Bees and permaculture

by Brigit Strawbridge Howard

Brigit Strawbridge Howard on sand dunesI have to admit to being just a little obsessed with bees. They have fascinated and enchanted me since childhood, but more recently I’ve also come to realise the magnitude of their importance as pollinators. Bees are responsible for pollinating one third of all the food we eat and at least 80% of all the wild flowers on the planet.

The extent of the bee’s role within any permaculture system or plot cannot be understated; it’s vital we incorporate provisions for their continued survival within our designs. This is not difficult as bees’ requirements are basic: habitat suitable for nesting, mating and hibernating and nectar and pollen rich flowers to forage upon.

Although many bees are not particularly fussy about their habitat requirements – often choosing rotten windowsills, old mortar, compost heaps, garden sheds etc. - others, especially ground nesting bees, have more specific requirements.
 

Helping bumblebees

Most species of bumblebee like to nest beneath the ground.

What we can do:

  • Plant a native hedgerow - this creates ideal habitat for small mammals and, ultimately, for bumblebee nests. Males of different species also like to patrol the length of hedgerows waiting for newly hatched queen bees to mate with.
  • Create grassy mounds - certain species of our rarer Carder bumblebees choose grassy tussocks to build their nests, whilst others will nest in old tree hollows. 
     

Helping solitary beesBee on a yellow flower close up

Solitary bees are amazing pollinators. One single Red Mason solitary bee (Osmia bicornis) is capable of doing the same amount of work as 100+ honeybees, so it’s well worth attracting them to your plot.

What we can do:

  • Habitat piles: rotten wood, compost heaps, south facing banks and short grass are all great for solitary bees but you can also create purpose built nests or ‘bee hotels’ for cavity nesters. Use bundles of hollow plant stems such as cow parsley or bramble. Place these inside tins and secure in sunny positions, and the bees will love them.

 

Bee attracting plants

There a few basic things to bear in mind to make your plot bee friendly:

  • Make sure you have pollen and nectar rich plants flowering in succession throughout the year
  • Plant flowers in clumps rather than as single stems
  • Bees especially like flowers in the blue/purple/lilac colour spectrum as well as pink, yellow, and white. They are generally less interested in red flowers.
  • Plant in sunny positions wherever possible
  • If you want to provide bees with caviar and champagne, plant viper’s bugloss and borage!
     

For more information visit Brigit’s blog. Her new book, Dancing With Bees, is out now and she’ll be presenting at the National Permaculture Convergence in Oxford this September. 

A version of this article originally appeared in Permaculture Works, our members' journal. Join now to receive it.