Help Bees Go Shopping in Your Garden !

UPDATE 22 April 2016:   how to help Bees Go Shopping in your garden


hmm plenty in this bramble flower

These bees go shopping for pollen and nectar in our garden … what about yours ?  (See the different coloured pollen sacks on their legs – and sometimes all over !)


looking good …


goodness me ….

There are a few places left in the Fairy Gardens Workshop at the Fairy Fair, where you get to make a Fairy Garden planted with wildflowers to take home  – check it out now !

this looks good ...

heading for the door …

Below we give tips on how to be a Fairy Gardener and help feed the bees with what they need – nectar and pollen – in your garden.  Remember the more you grow, the less tired the bees get having to shop around.  Grow some of the wildflowers they love and make a bee or two happy.  

bees eating

Bees Eat Pollen and Nectar Pie: copyright Fatmouse Designs

Be A Fairy Gardener

Spring is in full swing and now is a great moment to do something to help bees, butterflies and other flower-loving wildlife in your garden.  As you may have heard, our native insects are suffering badly from the use of chemicals on farms and in gardens, so they need our help to survive.  Wildflowers in particular provide two lots of food: energy-giving nectar for the flying adults and the right sorts of green leaves for their young larvae such as caterpillars to eat.  So you can make a real difference in your garden, which will definitely please the fairies !

April is a good time to increase the number of wildflowers growing in your garden by planting ‘plug plants’ (young plants with a root), while it’s warm enough for them to get going and not too hot and dry.  More of that in a moment but the very first thing to do is to encourage any wildflowers already growing in your garden.  Some of the very best are often seen as weeds – but that just means ‘a plant in the wrong place’.

small tortoiseshell on dandelion

Dandelions for instance are very popular with lots of insects including early emerging butterflies that have over-wintered, such as this Small Tortoiseshell.  Remember that when you blow away a Dandelion seed, it is said to carry the spirit of a fairy.


So don’t reach for the spray but try to encourage these valuable plants.  Guinea Pigs and Tortoises also love Dandelions.

Another fantastic little flower is Red (also called Purple) ‘Dead-Nettle’ (dead as it looks a bit like a Nettle but has no sting).  This is a tremendous favourite of bumble bees, and in Lincolnshire and Notts was once known as the ‘Bumble Bee Flower’).

640 hairy footed flower bee alighting on red dead nettle

Above: a female Hairy-footed flower Bee about to alight on a Red Dead Nettle.  This is not a ‘weed’ to a bee but a vital food store !  The orange on its leg is a pollen sac – she’s out shopping

Others which simply grow themselves at least in our garden include Comfrey and Green Alkanet.  Both were introduced to Britain a while ago (Alkanet for green dye) but are very good for many bees.


Common Carder Bee on Green Alkanet – the flowers are tiny but very nectar rich

One of the best native plants is bramble, attracting a huge range of insects.  All these can get a bit enthusiastic so if you want to control their spread, why not grow some in pots ?  If so, remember you will need to water them as their roots will be restricted.


Above: Early Bumble Bee on Bramble flower

To really diversify your garden though, and to add a little more fairy magic*, you can turn to the huge array of wildflowers that were once so common in our countryside and in many cases, are sadly now so much rarer.  Grow some of those, and you’ll be helping both the flowers themselves and the wildlife that depends upon them.    Plus of course many have strong magical associations.

What to Plant ?

To get some quick results we recommend “plug plants” which are small but ready to get growing as they already have established roots.  You can of course sow seeds (best in September) but many wildflowers take a year or more to become established and then many seedlings will die, so plug plants are a good bet.

The biggest national supplier of wildflowers is British Wildflower Plants (BWFP) based at Acle in Norfolk – see   BWFP have supplied plug plants for all our Fairy Gardens Workshops (it was the very first one we ever started back in 2001) and are a fantastic source of expertise.  You can download their amazing catalogue and  plant list online and buy over 300 types of wild plants as plugs or as seed (by mail-order only – it’s not open for visitors).

bwfp slide

Above: Linda and Matt at BWFP at Acle with examples of plug plants – Dandelion, Violets and Fritillaries (and Sarah Wise collecting some for a Fairy Fair)

What to Plant ?

A key question is whether the place you plan to plant in is sunny or shady.  As a rule, from a plant’s point of view, anywhere which is a bit shady, is shady not sunny.  Eg if it is shaded part of the day by a fence, hedge, bush or house, that probably counts as shady.  Or if your dog, cat or sunbathing teenager needs to move about to stay in the sun, that means your garden is not really ‘sunny’.  To be sunny, you need an area to be pretty well un-shaded all day, and not only in June when the sun is most overhead.


Above: a bumble bee on Primrose, an important early spring source of nectar.  Primroses will grow in shade and quite sunny places and can live for many years.

You can find advice on buying sunny and shady plants from BWFP here but  we suggest Red Campion, Wood Anemone (below) Primrose, Stitchwort, Violet, Bluebell and Wild Strawberry as pretty reliable shady or semi-shady plants.

sunny shady slide

If you do have a really sunny spot then you can grow lovely plants like Birds Foot Trefoil (above) which is a food plant of Blue butterflies.  This is a perennial and can establish itself amongst short cut or grazed grass, like clover.  BWFP supply perennial mixes for such places.

