Bee-Friendly In The City

Bees and other pollinators play a vital role in the human food chain directly by pollinating the crops that we eat, and indirectly by pollinating plants which are the basis of the entire ecosystem, but all too often an urban environment represent a desert in terms of feeding opportunities for them. Those of us who without a garden of our own can still be of great assistance, as bees forage over large distances and a patchwork of small areas of flowers can sustain them through the year. Even a small urban balcony or roof terrace can provide an oasis for bees, butterflies and hover-flies if plants are chosen with them in mind, and the plants are below say the sixth floor (as pollinators typically forage up to the height of the tree canopy).

There is a wide variety of flowering plants that are both good for pollinators and suitable to living in containers such as pots and window-boxes. Some types of plant are particularly well-adapted: maritime and alpine plants with waxy, leathery or narrow leaves are resistant to the moisture loss caused by wind in balconies, as well as being low-growing to avoid being snapped in the wind. Plants in this category include saxifrage, thrift, sedums (or house-leeks), sea and bladder campions, and eryngiums (or sea-hollies).

In selecting flowers, the shape and colour are both important to pollinators. Avoid double flowers and cultivars with little or no nectar: varieties that are closer to their wild counterparts are often more beneficial. The Royal Horticultural Society has a “Plants for Pollinators” logo which will help with the choice: downloadable lists are available from

One of the main problems for pollinators is finding forage at all times of the year, as nectar is needed in winter just as much as in summer. You can help them as well as providing winter interest for your window-boxes and containers by having a succession of flowers. Winter-flowering species such as hellebores, crocuses and snowdrops put on a great show for us as well as welcome feeding opportunities for insects. The wider choice of spring and summer plants can offer the chance to select a succession of forage flowers until autumn, when plants like autumn crocus, sages and ivies can take pollinators through to the winter again.

Another way to help yourself as well as bees and butterflies is to plant herbs. Not only are these plants well adapted to growing in containers and in exposed positions, but they thrive on lower levels of watering which may be convenient for those of us with busy lives. Good choices include chives, oregano and thyme. Though not edible, Lavender provides a wonderful scent: choose hybrid varieties like 'Edelweiss' and 'Gros Bleu' which are more attractive to bees than the traditional English lavenders such as Hidcote.

As well as choosing the right plants, the Royal Horticultural Society provides the following other advice for helping pollinators:

  • Allow lawn ‘weeds’ to flower by cutting less often

  • Provide water for pollinators

  • Avoid using pesticides wherever possible and never spray open flowers

  • Provide nest sites for wild bees

Happy planting!

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