news is that this means more hives – but what new keepers need is the forage to support them. However, as we continue to lose hedgerows, woodlands, wildflowers and weeds, from fields and gardens to roadside verges, the available forage for bees reduces too.
So what can we do?
Well, we can actively choose plants for our pots, window boxes and gardens that can go some small way to supporting the work the bees do for us.
We know that bees need pollen, and plants provide it. Pollen is a protein that is essential for the development of the hypopharyngeal gland in bee larvae and newly emerged bees. This gland, in turn, is essential for the production of wax needed to build the comb, the production of baby bee food and the conversion of nectar into honey – not to mention the fat cells needed for the bees to survive over winter.
We also know that to produce honey they need nectar which is a liquid sugar made up of glucose, sucrose and fructose in varying proportions - depending on which plants the bee has foraged. Marjoram, for example, contains almost 80% sugar whereas borage contains 25%.
Pollen and nectar are provided in varying amounts by different herbs and some pollen and nectar is accessible to all bee pollinators - for example, from thyme, thistle, sage, and dandelion. In other flowers it may only be available to certain species of bee pollinator, for example, from mint, bergamot, savory and oxeye daisy. So, it makes sense that herb flowers are one of the best providers of pollen and nectar.
However – we’re heading towards winter, which is tough time for bees due to low temperatures and not much foliage, so how can we help them?
Firstly, leave the honey in the hive – over winter the bees need it more than we do. Starvation is their greatest danger when the temperature drops, and they can’t fly in temperatures lower than around 13˚ C. Offering raw honey at this temperature can help, as can a thick sugar syrup using organic refined white sugar delivered through a proper feeder.
Secondly, take time over winter to plan a garden full of nectar-rich herbs and flowers for bees to forage in spring – and start them off indoors so you can plant them out earlier. Rosemary, lavender, dill, echinacea and many other flowers and herbs make fabulous bee food. (And don’t spray the herbs as pesticides are toxic to bees.)
We love herbs and we love honey so trying to help the bees has to be good for them and us.