A year in the bee garden – February

In the short month of February there is little activity in the bee garden, but there is a lot to observe. Which early bulbs have emerged – the snowdrops and crocuses planted in the shade beside the ivy or those planted in the lawn? Which plants are already springing up new shoots – the crocosmia or daffodils? These seasonal observations tell me which type of flowers grow well in the soil and which conditions of light, shade and shelter suit them best. Year after year, I can invest more time in the flowers that thrive in the bee garden and in the bees who visit them.

Planting a bee garden – or a pollinator or wildlife garden – is very exciting and there are many ‘plants for bees’ lists that publish at this time of year to give you plenty of ideas. However, planting any garden that successfully blooms and attracts a wide variety of insects and other wildlife is not as easy as it sounds. There are important observations that need to be made.

1. What is the soil like?

When you pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it, is the texture clumpy and sticky (perhaps like clay) or looser and gravelly (perhaps like sand)? When it rains, does the soil drain slowly or quickly? When it is dry, does the soil harden and crack or retain its moisture?

You don’t need to become an expert in soil types, or rush out to get a pH kit to test the acidity or alkalinity of your soil (although you can if you want to), but a few simple observations like these will give you a better idea of what types of plants will grow best in your garden. You’ll know, for example, when you read the plant label or seed packet whether your soil can provide suitable conditions or not. February is often a good month to make these observations as the weather can change from mild and wet to cold and dry from one week to the next.

If you suspect that you have heavy, clay soil that drains poorly, then this doesn’t mean that you can’t grow a bee-pleaser like lavender which prefers lighter, well-draining soil. It just means that you may have to dig over the bed with plenty of multi-purpose garden compost or some horticultural sand, and/or add this to the hole in which it is planted [*See edit below]. Alternatively, plant the lavender in a raised bed (such as building a new bed at ground level and filling it with more suitable soil), a container or a large pot.

Remember to observe the soil in different parts of your garden, because there may be some variation.

*Lindylou adds a useful comment below on taking care not to remove the fertility of clay soil by adding amendments. This includes adding coconut coir or cardboard to heavy clay soil rather than sand, which may produce cement. She says both coconut coir or cardboard “allow airpockets to develop by enticing garden earthworms which love to eat both products”. In addition, she also uses lava grit “to take up the water that will not sink during winter time”.

Like all things, learning how to garden is as much about trial and error. My lavender grew poorly the first year when I planted it in the clay soil of our garden. It also didn’t have enough sun. So I moved it to the back of the garden and mixed the soil with garden compost (and a very small amount of builders’, not horticultural, sand!) and it seems to have perked up! I will try cardboard next time as I have plenty of that at home.

2. How much sun and shade do you have?

The middle part of our garden is long and narrow with an ivy hedge to the right and bushes of cotoneaster, jasmine and choisya to the left. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that few flowers will grow in the shady, walled bed beside the ivy where even foxgloves and bluebells struggle. This part of the garden has become a haven for frogs and thirsty birds and insects with a selection of frog ponds and shallow baths. I’ve also half buried broken flower pots and crockery in the soil to make shelters for weary creatures to rest. The decking at the front of the garden has a flowerbed that sticks out further, and in spring and summer it gets enough sunlight in the morning to sustain the myrtle tree with flowers and berries. The back of the garden is very exposed – a suntrap for sun-loving plants like toadflax, Mediterranean herbs, and, of course, sunflowers.

Observing how sun and shade fall across your garden from season to season and at different times of the day can help to plan where to plant. For instance, there’s no point in planting a row of sedum along a sunny fence in early spring only to later find out in autumn, when sedum flowers, that it gets very little sunshine.

It’s also a good idea to notice which parts of the garden get shelter from wind and rain – useful if you’re planning on planting tall plants like sunflowers or buddleias, which may benefit from some shelter, as well as plenty of sun, on a very windy day.

3. Who visits your garden?

It’s not all about the bees. Our garden enjoys a variety of insect visitors including hoverflies, butterflies, lacewings, solitary wasps, ants and spiders (ok, arachnids too). There are many different bees who visit from honeybees and bumbles to leafcutters and masons. We’ve even had the occasional dragonfly, although they don’t seem to lay their larvae in the pond and are probably prowling for bees to eat. Observing which insects are already in your area can help you to choose the flowers that attract them.

