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How We Can Help Bees and Pollinators in our Garden

July 27, 2016

How we can help bees & pollinators in our garden

It’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed as we’re bombarded with negative news about the damage civilization is raging on the environment and the effects of a warming planet. In particular there has been deep concern about the plight of bees and pollinators and this week published research suggests a leading insecticide cuts bee sperm by 40% which is devastating news for the bee population.

How to help bees and pollinators in the garden

Credit: National Biodiversity Data Centre

Habitat loss and the decline in wildflowers are subjecting our pollinators to starvation. Our tendency to tidy up the landscape and not allowing wildflowers to grow along roadsides, field margins, and in parks is also playing a big part as fewer of these resources are available. However, there is good news! By making our gardens pollinator friendly we can do our bit to help redress the balance and make sure that we protect pollinators.

Last year the Biodiversity Centre published an All Ireland Pollinator Plan, followed by a Junior Pollinator Plan and a few weeks ago they increased their resource bank by adding an Action Plan for gardens that you can download here.

What can we do to help bees and pollinators in our garden?

Credit: National Biodiversity Data Centre

Aimed at anyone who wants to make their garden more bee and pollinator friendly, the guidelines range from very simple to low-cost actions, from window boxes to large outdoor spaces and community gardens so we can pick actions that best suit us.

There are seven sections and twenty action points that contain recommended plants, tips and practices some of which include the following:

How we can help bees and pollinators in our garden

A. Identify and Protect Existing Areas

Encourage patches of wildflowers or ‘weeds’ which are food for bees and pollinators. Let hedges flower before they’re trimmed back and allow soil to stay bare on sloping areas for solitary bees.

Lawn edging, long grass and dry stone walls all offer shelter for bees and pollinators.

B. Reduce the Frequency of Mowing

How we can help bees and pollinators in our garden

Photo: © Réamái Mathers

In early springtime, one bumblebee queen needs to feed on 6,000 flowers a day to have enough energy to feed her young!

Lawns provide shelter and food for bees and pollinators so reducing cutting can be the most cost-effective way of helping them. That doesn’t mean that gardens have to become wild and unruly; the advice is to not begin cutting until after mid-April when the dandelions have flowered but not set seed. The vibrant yellow flowers are an important source of food as pollinators come out of hibernation.

If you’ve a large lawn, consider allowing some of it to grow into a meadow and cut it back in September. Avoid using lawn fertilisers as they promote the growth of grass and not wildflowers. Definitely don’t spray with herbicides. More detailed advice on managing wildflower ‘lawns’ can be found in the Action Plan.

C. Pollinator Friendly Planting

How to help bees and pollinators in the gardenI’ve written an article before that shares how bees make honey, but to survive pollinators need flowers that produce lots of nectar for energy and pollen for protein. If you’re trying to make your garden pollinator friendly add plants that will provide these food sources during the out of season ‘hungry gaps’ between October to March and choose single flowered varieties of flowers over doubles, perennial over annual plants.

If you’re not sure what varieties to choose, look closely at the flowers in gardens you visit or at garden centres and see which plants the pollinators are visiting.

If you’re limited by space, consider filling containers and window boxes with flowers and herbs that bees and pollinators can feed upon such as borage, thyme, rosemary, cosmos, night scented stock and cosmos. Traditional bedding plants such as Geraniums, Begonias, Busy Lizzy and Petunias have almost no pollen and nectar so are of no value to bees and pollinators.

How We Can Help Bees and Pollinators in our Garden

D. Provide Wild Pollinator Nesting

3 Reasons Why We Need To Build More Bug HotelsApart from food supplies, safe nesting habitats are equally as important for bees and pollinators and we can help by providing these in the garden.

Bumblebees nest in long grass or abandoned rodent holes. Fifteen out of the 77 species of solitary bees nest in existing cavities and the rest burrow into bare ground or south/east facing earth banks.

Simple or exotic bug hotels can be made for bees or just leave hollow stems in the garden such as unpruned raspberry canes for them.

