Updated/Fact-Chacked on June 5, 2023 by Gareth James
In light of the significant reduction in pollinator populations over the past hundred years, we must take proactive steps to aid them. Cultivating gardens with an array of bee-attracting flowers can offer sustenance for the 270 bee species in the UK.
If you’re delving into the world of botany with a focus on attracting bees, you might want to consider plants that produce single, open flowers. Bees typically prefer flowers that offer a straightforward landing area, although they also exhibit a fondness for tubular-shaped blossoms. These specific flowers, such as foxgloves and penstemons, are particularly attractive to long-tongued bumblebees like the Bombus hortorum. It’s also worth considering incorporating UK-native plants into your garden as these are more likely to effectively cater to our indigenous bee species and other insects.
To make selecting bee-friendly plants easier, this article is segmented by blooming seasons, ensuring that your garden can provide a year-round floral banquet for bees, even in the depths of winter.
What do bees eat?
Bees survive on two essential ingredients from plants: nectar and pollen. Nectar provides the sugary carbohydrate energy source, while nectar provides protein and minerals.
What attracts bees to flowers?
Bees are attracted to flowers by sight and smell, searching for nectar. Research has shown that bees cannot see certain colours very well like red, but can see purple the best. This does not mean they don’t visit red flowers, they can detect ultraviolet patterns on petals that we can’t see – they may also be attracted to the smell of nectar.
Many bees will also not land on a flower if they smell the scent of a previous bee, I’ve personally witnessed this whilst drinking my morning coffee outside and watching bees at work.
Bee flowers for all Seasons
It’s important to have bee-friendly flowers in every season. For example, early bumblebees can be seen around February when there are very few flowers in bloom, but there is a range of perennials you can plant for them. You also see bees around in autumn, when many perennials have died back, planting autumn flowering plants that are rich in nectar will help the last few bees.
Winter Plants for Bees
Many bees will ‘overwinter’ themselves during the winter months or spend the months as pupae like the mason bee, while others will simply die off in the cold. We can still have flowers available for the odd one flying around; these flowers will also be ready for them around February when early bumblebees appear.
Here are a few plants that provide nectar in the winter:
Hellebores flower from late winter through to spring and are great for early bees, they also come in a range of varieties and colours and are great for winter interest.
Crocus (Crocus Vernus)
Early crocus will flower around February and provide additional pollen and nectar to hungry early bumblebees. I planted crocus bulbs in my lawn last October and watched early bumblebees come to them at the start of the year.
Snowdrops (with single flowers like Galanthus nivalis)
Snowdrops are the first flowers to bloom around January – February and are great for early bumblebees. Snowdrops are easy to grow by simply planting bulbs the previous autumn, they can also be planted in your lawn.
Spring Plants for Bees
Spring is a fantastic time to watch early bees, and pollinators land on your plants.
Planting spring-flowering bulbs, specifically Fritillaries, can provide an early source of nutrition for bees emerging from winter hibernation.
I have Snake’s Head Fritillary in one of my borders, with its distinctive bell-shaped flowers and snakeskin pattern. I actually forgot I had planted them until they appeared in April, and I was pleasantly surprised. They look so different from any other spring flowers and are native to the UK, though I have never seen any in the wild. Early bees and other pollinators also adore them.
Snake’s Head Fritillary can produce the odd white flower, which looks unusual with all the snakeskin flower heads. See my short video below, taken in March.
Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
Bluebells are great for planting under trees and hedgerows and will flower in late spring depending on your location. Simply plant bulbs in autumn for flowers the following year. Note that bluebells do spread rapidly over time.
I adore the forget-me-not I recently bought and planning on planting a lot more next year. I only have one planted in my new border but it looks dazzling against my cowslips behind it. Forget-me-nots can be grown from seed by planting directly into the desired location in May/June. I haven’t seen many bees land on mine yet, they head straight to the aquilegia behind it.
Summer Plants for Bees
We are talking about true geraniums here, not pelargoniums – real gardeners know the difference!
Geraniums, also called ‘Cranesbills’ come in a range of colour varieties; you will easily find one to match your colour scheme and garden position.
Last year I bought this Geranium phaeum ‘Raven’ (pictured above) for a shade pot by my back door. I’ve been amazed at how much bee activity it has considering the tiny flowers – but this attracts small bees, which you often don’t spot in a large border of flowers.
Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum)
Tom Massey used this plant at the 2023 Chelsea Flower Show. His display was monitored by the Royal Entomological Society (RES), which monitored pollinator activity. The Crimson clover was seen to have a huge amount of pollinator activity, but it’s not on the RHS’ pollinator-loving plant list! Great work guys!
Known for its vibrant, crimson-coloured flowers, Trifolium incarnatum is a bee-magnet that hails from Europe. This annual clover is a fantastic option for the UK gardeners seeking to attract bees, thanks to its rich nectar production.
Blooming from late spring to mid-summer, it offers a valuable food source for bees when many other plants may not be in bloom. Furthermore, it’s not just the pollinators who benefit – the Crimson Clover also adds a splash of colour to your garden and, as a legume, contributes to soil fertility by fixing nitrogen.
The purple aquilegia I recently planted is by far my most visited planted at the time of writing (end of April); bees seem to skip everything else and head straight to this plant.
Aquilegia will flower from late spring to early summer and are very easy to grow, ideally in a partial shade position in well-drained soil. Aquilegia self-seed and can spread; they can also cross-fertilise so it’s possible to end up with new varieties growing after a few years. They can become a serious problem though. I have a pink one growing on a stone path and it’s self-seeding like crazy; 10-20 new plants are appearing every week.
Many foxgloves are native to the UK, like Digitalis purpurea and perfect for long-tongued bees. They are easy to grow and like partial shade; they are naturally grow on the edge of woods and hedgerows. Foxgloves self-seed, so simply leave the dead flower heads on at the end of their bloom to allow seeds to disperse. For growing more foxgloves in new areas of your garden, collect the seeds and store them in a paper bag before sowing in spring.
Bees love catmint and it flowers from June to the first frost in October/November. Catnip can be planted in sunny borders or in containers around your garden. Nepeta can also be easily grown from seed – just don’t leave your seed trays anywhere near cats! Our cats sat on the whole try and killed all our seedlings.
Sedums are outdoor succulents that tend to flower in late summer, perfect for bees that are still around in autumn. Bees will be all over this plant, you will even find them sleeping on it in a drunken nectar state. Sedum is easy to grow in a sunny location and give borders some variety.
Best annual plants for bees
Annual plants in the UK complete their entire life cycle—from germination to growth, blooming, and seed production, all the way to death—in just one year. These annuals are more than just colourful additions to the garden; they serve as a vital, consistent source of pollen and nectar for bees. When other perennials are not in bloom, the sustained flowering of these annuals ensures bees have a continuous source of nourishment.
Recognised for their vibrant hues and unique dragon-mouth-like blossoms that intriguingly ‘snap’ open and shut when squeezed, these annual plants add a burst of colour to posts and borders. They bloom abundantly from June to October, offering a reliable source of nectar to local bees.
I planted the above snapdragon plant in one of my pots last month, next to my seating area and can attest to the number of bees it has attracted. They must be nectar-rich as they tend to spend time in each flower, like with foxgloves.
Annual Salvia plants bloom from mid-summer to frost, offering vibrant, nectar-rich flowers that attract bees and butterflies. Easy to maintain, these heat and drought-resistant plants enhance garden aesthetics while actively supporting local biodiversity. A go-to choice for UK gardeners, Salvia contributes to a healthy ecosystem.
Best Shrubs and Trees for Bees
Our website mainly focuses on herbaceous perennials, but we try and include some shrubs when called for.
- Buddleia (butterfly bush)
- Apple trees
- Wild cherry trees
- Willow tree
Other ways to help bees
You can buy ‘bee hotels’ online which are designed for solitary bees to sleep. Buddy makes the bee hotel below and available on Amazon. Alternatively, you can make your own; check out our guide on how to build a bee house.
Consider leaving parts of your grass to grow; Plantlife is promoting a No Mow May campaign. If you want to take bees seriously and have space, create a wildflowers section of your garden – I’m currently considering this.
Avoid all types of pesticides in your garden; many can kill bees. If a plant has a specific fungus, you can treat it with something natural after doing some research.
Gareth is the owner of Plantsman Media. Gareth lives in the North East of England and is obsessed with flowers. He has just started RHS level 2 certification.