For example, our toadflax caters for the carder bees from early summer to late autumn. The honeybees and bumbles are satisfied by the smoke tree in spring, salvia and lemonbalm in summer, and snowberry and sedum in autumn. The sweat bees are kept happy by leaving the yellow thistles to flower in spring. However, I rarely see leafcutters or masons foraging in the garden, although they use our nesting tubes. Perhaps I need to plant up more areas for these solitary bees and leave more dandelions for the masons.

4. What is flowering in your area?

A walk around your local area to see which plants are growing in your neighbours’ gardens can be a good indicator of what will grow well in your garden. Year after year in winter, yellow primroses pop up in front gardens along our street and winter-flowering hebes produce rich purple-red blooms. There are so many that I suspect the birds and squirrels have been very busy gardening, although many humans are good gardeners too.

5. How much time do you have to spend in your garden?

This is the most important observation of all. Before you begin planting a bee garden, consider how much time you actually have for weeding, pruning, mowing, watering, and transplanting throughout the year. If you don’t have much time, then read up on hardy plants and shrubs that are easy to care for. Do you want to grow annuals (that you may have to re-seed or re-plant each year, although some do successfully re-seed themselves) or invest in perennials (that are more likely to return and flower each year).

You might also want to consider the type of flower beds that will require the least attention – mulched beds (where a layer of gravel, bark, leaves or compost is laid above the soil) allow the stems of established plants to continue to grow but slows down the growth of weeds. Otherwise, container gardening may be more manageable if you’re just starting out or have a small garden, although containers and pots needs more watering than plants that are in the ground.

Once you’ve got to know your garden, choose some bee-friendly flowers to plant from these lists. Don’t forget the birds either – they’ll appreciate plants that berry and seed for autumn and winter.

Plants for bees and other pollinators

The RHS Perfect for pollinators provides a very comprehensive lists of plants.

The International Bee Research Association (IBRA) also has a good book Plants for Bees by W D J Kirk & F N Howes.

Use the Bumblebee Conservation Trust online tool to find out how bee-kind is your garden.

Buglife also provide a good guide to gardening with bugs in mind.

[EDIT] philipstrange also suggests this list of bee-friendly plants on Dave Goulson’s web site: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/resources/flowers and singles out pulmonaria “as a must for bee enthusiasts as it attracts the very early Hairy-footed flower bee”.

Consider where to buy or source your plant. Perhaps a friendly neighbour will let you take a few cuttings from their garden to get you started, or you may already have bee-friendly plants in your garden that just need propagating and spreading. Otherwise, order online from nurseries like Bee Happy Plants who don’t use pesticides and herbicides.

The RHS guide to soil types is helpful for getting to know your garden and the plants that will grow best.


A beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive


“Quick! Take the egg!” whispered the worker to her younger sister. “Hide the new princess in the upper chamber where the queen won’t find her!” The young worker gently picked up the precious egg in her mandibles and ran as fast as she could past the queen’s retinue, and up the stairs where her majesty couldn’t follow. Higher and higher she climbed till she stopped with exhaustion beneath a special cell. The smells of nectar in the loftiest chamber were overwhelming and the scent of the queen seemed far away. 

The young worker placed the egg carefully inside the secret cell already prepared to receive the new princess. The egg would be safe from the queen who would be unable to get through the nectary gates and tear down the hidden queen cell.

The longest day of the year had passed on the summer solstice last Sunday. At the apiary talk had turned to the honey crop and how much could be harvested this year. Emily and I had put two supers on Queen Melissa’s hive, which were filling up nicely. “Let’s check the super frames to see which can be taken,” I said going through the top super. Around the fifth frame in, I found her. A tiny, coiled, pearly larva in a silky white bed of royal jelly at the bottom of a damaged queen cell. Emily and I stared at her curiously wondering how the queen larva had got into the top super. The queen excluder was above the brood chamber and, we hoped, the queen had not gotten past to start laying in the supers.


