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Helenium - bee-friendly plant

I’ve been feeling a bit glum the last few days with one thing and another and the weather is miserable, AGAIN. It was like November on the plot yesterday, the wind whipping the fleece cover off my brassicas and the sunflowers and dahlias needed some remedial staking to prevent stems from snapping. After a night of torrential rain, in fact, at one point it didn’t sound like rain, more like someone had turned on an enormous tap, I’m now greeted with a sky the colour of battleship grey. I thought Farrow and Ball, the paint company famous for the names it gives to its paints, such as ‘cat’s paw’,  ‘smoked trout’ and ‘elephant’s breath’ might have a more romantic and enticing way of describing the colour I can see out of my study window. They can’t come up with anything better than ‘down pipe’. Says it all really.

Sedum 'Purple Emperor'

Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’

So, what could I write about that was bright and cheery to bring me out of this descending gloom. After last week’s beekeeping course at Humble By Nature I’m looking out for bees wherever I go. There was a brief dry spell yesterday afternoon and whilst having a bit of a potter I noticed my Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’ plants were covered in bees. Off I went to get the camera and an absorbing half an hour passed as I snapped away. Sometimes it’s great to look at the bigger picture, to be in a vast open landscape which always makes me feel incredibly free and invigorated but, equally, I love getting down to a really small level, getting up close to insects and plants and seeing the incredible detail there is, even on such a minute scale. There is a whole world going on around us that so often passes us by.

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Initially, it was the honey bees that had caught my attention but once I was kneeling on the path I could see it wasn’t just Apis mellifera that was tucking into the pollen and nectar. There were bumble bees, hoverflies and other little insects I have been unable to identify. My entomological skills are frustratingly lacking. Sedums are great plants not only looking good but being incredible sources of pollen and nectar. Some of the first plants I grew, as a child, were sedums and I could quite happily spend hours watching butterflies feeding on them. I think ‘Purple Emperor’ is particularly attractive with its plum coloured, fleshy foliage appearing in spring and then the pink little star-like flowers opening from August. It is much less bulky than other sedums and I love the contrast of the dark foliage with other late flowering plants such as rudbeckias, heleniums and verbena rigida, all excellent sources of pollen and nectar, too. In fact these later flowering plants are vital for insects and, particularly honey bees.

Sedum 'Purple Emperor'

Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’

At this time of year many of our native wildflowers have gone over and honey bees really struggle on their foraging flights to find food. Studies by Sussex University have shown bees have to travel much greater distances in August and September in search of pollen and nectar. At this time of year, perhaps more than any, honey bees have come to rely on garden flowers to provide them with food. Urban bees in fact, are much better off than their rural counterparts because of the greater concentration of gardens and flowering plants available to them.

Sedums are easy to grow; I also grow Sedum spectabile and both have coped with dry spells and this year’s deluge. They are also so easy to propagate from stem cuttings and even from a leaf. Simply remove a leaf from the stem and push it into a pot filled with some compost mixed with quite a bit of grit, water and put on a window sill. It won’t be long before a little shoot will appear from the base of the leaf. Let this grow until you can see roots appearing from the bottom of the pot and then pot on.


Cornflowers providing a tasty meal

Crocosmia, achillea and verbena bonariensis are all proving popular feeding stations in the garden and on the plot this dahlia is attracting a lot of attention.

Dahlia 'Tahoma Star'

Dahlia ‘Tahoma Star’

It’s rubbish as a cut flower, dropping its petals within minutes of picking but it has earned its place by obviously being packed full of bee food. The scabious have been a success for me and the passing bees. They last well in a vase, are very prolific and bees love them.

Our bees are struggling so much but as gardeners we can do something to help by planting as many of these bee-friendly plants as possible. For fascinating and informative posts about bees and other topics, take a look at Bee Strawbridge’s excellent blog.