Bees Need Flowers

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There’s been a lot of social media posts recently advocating making bee feeders and leaving out sugar water for bees.  For lots of reasons this is a really bad idea (please see previous blog ). 

Sugar water will give bees a quick energy boost so is still good to revive a tired bee, but it doesn’t meet all their nutritional needs.  They need nectar and pollen, both of which are provided by flowers in varying quantities.  That means bees are vegetarian.


(Solitary bee on fleabane)

In the UK there are approximately 280ish different bees.  One of them is the honeybee, 26 are bumble bees and the rest are solitary bees. 


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(Carder bee on lavender & sedum)

Some species of bee are known as short tongue bees, and some have longer tongues.  What’s that got to do with plants for bees?  Well bees use their tongues (or to give it it’s proper name proboscis) to suck up nectar from the flowers.  Different flowers have evolved different shapes so the nectar can be accessed by different types of bees – so when it comes to bee friendly flowers one size doesn’t fit all.


Bees need forage early in the year and later in the year, not just during the summer months.

Early in the year queen bumbles will be coming out of hibernation and they need a carbohydrate boost to give them the energy to fly. 

This is the time of year when a quick bit of sugar water on a spoon for a stranded bee (if there are no flowers around to move the bee to) could save not only a bee, but a whole future colony.  Once the queen has had her carbohydrate “fix” she needs pollen too.  When she has fed sufficiently she’ll be off to start a new colony and will have young to feed.  After she has reared the first batch of workers, some of them will take over the foraging.  As the nest expands so does the need for food.

Bombus terrestris queen emerging March (3)

(Buff tail bumble bee queen emerging from hibernation)

Around this time of year, honey bee colonies are also expanding in size and rearing ever increasing numbers of young.  Whilst the adult bees need plenty of nectar, the young will need plenty of pollen.


(Extra frames have been given to a small colony of honey bees to give them room to expand)

Solitary bees are also starting to emerge.  Once mated, the females will build a cell, provision it with nectar and pollen and lay an egg.  She’ll then seal the cell and start another one.  The eggs will hatch, the larvae will feed and then pupate.  The following year the new generation of bees will emerge to continue the cycle.


(Wool carder bee checking out a bee hotel)

Later in the year new bumble bee queens will need to feed sufficiently before they go into hibernation, or they won’t make it through the long winter months.  Honey bee colonies are rearing less young and reducing down in size, but as they don’t hibernate they need to store as much food as possible for the winter. 

During the milder winters some buff tail bumble bee queens don’t hibernate and try to raise a nest during the winter months.  Honey bees will also fly on milder days to collect water and any food they can find.


I’ve been asked a lot recently about how to help bees, which plants we can grow etc, and the more I tried to write a blog to answer these questions, the more I tied myself up in knots as the blog got longer and longer.  So instead I’m planning on writing a series of blogs over the next few months about planting for bees and other ways we can all help bees.  I hope you’ll enjoy these blogs and I look forward to your comments. 

Please also feel free to share the blogs, because every plant will make a difference.

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  1. Irene

    Thank you for explaining the different bees, their habitats and requirements. The pictures are beautiful and really help to show the differences. Thank you - I'm really glad you enjoyed it :)

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