The queen cell looked partly torn away and whether that had happened when I pulled out the tightly fitted super frame or by a worker tearing down the cell, we could not tell. We marked the frame and carefully put it back for a further investigation of the hive.

I didn’t find any brood or further queen cells in the supers, but I did find several collections of pollen-packed cells, which is unusual. It seemed the workers were preparing to raise a special brood in the top super, and though the workers can move eggs, nectar and pollen around the hive this seemed a long way to carry an egg from the brood chamber. “Perhaps they heard us saying that we wanted to try queen rearing,” I joked to Emily.

A beginner beekeeper, Mark, was watching our discovery with interest and asked why the workers would hide the queen cell. “To keep it a secret from us,” I said, “Or more likely the queen who would tear it down.”


Then it was time to go through the brood nest. Here there were only stores and brood, but no queen cells. Emily spotted the queen as I held up a frame, so I caged and marked her with a pink marking pen from Pat.

We closed up the hive. With only one queen cell hidden in the super, and now appearing partly damaged, this seemed a case of attempted supersedure rather than swarm. Emily and I have always let our bees get on with supersedure in the past, the workers know best when to replace a queen. Melissa and her hive were left to their royal secrets until next week.

In the artificially swarmed colony the still unnamed queen was also found and marked by Emily. Two queens now wear pretty pink crowns thanks to Pat’s pink queen-marking pen from Thornes. I wish they would make a glitter pen too.

Emily is mentoring new beekeepers for the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) and had already checked Queen Pepper’s hive with Mark. This left us time for tea and cake (Polish cake from Clare and home-made ginger cake from Emily) and a casual visit to Den’s hive.


Den was puzzled about why his bees were making waves of honeycomb above the frames. This was ‘bee space‘, we explained. There was a gap, more than 8mm, between the top bars and the top of the box. The bees would fill up any gap bigger than 8-9mm with honeycomb. The importance of bee space demonstrated and lessons were almost done for the day.

From the apiary to the garden there were fewer butterflies than bees, and I was hoping to attract more winged visitors to our flower beds. A butterfly supper of brown mashed banana on a plate and sugar syrup in a jar was prepared. These were simple to make and, I thought, an ideal activity if you’re entertaining young nieces…

How to make a butterfly supper


You will need: 

  • Plastic plate
  • String
  • Over-ripe brown banana
  • Decorative flowers

1. Pierce four holes in the plastic plate to pull through the string and tie handles on either side.


2. Stick on plastic flowers to make the plate look pretty for butterflies.


3. Mash a brown banana that butterflies love.


How to make a butterfly sugar feeder


You will need: 

  • Jam jar
  • String
  • Sugar syrup

1. Mix one part sugar to four parts water to make sugar syrup.


2. Pierce a hole in the jam jar lid and poke through a brightly coloured kitchen cloth.

3. Pour the sugar syrup in the jar and screw on the lid so the cloth can absorb the syrup.


4. Secure with garden string and/or elastic bands to hang upside down.

The butterfly feeding stations were hung up high in the flowering bush that is busy with bees. We’ve had no customers yet, but I’m hopeful.

So the bees don’t feel neglected in the garden, my niece had a bright idea a couple of weekends ago. She asked me to pick one of each flower to put on a saucer. We then drizzled the flowers in honey. “This is a bee bed,” she said proudly putting her creation on the flower bed wall. “For tired bees.”


edit: my story of the worker moving the egg is anecdotal (see comments below) and pure guesswork as I can’t know for certain how a suitable egg got into the super for the bees to try and make a queen. Moving eggs is one theory I’ve heard over the years, laying workers is a possibility though these eggs would become drone not queens, or a small queen able to slip through the excluder after all or even a second queen in the hive still unseen…

This is our garden


This is our garden. The trees are rustling and the plants are awakening. We don’t know any of them yet.


The fountain sprinkles in a pond where brightly coloured fish swim. We are keepers of fish now.


The sun shines through the windows of the kitchen bringing warmth and light to our new home.


Today is moving day. John and I are moving to our new house. The journey to get here at the start of the year was longer than we thought it would be, but we finally arrived. With the help and love of our families. Our very first house.


Dreams do come true.