The A-Bee-C of gardening: National Trust shares bee-friendly tips to support Radio 2’s Big Bee Challenge

Press release
Bumblebee approaching a foxglove at Hardy's Cottage, Dorset
Published : 26 Jul 2021

To support Radio 2’s Big Bee Challenge, the designer of a new ‘Buzz Border’ at the National Trust’s Nunnington Hall in North Yorkshire has shared tips on how everyone can attract these important pollinators into their gardens.

The 10 x 3m Buzz Border includes a wide range of plants to maximise biodiversity and spread pollen and nectar across a long period, continuing Nunnington Hall’s commitment to biodiversity and gardening using organic principles.

Gardener Cal Stewart, who designed the border, said: ‘While many of us will be familiar with bumblebees, there are actually more than 200 species of bee in the UK and they are critical, pollinating the food crops we all rely on. 

‘We hope the border, and wider garden, show that there are easy things gardeners can plant, and do, to give bees a much-needed helping hand.’

The border includes a Solitary Bee observation nest box hand-made by ecologist and environmental educator George Pilkington and installed in spring. By June, red mason bees had filled the nest box with pollen and eggs, sealing each 8mm tube with a wall of mud.

‘This bee home will help increase bee populations in our garden. Thanks to observation windows on either side of the home, and our bee walks, visitors can watch this natural spectacle and understand more about its importance to our gardens and lives.’  

Becky Falkingham, Nature Evidence Data Officer, added: ‘The Trust is extremely concerned about the decline of bee populations, due to climate and land-use change, habitat loss, and pesticide use. Pollinators are essential for the production of around 1 in every 3 bites of food – which is part of the reason why it’s important to find ways to conserve them.

‘We’re working hard to prevent and reverse the decline of flower-rich habitat by restoring and creating 25,000ha of Priority Habitat by 2025, encouraging our tenant farmers to take up nature-friendly farming methods, installing bee hotels and bug boxes in many of our gardens, and creating pollinator-friendly borders like the one at Nunnington Hall. We hope that this will inspire others to create their own bee friendly gardens.’

Those looking for bee-friendly gardens to visit can find more inspiration on the National Trust’s website at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/our-most-bee-friendly-gardens

Cal’s top plant choices for attracting an array of bees  

  • Sea holly (Eryngium bourgatii, E. agavifolium & E. yuccifolium)

Our sea hollies never fail to be covered in bees and are especially loved by the larger bee species. They’re accessible to butterflies, too. If you leave these tall over winter, their hollow stems also provide overwintering sites for bees. They bring great architectural shapes to the garden.

  • Aguilegia

It’s important to grow the open-flowered varieties as the doubles are too tight for insects to access. Long-tongued bees will enjoy the flowers and you might even see examples of ‘nectar robbing’, when short-tongued bees chew through the flower before it opens to access the nectar.

  • Pulmonaria

These early flowerers are very attractive to early emerging bumblebees and a favourite of the hairy-footed flower bee, one of the earliest bees to emerge. We find the darker the flower, the more appealing they are to bees – try deep blue ‘Blue Ensign’ or native Pulmonaria officinalis.

  • Snapdragons

These quick, easy to grow gap-fillers have a long season and are ideal food sources for long-tongued bees.

  • Red valerian

This hardy Mediterranean perennial is very accessible to bees and we often see hummingbird hawk-moths foraging on the flowers. You can deadhead to produce even more flowers.

  • Honeywort (Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens')

This lovely tender annual produces huge volumes of nectar. It has a long season, is low-maintenance and you can let the seed overwinter in the soil.

  • Clematis

Many clematis are great for pollinators, especially short-tongued bees. Choosing different species such as C. montana (spring/early summer flowering) and C. cirrhosa (winter flowering) will spread out the buffet, providing a vital food source for early and late foraging bees.

Nunnington’s most common bees – and how to make them welcome

  • Red mason bee

This solitary bee is one of our most effective native pollinators and is invaluable for pollinating fruit orchards. They need dry, secure places to nest and they’ll take full advantage of artificial nesting boxes if provided. This bee uses mud to construct and seal off its nesting cavities. Put out a saucer of water with some soil mixed in to create a bee ‘mud bath’ (ideally, near the nesting site if you know where it is) – this will help the females conserve their energy.

  • Hairy-footed flower bee

One of the first solitary bees to emerge in spring. We often see this species in the spring border, so including winter- and early spring-flowering plants like pulmonarias, hellebores and cowslips in your garden will be appreciated. They lay cells of eggs in shallow hollows such as wall mortar, exposed soil or compacted clay ground. Try to check for signs of nest holes and avoid interfering with soil too much in winter and early spring as you may accidentally disturb the nests.

  • Tree bumblebee

This significant pollinator – a relatively new arrival in the UK – has a tendency to take up residence in blue tit boxes where it makes use of previous bird nesting material. You can make bespoke bee boxes by drilling smaller holes (less than 25mm) than a usual blue tit box, allowing the bees access to nest.

  • Tawny mining bee

This very effective, early-emerging pollinator nests in the ground among short vegetation, such as dry areas of lawn. Avoid chemical use on lawns and don’t over-mow.

