• Maureen Little

Get buzzy! It's World Bee Day!

In 2018 the United Nations designated the 20th May World Bee Day to raise the awareness of the importance of bees and other pollinators in the ecosystem. (https://tinyurl.com/ybm6a933)

So what better day to introduce my new series of posts, Bee Plant of the Month. But before I launch into my chosen plant, let’s have a look at some bees and why they are so important.

A saying often attributed to Einstein, although apparently he never actually said it (go to https://tinyurl.com/y7hfzo64 for some interesting research on the matter), is that: ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’ Whether or not he said it is in some ways irrelevant, because this misquotation has probably done more to bring the subject to the attention of the general public than any other article, book or learned paper could ever have done.

There is no doubt that bees and other insects are vital for the pollination of a whole range of plants and consequently are crucial to the survival of a vast network of flora and fauna, including mankind, which feeds on those plants. The majority of plants need bees or other pollinating insects in order to reproduce - only 12% of plants are wind pollinated – so we would be somewhat scuppered without them.

There are some 20,000 species of bees worldwide, and in the UK alone, there are more than 250, and of those, over 90% are solitary bees. Solitary bees are what their name implies – each nest comprises the work of a single female bee. Although solitary bees make up the vast majority of bees they are not as conspicuous as their cousins, the social bees - bumblebees and honeybees - so the chances are that if you were to see one you might not recognise it as a bee anyway. Some more unusual bees were featured on UK stamps in 2015.

Solitary bees comprise mainly mining bees which excavate their own nest, and cavity bees, (including mason bees, leafcutter bees and carder bees) which nest in existing sites, such as hollow plant stems. Solitary bees overwinter on their own to emerge the following year to mate and produce offspring to continue the line.

Bumblebees and honeybees are classified as social bees because they form colonies.

There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, although only 7 are widespread. Queen bumblebees nest in sites which are capable of housing her small colony – think old mouse burrows or grass tussocks. After emerging from winter hibernation and getting herself fit by feasting on pollen and nectar, she will begin the task of laying her eggs in her new nest, after which she will die. Only new queens, which have mated before hibernation, will overwinter to start the cycle again next spring.

Honeybees are different in that they form a colony which overwinters. It is for this reason that they produce excess honey which they feed on during the winter months. The queen can live for up to 4 years or so, tended by her ever-changing entourage of sterile female worker bees. Surprisingly, there is only one species of honeybee in the UK.

So that’s the kinds of bees we have in the UK, but why are they so important as far as pollination goes?

Pollination isn’t the raison d'être of bees’ existence: it is a by-product, as it were, of the bees’ food foraging activities. Bees need three things in order to survive: pollen; nectar; and water. (For more information please have a look at my previous blogs: The Bees' Needs Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.) In a nutshell, at the same time as they gather pollen and nectar for food, they also carry the pollen to the next flower that they visit, and - hey-presto! – the flower is pollinated and much of our food source is secured. So, from our point of view, it is vital that bees and other pollinators don’t just survive, we need them to thrive.

Many commercial crops depend on bees for pollination, but that whole area is outside the remit of my blog! Let’s concentrate more on how we, as gardeners, can help our buzzy friends. The simplest way is to provide them with food – ‘let gardens grow, where beelines end’ as Carol Ann Duffy says in her poem ‘Virgil’s Bees’ (1).

Each month, then, I shall feature a garden plant which is both good for bees, and also good to look at – a win-win situation.

Bee Plant of the Month

This month I’m focussing on a plant that certainly seems to be popular with solitary bees, honeybees and to a lesser extent bumblebees. It’s Helenium autumnale.

Rosi Rollings has carried out extensive research on the attractiveness of plants to bees (http://www.rosybee.com/research), as has the University of Sussex (https://www.sussex.ac.uk/lasi/resources/plants) and in both cases Helenium features highly in their results, so let’s spend a little time looking at it now.

Helenium comes from North America and it is thought that it was brought to Europe during the 18th Century. There is some discrepancy over the reasons why it acquired its common name of sneezeweed: some people say that the Native Americans dried the leaves to make a snuff which promoted sneezing to get rid of evil spirits inhabiting the body; others say that it is because Helenium causes hayfever and sneezing; while others believe it is because it prevents hayfever! Take your pick!

It’s a hardy herbaceous perennial which enjoys a sunny spot with moist but well-drained soil. Some varieties will grow to 1.5m and more with a spread of 50cm, so it’s not that unruly that you can’t find space for it at the back of the border, although if you’re pinched for space you might like to choose a less robust variety, or give it the Chelsea Chop towards the end of May. (More on the Chelsea Chop in my next blog post on 24th May.) The taller varieties may also need staking to stop them from flopping.

Don’t be surprised if your Helenium loses its vigour after about three years or so: take some softwood cuttings from it, or divide it in spring (unless your variety is governed by Plant Breeders Rights (PBR)) so you will have a new plant to replace the worn-out one.

The downside to Helenium is that slugs and snails will make a real feast of them, and they can also be prone to mildew.

Photo with kind permission of Cotswold Garden Flowers

As for varieties, there are dozens to choose from. Introduced in the 1930s, H. ‘Moerheim Beauty’, which starts red and then darkens, is perhaps the best known and most widely grown, although there are some imposters claiming to be ‘Moerheim Beauty’ which are in fact inferior – this is where buying from a reputable nursery, like Cotswold Garden Flowers, is invaluable.

Another Helenium which did well in Rosi Rolling’s trials is H. ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’. Its pedigree is a little unclear, but it is thought to be a cross between H. autumnale and H. bigelovii. Apparently, some Helenium seeds, simply labelled ‘Autumn Leaves’ grown at the Sahin Trials Ground in Holland in 1996 produced a particularly fine specimen. It was subsequently named in honour of Mr Kees Sahin, by Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers. As its name implies, this Helenium comes into flower much sooner that many other varieties which is an added bonus for our buzzy friends.

So, to celebrate World Bee Day and to do your bit for bees why not find space in your garden for a bee-plant par excellence – the Helenium.

Please note: this post is not sponsored.

(1) Duffy, Carol Ann, 'Virgil's Bees' in The Bees, (London: Picador, 2011) p 23.

For more information about creating a garden for bees, have a look at my books The Bee Garden, available from Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y9w8z22p and Plants and Planting Plans for a Bee Garden, also available from Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y7su5ayf