It’s not just the birds who like to hang out in hedgerows, bumblebees often nest at the base of hazel, willow, blackthorn and hawthorn so avoid cutting all the hedgerow at the same time and instead cut parts of it on a three-year rotation. Importantly, don’t spray the bases of hedges and only cut them between September and March to avoid disturbing nests.

Wild bees are not aggressive so can live safely in the garden alongside humans and pets.

How to help bees and pollinators in the garden

E. Eliminate Pesticide Use

ALL pesticides, insecticides and fungicides can be harmful to pollinators, either by damaging their habitats or the plants themselves.

Avoid buying seeds that coated with neonicitinoids (read the fine print on seed packets) and use alternative pest controls such as choosing resistant seeds, barriers and physical barriers.

The Action Plan recommends that we DON’T use herbicides on the lawn or verges around our homes and gardens and if they absolutely can’t be avoided, use best practice (read the label).

F. Raise Awareness of Pollinators

Help to spread the word about how we can help bees and pollinators in our garden. Share pollinator friendly plants from cuttings, seed or division and download the pollinator plans from the Biodiversity Centre and talk about them with your friends, neighbours, schools or community gardens.

Learn to love bees and insects and see them as our friends and not be frightened by them.

G. Track Progress and Recognition

Pollinator Plan Infographics_Bees in Ireland

Credit: National Biodiversity Data Centre

We can make our gardens GOLDEN and log our efforts onto a system where it will track the build-up of food, shelter and safety for pollinators in the landscape in Ireland.

To receive GOLD status the garden must give the best shelter, food and safety for pollinators by meeting certain criteria. More information can be found in Section G of the Action Plan.

We can also learn to identify pollinators and record which ones visit the garden. We can become part of the All-Ireland Bumble-bee Monitoring Scheme or attend the various workshops and seminars that are springing up around the country.

Greenside Up will be holding a workshop in the Autumn in Gleann na Bearu Community Garden, Bagenalstown, Co Carlow where we’ll be sharing how to build a green roof structure and encourage pollinators into gardens thanks to Local 21 funding in association with Carlow County Council; keep an eye out for the newsletter and/or various social media channels for more information if you’d like to join us.


Can We Save the Pollinators of Ireland?

January 7, 2016

Can we save the pollinators

The year 2015 was a momentous one for the pollinators when Biodiversity Ireland brought together a diverse range of people to begin a plan of action they hope will save these important insects. Sixty eight organisations from across the island, including the Community Gardens Ireland who I represented, agreed they would help to carry out five plans of action over the coming years in a 2015-2020 Pollinator Plan.

During the past thirty years, more than half of the bee species in Ireland have declined substantially, with 30% now threatened with extinction. It’s clear that this can’t continue and as many of the reasons for the decline are man-made, it’s not before time that we attempt to reverse the trend.

The five main actions highlighted in the Pollinator Plan include:

  • Making Ireland and Northern Ireland pollinator friendly by focusing on actions that can be taken privately and publicly. 
  • Raising awareness of pollinators and how to protect them.
  • Supporting beekeepers and growers.
  • Expanding our knowledge on pollinators and pollination service.
  • Collecting evidence to track change and measure success.

Upon launch, the Plan was picked up by media around the country but as we head into the new year, and with it thoughts of abundant summer gardens, it’s important we don’t forget to include these important little creatures in our planting schemes.

Can We Save the Pollinators of Ireland?Pollinating our flowers, fruit and vegetables

Several fruit and veg varieties grown in Ireland depend upon pollinators including apples, blackcurrants, pumpkins and squashes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.

It’s also *been shown that animal pollinated crops are able to provide vitamins, antioxidants and other essential nutrients to the human diet as well as improve the nutritional value of some crops. Apart from the fact is seems morally wrong to do nothing, for nutritional reasons hand pollination should only be considered as a last resort.

Food crops aside, pollinators are important in our floral world too. It’s been estimated that 78% of flowering plants need animal pollination – what a bare island we’d live on without the bees and hoverflies!

Can We Save the Pollinators of Ireland?