  • Garden bumblebee

One of the larger bumblebees, this distinctive black-and-yellow banded bee uses its long tongue to feed from deep flowers such as honeysuckle and foxgloves. It’s often seen foraging on low-growing flowers such as selfheal and clover – so try to tolerate these in your lawn! They will often use old mammal nests so if you come across old nests, don’t discard them.

Garden wildlife tips, for bees and beyond

Try not to be too tidy. It’s important to tolerate wilder spaces in the garden for habitat. Many gardeners have a spring and autumn clean-up where they remove debris and dig over soil, but these are crucial times in the wildlife calendar. Don’t cut back all of your perennials – there will be bees, butterflies and all kinds of wildlife sheltering, hibernating or maturing among hollow stems, leaf piles and in the soil.

Drink up. Provide a year-round water source such as a saucer with pebbles for invertebrates to rest on while they drink. You’ll be amazed how quickly it starts to be used. Even better, if you can, create a wildlife pond to attract a wealth of wildlife including frogs, toads and dragonflies.

Cover all bases. Many people think they must use native plants to attract bees, but non-native species can still have massive wildlife value. For example, female wool carder bees comb the soft fibres of lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) for use in their nests.

Avoid pesticides and herbicides. These should always be a last resort.  The more you encourage wildlife, the fewer ‘problems’ you have in the garden. Wasps, ladybirds, hoverfly larvae, earwigs, spiders etc are all beneficial in the garden and will eat aphids, slugs, scale insects and other potential pests.

Relax your lawn care. Lawns in their own right can be fantastic wildlife habitats but only when they are not excessively manicured with feeding, weeding and over-mowing. Experiment with different mowing heights, sow low-growing perennials like clover and daisies, and consider manual methods of controlling moss and thatch such as hollow-tining and scarifying.

Plant a rainbow. Try to include different colours, sizes and shapes of flowers to appeal to the widest range of pollinators and their particular adaptations. Ideally, choose species over man-made cultivars. These are likely to have higher amounts of pollen and open flowers which pollinators can access.

Grow a perennial garden meadow. It’s easy to start and cuts out a lot of mowing, maintenance and cost. Meadows host thousands of wildlife species including birds and mammals.

Start composting. Compost feeds soil and plants alike. It’s also great for invertebrates, frogs, hedgehogs and even sloe worms and grass snakes, which will help control ‘pests’ in the garden.  

Bee fun at National Trust gardens this summer

Selected National Trust gardens are supporting the Big Bee Challenge Weekend (31st July and 1st August 2021), including:

Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire

On 31st July, join a guided walk to learn about different types of garden bees and how to garden for wildlife (11am and 1pm). There will also be family-friendly bee walks (12 and 2pm) with the chance to use magnifying glasses to identify bees and a colouring-in activity. Drop in to the activity table (11am-3pm) for self-led activities such as bee bingo, bee games and bee mask making. Award-winning local Westfields Honey – who have an apiary at Nunnington – will also be on-site with honey and hive products. Note: activities run 31st July only. 

Chartwell, Kent

Pick up a free Bee Spotter Sheet – how many bees can you see and hear? The garden’s honeybee hives mean there are always plenty to spot.

Emmetts, Kent

Pick up a free Bee Spotter Sheet – how many bees can you see and hear? By the bug hotel (a good place to start your search), learn more about the solitary bees that you might be able to see.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent

See the vegetables the team have planted to help bees in the veg garden, and take inspiration from the wildflower spaces, also planted to encourage bees.

Standen House and Garden, West Sussex

Look out for bee facts as you explore the beautiful hillside garden.  Younger visitors can take a series of bee challenges – such as counting how many apple trees are in the garden, and seeing if they can run as fast as a bee. 

Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire

Visit Waddesdon’s website for tips on where to find bee-friendly plants in the gardens, information about bee-related items in the collection, and to find out more about the honey made from echiums on the Waddesdon estate.

Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire

Until the end of August, take the summer 'flying high' trail exploring creatures that fly, including bees. Pause and enjoy the sight and sound of bees busily foraging in the formal garden, especially on the lavender.

Acorn Bank, Cumbria

Collect a trail sheet and follow The Bee Pot Trail, helping you find – and learn more about – plants that are a great year-round food source for pollinators (each pot is marked with a bee). You’ll find handy ‘grow your own’ tips around the garden, too.

Godolphin, Cornwall

Godolphin was the first National Trust place to be named a natural haven for native bees. It’s home to 20 hives, each with 40-50,000 Cornish Black Bees, making it the perfect place to take the Busy Bee Challenge. Among the long meadow grass, we’ve hidden ‘flowers’ to help the busy bees – can you find them all?

The Vyne, Hampshire
In high summer a beautiful mini-meadow transforms The Vyne's walled garden into a swathe of red, blue and orange flowerheads, flooding the space with colour and movement. The plants, ranging from poppies and rose campion to larkspur and corn marigold, are chosen not just for their pollinator-friendly pollen and nectar sources, but for their vibrancy too, which helps entice bees and other insects. As you stroll round the meadow, against a summer audio of gently buzzing bees, you can pick up simple top tips on how to help pollinators in your own outdoor space.