Four simple steps you can take to ‘bee’ a pollinator advocate

White tailed bumblebee on purple flower

Happy Bees’ Needs week, Grow Wilders! Bees' Needs is an annual campaign headed up by Defra, with the aim of raising awareness of bees and other pollinators – and considering that bees and wildflowers go together like toast and honey, or black stripes with yellow stripes, we think it’s amazing.

Because we know that you lot are busy bees yourself when it comes to supporting nature, we spoke to Kew pollinator scientist (and man of the bee-ple) Dr Hauke Koch about some easy things you can do to give bees and other pollinators a helping hand.

Mix of wildflowers grow from Grow Wild seed mix

Grow more plants, shrubs and trees

Hauke told us that ‘the biggest impact on pollinator health comes from people actually making changes in their gardens’, pointing out that careful plant choices in ‘urban areas, gardens and allotments’ can have a massive impact on how easily bees are able to feed and nest.

Because there are are so many different species of pollinators here in the UK (with more than 250 types of bees alone, including the leafcutter (Megachile willughbiella) pictured below), it’s important to remember that ‘different plants support different insects’ – for example, some types of clovers are only accessible to bees with very long tongues. ‘The physical characteristics of different species are so varied,’ said Hauke, ‘that it’s a good idea to select a wide range of plants to maximise opportunities for feeding.’

Leaf cutter bee feeding from flower.

He also emphasised that ‘it’s a good idea to choose native UK plants – like the selection in the Grow Wild seed mixes - because native pollinators are specialised to feed from them. Honeybees can forage for any type of pollen, but more specialised bees can’t – for example, there are two species here in the UK that can only feed from bellflowers and would appreciate seeing these in more gardens! Similarly, the wool carder bee loves lambs’ ears and makes nests from the hairs on the leaves.’

Hauke also stressed that people with limited outdoor space can support pollinators too, using ‘window boxes or pots on balconies to help pollinators in busy cities.’ If this sounds like you, we’ve got a great guide for sowing in containers here, and robust plants like lavender and mint are bee favourites and thrive in pots.

Let it grow wild - and #SayNoToTheMow!

We’re long-term fans of the letting weeds flourish approach, but Hauke backed us up hardcore, urging people to ‘be untidy in the garden and let weeds grow, because pollinators depend on them.’ Although those of you who value a neat, perfectly manicured garden might be clutching your pearls at the thought, weeds are a vital part of the natural ecosystem and bees rely on them for shelter, food and nesting sites.

Because native pollinators and native weeds have evolved alongside one another, their adaptations allow for a streamlined relationship with one another. For example, bladder campion (Silene vulgaris, pictured below) gives off a clove-like scent at night attracting moths able to reach into the flower tube with their long tongues.

Bladder campion wildflowers

Hauke also recommended reaching a compromise between wanting a tidy garden and allowing weeds to reach a stage in their life-cycles where they are useful to pollinators, reminding Grow Wilders ‘that they shouldn’t be mowing the lawn too often, or with too close a cut. This basically mimics a meadow environment, replicating the kind of natural habitat which bees and other insects love.'

If you’d like more guidance in this area, Plantlife are running a #NoMowZone campaign based around these principles and encouraging people to share pictures of their mini-meadows on Twitter and Instagram – we might be biased, but we think that a lawn filled with cheerful wildflowers has loads more character than a pristine one, and according to our experts the bees agree with us! If you do cut your grass, make sure you remove the cuttings to give plants a chance to flower and provide a valuable source of pollen and nectar.

Dense patch of dandelions.

Don’t disturb insect nests and hibernation spots

To help bees carry on their lifecycle and produce the next generation of pollinators, it’s critical that they have safe spots to raise their young and hibernate over the winter, if they’re a species that does this. Hauke told us that ‘different species will depend on different locations’, so you should take care when carrying out work on ‘grassy margins, hedges, trees and shrubs, dead or dying wood, patches of soil or walls and fences’.

Red mason bee

If you want to attract new pollinators to your green space, Hauke gave us a fun and practical solution: it’s really easy to build a bee hotel ‘as a nest aid for solitary bees that replicates the cavities in dead wood that they’d naturally choose’. He made it clear that your homemade hotel ‘doesn’t need to be expensive; you could use cheap bamboo canes, or holes drilled in a piece of scrap wood’, and that getting crafty can be more useful than popping to the shop as ‘the hotels you can buy in garden centres aren’t always fit for purpose, because they’re normally too short’.

Instead, Hauke recommends bundling bamboo canes ‘of 15cm or longer together’ , and placing the resulting hotel ‘at least a metre off the ground in a sunny spot, as this means insects will be able to save energy because they won’t be struggling to keep warm – bees like it warm and dry!’. He stressed that ‘you should use a mixed diameter of tubes or holes, to accommodate a diverse range of species’, and make sure that the space inside is between three to eight millimetres in width. This is because ‘if they’re too wide, it’s too much effort for bees to make nests and create chambers inside using mud, resin or leaves’.

a bundle of dowling tied with blue string

He also pointed out that it’s important not to forget about ground-nesting pollinators (such as mining bees), who ‘dig tunnels and create chambers in soil to protect their babies, preferring to start these constructions on bare ground’. If you want to give these insects a hand, Hauke suggested ‘leaving patches of your lawn or flowerbeds bare to provide opportunities for them to nest.’

Remember, pollinator does not = bees only

Hauke reminded us that although bees are one of the most charismatic pollinating insects here in the UK, ‘moths (like the Jersey tiger moth pictured below), wasps, flies and hoverflies as well as some species of beetle – like the thick-legged beetle, also have a vital part to play.’ Although most people are most familiar with bumblebees and honeybees, ‘there are hundreds of species that might not even be recognisable by the layperson as bees and they’re just as important.’ Some of these species, such as the 90% of bees that are considered solitary, are known to pollinate plants more efficiently than honeybees.

Orange, black and cream Jersey tiger moth on purple plant.

Consider the reputation of wasps as stinging, vindictive picnic ruiners – it’s widespread, but it’s also pretty inaccurate. Hauke told us that wasps are ‘useful pollinators as well as acting as natural pest control’, and are incredibly diverse, with types of wasp ranging from tiny jewel-toned insects to incredibly specialised wasps in the tropics that pollinate only a single species of fig tree. He also pointed out that ‘very few wasp species will actually attack you’ and of those who do - including ‘some social wasps such as the yellowjacket’ – this will be defensive, not aggressive.

If you’d like to grow UK native wildflowers with Grow Wild this autumn and attract pollinators to your green space, why not sign up here? We also love seeing your photographs of amazing insects where you live, so don’t forget to tag us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter or use #GrowWild and #BeesNeeds.