In sunny areas, Cornfield Annuals are also a fantastic option for a quick hit of nectar-rich flowers to attract adult butterflies, hoverflies and bees.  These are to be sown from seed and being annuals, they only live one year and need to regrow from the seed they drop (so let them set seed) next year.  This means they need disturbed ground of bare earth (rake it over in late autumn).  Soil in pots (which you can always move to keep it in the sun) or a small sunny bed is an ideal way to encourage them.  Corn Marigold, Poppy, Corn Cockle and Cornflower are all quite easy to grow and very colourful.

640 poppy and corn marigold

Above: Corn Marigold and Red Poppy and Cornflower (blue) (all annuals) with Herb Robert (pink) underneath.

bee on cornflower - Copy

Above: Red Tailed Bumble Bee on Cornflower

Other good sources of British wildflower plants and seed include Landlife in Liverpool (great seeds by post) and if you are in North Norfolk, Natural Surroundings in the Glaven Valley between Holt and Blakeney, run by Ann and Simon Harrap.  There you can shop on the spot, browse the lovely displays of plants in their poly-tunnels, get inspiration from their gardens, and have tea and cake !  Simon has also published a really good book for anyone who wants to get to grips with British wild flowers.



Why not visit Natural Surroundings if you come to N Norfolk ?

Almost finally, if you are really serious about using native British stock and giving a helping hand to rebuild nature, the experts are Flora Locale, whose national A-Z of suppliers for everything from old orchard fruit varieties to trees, lichens, mosses and flowers can be found here.  Some of these, such as Wildflower Turf, offer ‘roll-out’ mats of wildflowers suitable for quick results in landscaping, lawns or green roofs.

What Not to Grow

This is touchy subject but funnily enough many of the most colourful and showy garden centre blooms are useless for wildlife.  The tremendous Bumblebee Conservation Trust has published a useful ‘blacklist‘ of things not to plant including such garden staples as Begonia, Busy Lizzie, Impatiens, Geranium, Pelargonium, Hydrangea, Livingstone Daisy, Mesembryanthemum, Pansy (unless its a wild type), Petunia Primrose (except native wild primroses), and Scarlet salvia / Salvia splendens.

garden and wild flowers slide

But they are not …

Essentially, anything which is highly cultivated is unlikely to be good for bees or other insects as it either has little or no nectar or the nectar is inaccessible.  Plus caterpillars and moth larvae and other native insects have evolved over millennia to eat British wildflowers.   That’s why sticking to wildflowers and a few old cottage varieties will be better for wildlife.

* You really can’t go wrong if you grow the plants of the traditional Fairy Garland in your garden.  These are Red Campion, Stitchwort, Dandelion, Bluebell, Blackthorn, Elder, Hawthorn, Rowan, Wood Sorrel and Herb Robert.  Not surprisingly all are great for wildlife and have strong magical traditions.   The Fairy Garland was traditionally put at the top of the Maypole at the start of May.

herb robert folklore

Above: Herb Robert, also known from it’s cranesbill type seed pod shape as Puck’s Needle, and full of magic

hawthorn leafhawthorn bloom

Above: Hawthorn – tree of the Fairy Queen and the May Tree

640 wood sorrel 2

Above: Wood Sorrel – known in Wales as fairy-bells.  Reverend Friend wrote in ‘Flowers and Flower Lore’ (1883)  ‘The people used to believe that the merry peals which call the elves to moonlight dance and revelry were sounded forth by these miniature bells’

Why We Can Make a Difference

Over 97% of our traditional meadows have been lost in a couple of generations, nearly all to industrialisation of farming.  The Wildlife Trusts say that less than 15,000 hectares of unimproved neutral grassland (the classic hay meadow type) remain in the UK – an area roughly the size of Bristol.   They also estimate there are 16 million gardens in our country.

This means if everyone planted just four square metres of wildflowers in their garden that would be 16×4 = 64m sq metres = 64,000,000 x .0001 ha = 6400 ha (if our sums are right).  Or an additional area equal to about half of all the remaining meadows.  So together we could increase the flower rich meadowy type habitat by over 50%.

It would not be quite the same as solid expanses of meadow but it could make a huge difference.  Consider for instance that many birds are now commoner in suburban gardens than in ‘rural’ countryside, because there are less sprays and chemicals in our towns and suburbs.

Last Word: The Fairy Gardener Avoids Fertiliser

Finally, if you do create a wildflower patch or lawn, remember that the key thing is to try and reduce not increase the fertility.   You need rich composty soil on your vegetable patch but poor soil for wildflowers, otherwise just a few strong growing grasses and plants like nettles will crowd the rest out.

low and high nutrient slide

This means cutting any lawn or wildflower patch you make after flowering, and after letting the veg’ lay there and dry out for a few days, so the seeds fall to the ground (as in real hay meadows), then taking it away to the compost heap or to feed a pet.   Otherwise you get the effect we now see on many grass verges which are simply ‘gang mowed’ and the vegetation is left to rot as a ‘mulch’, like this below:

gang mowing slide

Even if there were a lot of flowers there once, they are soon crowded out by a few types of thistle, nettle and cow parsley (see also here for lost roadside primroses).  In contrast, traditional hay meadows are cut, and the hay is then dried and then lifted and taken away to feed animals.  So never apply fertiliser or ‘lawn improver’ to wildflowers: it kills them off.

species rich meadow and sp poor hedgerow slide

This is why our few remaining hay meadows like Fritton Common south of Norwich (top photos) are so valuable and so much richer in flowers and wildlife than most of our road verges (bottom pictures), which are dominated by a few agricultural grasses and species like White Clover, and not the Red Clover most needed by bumble bees.  We hope to help redress this by recreating wildflower rich meadows through the Fairy Meadow Fund but you can make a start in your own garden !

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