Gardening for Bees and Other Pollinators.

Honey Bee on Scorpion Vetch (Coronilla glauca).

My Garden Throughout The Year.

I’m responding to requests from students, on the Healthy “BEES” (Bee Education in Scotland) Project course in Pitcairngreen, Perth, for a list of the plants that keep my bees foraging at home. Tony Harris and I teach 8 courses a year at various venues throughout Scotland. Last weekend we presented “Honey Bees, Plants & Balanced Nutrition” to 12 highly motivated and enthusiastic students, including a young man aged 10. The fun part for them was learning how to make up pollen slides from a variety of flowers and to look down a microscope at the amazingly varied pollen grain shapes and sizes. It’s rewarding for us to share the excitement that comes with learning how to master tricky procedures and complicated equipment.

Starting in Winter/Spring.

A few years ago, I planted this scented Scorpion Vetch climbing shrub (see above) outside our bedroom window to provide early pollen and nectar. As a member of the pea family (Fabaceae), this plant has typical flowers with keels and lateral wings and above average crude protein levels of around 25%. In my Nairnshire garden, it flowers from November to June.

Sweet Box (Buxus sempervirens).

Sweet Box.

On our doorstep sits this delicately perfumed plant, from the Buxaceae family, that flowers throughout winter and attracts honey bees on warm days in January. Every time I walk in and out of the house I get a glorious whiff too. I’ve planted another sweet box in the apiary.

You Can Never Have Too Many Crocuses.


Crocuses provide abundant pollen in early spring at a time when honey bee colonies are building up again and brood rearing after winter. They provide nectar for long-tongued insects. Sometimes, if the ambient air temperature rises enough the nectar also rises up the flower tube allowing honey bees access to nectar also. My bees fly at exceedingly low temperatures (4 degrees C) to collect water so they will fly to crocuses on very chilly spring days too. One advantage of crocus construction is that the flowers will not fully open when there is no direct sunshine. So, bees can push inside a protective “tent” to collect pollen in a micro-climate with slightly higher than ambient air temperatures. I planted several hundred crocus bulbs a couple of years ago and this has made a considerable difference for the bees. Walking past the crocus bed in late February and hearing the buzz you could be forgiven for thinking that the bees might be swarming.


Choose Single Flowered Snowdrops.

Snowdrops are delicately perfumed and provide pollen and some nectar. Avoid the double flowered varieties because they are highly modified with anthers sitting almost flush with the tepals making pollen collection nigh on impossible for honey bees.

What is a Weed?

A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place. I like most weeds because so many provide wonderful forage for bees. Having said that, I have too much Ground- elder (Aegopodium podagraria) from the carrot family (Apiaceae), and just yesterday my good friend Anna-Maria reminded me that I would have more space for better bee plants if I cleared it out. Easier said than done, but if I lay down a lot of cardboard and newspaper I will kill it off according to Anna-Maria who is a professional gardener in Inverness. I encourage red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum) to grow around the garden because it flowers from February to October and provides nutritious pollen which looks dark orange/red on the honey bee leg pollen baskets. From the mint family (Lamiaceae), red dead-nettle also provides nectar for long-tongued bumble bees. However, sometimes they chew holes at the base of nectaries sneakily gaining nectar without returning the pollination service for the plants. In this situation, honey bees can also reap benefits and access nectar too.

Red Dead-Nettle
Red Dead-nettle Pollen
Goat Willow (Salix caprea)


A few years ago a good friend of mine fell over in her garden and broke her shoulder. Among the flowers brought to cheer her up were some pussy willow stems. These took roots before it was time to discard the bouquet and I was given one which you see above reaching for the sky. This is a male plant producing pollen. Willow is from the Salicaceae family and is dioecious. This means that male and female catkins are produced on separate plants which reduces the risk of self-pollination. Under very favourable conditions (not often experienced in Nairnshire) both male and female flowers can produce nectar. Willows are great sources of early pollen and the crude protein levels are above average at 22%.

White Butterbur (Petasites albus)

White Butterbur.

This pretty flower is a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) and flourishes in riparian settings so covers the banks of the River Nairn and flowers between March and April. So, this is another early source of pollen and nectar and it just happens to love being in my garden. It propagates underground by vegetative reproduction sending out new root systems from the stems so can take over if you are not careful. Where it grows in a damp area of my garden, I am happy for it to take over and the bees love it. They just tumble out of their hives on top of it with no distance to fly.

Shrubs and Trees.

My garden is around 1/4 Acre with rather a lot of trees and hedging but they provide much needed shelter. I think that shrubs and trees for bees can be great value and Viburnum tinus ticks the box here. It flowers from October to April and the pinkish-white fragrant flowers hang in dense bunches and are covered in bees. Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is very popular with bees and flowers around April coinciding with the start of the new beekeeping season. I have two apple trees, a plum and a cherry but the birds always reach fruit from the latter before I do.

Wallflower (Erysimum species).


You must be getting the message: I’m fond of perfumed plants. Wallflower is a gloriously scented member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) that flowers from April to June so it is a useful late spring plant providing nectar and pollen.

Another Early One: Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima). Cabbage Family Member.

To Be Continued.

I’ve grown these plants with bees in mind and noticed many more bees foraging at home since I started beekeeping 15 years ago. Next plant post will show my late spring to summer garden.

8 thoughts on “Gardening for Bees and Other Pollinators.”

  1. Great informative post Anne , you’ll save me reading lot of books as you’ve basically giving me a shopping list. Thanks. Gregor

  2. Sorry, thanks for the detail but would you maybe also provide a pic of the pollen slide matching the plant? And pollen colours for any pollen provider?

    1. That would be an interesting exercise, Caroline, but time consuming and something that I would need to make space for. Perhaps in the future when my teaching commitments have reduced. Meanwhile, I may find a good source of pollen slides and give a link. Pollen colours are tricky to show because they vary so much, and change when bees add enzymes, saliva and acids to prevent germination.

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