Bees and other pollinators will be the stars of this year’s Chelsea flower show, with many gardens demonstrating how to attract and protect them.
Scientists have also developed a planter specifically designed with flowers that appeal to bees. Its designers say that if 50,000 gardeners planted just one container each, it would provide enough flower power to fuel 1m bumblebee miles every day, equivalent to an estimated 2m foraging trips. Bumblebees must fly from and to the nest multiple times each day to supply their colony with nectar and pollen.
The flower combinations are important. The nectar provision of one potted lavender could enable a bee to fly up to 19 miles every day, but planted alongside marjoram and fiddleneck, it could fuel a day’s travel up to 40 miles.
Among the pollinator-focused gardens is the Royal Horticultural Society and BBC flagship garden designed by Joe Swift, a presenter on Gardeners’ World.
The Guardian visited him as he planted his garden ready for next week, and bees were already flocking to plants including alliums and foxgloves. Most of the plants in his garden appear on the RHS plants for pollinators list.
Swift has urged gardeners to dig up their lawns and plant bee-friendly plants instead, with a path running through them.
He told the Guardian: “I’ve never had a lawn; if my kids want to play football, they can go to the park. I’m always encouraging people to dig up their small lawns and just plant – it is much easier to look after and much better for wildlife.”
The flower show has seen a trend towards natural-looking gardens full of pollinator-friendly plants in recent years, at odds with the stereotype of the neatly manicured traditional gardens the show was once known for.
Swift said: “I‘ve been a designer for 30-odd years and there was a sort of minimal garden thing where it was all about shapes and maybe not enough flowers. Then there was a lot of hybridisation, people looking for the next fashionable plant, which wasn’t necessarily great for pollinators. Now we are thinking about the wildlife as well as planting a beautiful garden.”
Another garden at Chelsea, by Bees for Development, shows how important the pollinators can be to poorer countries. It contains a market of products made by bees, and information about their pollinating power. The charity helps people in countries including Uganda and Ethiopia to become beekeepers, which can provide a stable income and help pollinate crops in areas that desperately need it.
Emily Cullum, who works at the charity, said: “The people that we work with are often in places where it’s really hard to have a sort of stable income, particularly now there’s a lot of food insecurity and inflation is rising. It’s a really valuable way for them to have something that means they can keep earning a living. Honey is a luxury in those parts – it is sold by the teaspoon.”
A rewilding-themed garden by design partnership Urquhart & Hunt showcases native plants that help rare pollinators including fritillary butterflies and solitary bees.
Pointing at a clump of green stems, the designer Adam Hunt said they had planted devil’s-bit scabious even though it is not in flower yet.
“At this time of year, it is a really important food source for the marsh fritillary butterfly. Most pollinators are quite generalist, whereas in the larval stage, caterpillar stage, they require very specific food sources.”
The government has also announced a four-year plan for bees and other insects that will include funding for research into bee disease, financial support for beekeepers, and encouraging farmers to look after bees on their land.
However, some may raise their eyebrows at this, as the government recently defied scientific advice by approving a pesticide known to be lethal to bees.
The environment minister, Rebecca Pow, said: “We’ve got a million hectares in our gardens, and that could be a really, really valuable habitat for bees. I garden for wildlife myself – I leave corners of my garden wild and stopped mowing the lawn. I instead planted bulbs in it which flower at different times of year.”
At Chelsea, the minister will be launching a new citizen science bee counting app, which is funded by Defra.
She said: “You go out into your garden, and in your little patch, you identify which insects land on that patch in 10 minutes. It’s citizen science which will provide the data we need if we are going to reduce the decline in all of these species.”
Three bee-boosting plant combinations recommended by RHS scientists
Blueberry, strawberry, chives
Lavender, marjoram, fiddleneck
Snapdragon, nasturtium, cosmos