Limnanthes – Beloved by pollinators, also attract hoverflies whose larvae eat aphids

Pollinators fight our pest problems

Some pollinators such as hoverflies (of which there are 180 species in Ireland) don’t just pollinate plants, they help organic growers fight pests too. Hoverfly larvae feast on aphids so planting flowers around our gardens such as Limnanthes that attract them, helps to keep aphid numbers down and cut the need for spraying.

How Can We Help Pollinators?

There are several things we can do to help pollinators; choosing just one or two would be a great start for the year.

No 1. Stop using chemicals

I’ve written several articles on ways we can avoid using chemicals and sprays in the garden. Perhaps 2016 will be the year that the tide turns and people stop using them.

There are all sorts of pressures on Ireland’s pollinators that include loss of habitat, hunger, sickness, changing environments; however, poisoning is another and it’s preventable. Avoiding the use of neonicotinoids as well as herbicides that kill essential food sources for pollinators would help to see an improvement in numbers.

This article gives 16 natural alternatives to herbicide and pesticide use that you might find helpful to make the switch.

Can We Save the Pollinators of Ireland?

No 2. Allow ‘weeds’ to flower

We have to think differently. Perfectly pruned gardens and lawns aren’t places that pollinators want to hang out; they belong in the past during a time we didn’t know any better. According to Biodiversity Ireland:

“Evidence from the USA showed that dandelions and white clover on lawns supported 37 species of bee. White clover was important for bumblebees and honeybees, whereas solitary bees, honey bees and hoverflies predominated on dandelion”.

From our own point of view as novice beekeepers, we’ve learnt that dandelions are one of the first ‘weeds’ that honey bees feed on when they come out of spring hibernation.

No 3. Plant more bee-friendly flowers and plants

Pollinators don’t differentiate between ornamental, hedgerow or wild flowers; they’re all food sources.

The following is a monthly flowering calendar of plants that bees enjoy, some of which you might like to include in your garden planting schemes this year. You can also find more detailed information about planting for pollinators in an article I wrote in March 2015.

Can We Save the Pollinators of Ireland?

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust have a useful online tool that can help you find what flowers in your garden are bee friendly and make suggestions to help you choose more.

Can We Save the Pollinators of Ireland?No.4 Build a Bug Hotel

Over 80% of Ireland’s solitary bees are mining bees who nest in bare ground or south-facing slopes but the remaining 20% look for cavities to nest in. Whilst not a large number, building a bug hotel for solitary bees is a cool project to do with kids or groups and will enhance your garden too.

Here’s an example of one I made with a group of intellectually disabled adults last year.

No. 5 Submit Records and Learn about Pollinators

Biodiversity Ireland are building a database of pollinators in Ireland and Northern Ireland that will help to give a clear picture of the changes in populations and to help to track changes in wild pollinators.

They are encouraging as many people as they can to get involved to count and identify the bees. Records can be submitted via an online recording card, excel spreadsheet or by using Android and iPhone apps and there’s lots of help available on their website to aid identification

Can We Save the Pollinators of Ireland?More Information

The Pollinator Plan includes other suggestions for improving the habitats of pollinators such as planting wildflowers along roadside verges, allowing field verges to grow wild and planting wildflower patches. The full document is available here in PDF format. Hardback copies are available from Biodiversity Ireland upon application.


Will you help? What’s the first thing you’ll do or change to help the pollinators? If your group or club would like to learn more about pollinators, contact me for information about talks.

*all facts given are courtesy of Biodiversity Ireland.

Vegetable Garden

Sunday Snap: The Pollinators Are Finally Returning

June 16, 2013

hoverfly on chive

As with many aspects of nature this year, the pollinators have been late arriving. I’m deliberately choosing to decorate our garden with flowers that will attract bees, butterflies and hoverflies and have included a Bees Banquet range of seeds in the Greenside Up Gift Cards.

If you love bees and would like to find out more about them, take a look at Bridget Strawbridge’s blog where she’s writing about the importance of biodiversity and especially bees (@BeeStrawbridge on twitter). Bridget is a passionate and knowledgeable advocate for our little friends and you’ll learn heaps from her.

It’s a joy to see our little friends back and buzzing around the garden again.