Honey bee on Mahonia; Buff-tailed bumblebee queen on winter-flowering heather (Photos: Alison Benjamin unless credited)
Many of us don’t have space to plant a tree, but what about planting a few shrubs instead? Researchers at Bristol University has found that one flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) with 3,000 flowers provides as much nectar as 16,000 primrose (Primula vulgaris) flowers or 69,000 snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and that shrubs like mahonia, berberis, pieris, ceanothus, and pyracantha can be similarly nectar rich.
I’ve been doing my own research to put together a list of easy-to-grow shrubs that if planted sequentially would provide year-round food for bees.
As it’s December, my bee-friendly shrub suggestions start from now. Even though many will grow well in shady spots, do remember that bees prefer to forage in warm, sunny areas. As always this is not a definitive list, but designed for people who want to maximise the limited space in their garden or pots to feed bees all year.
Oregon Grape ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ and M. x media ‘Winter Sun’) – produces cheery, bright yellow, lemon-scented flowers rich in nectar and pollen from now until March. Tough, with prickly, holly-like leaves, it does well in dry, shady spots making it a favourite of municipal planting.
Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) – lovely flat heads of small, white flowers until April can brighten up shady spots.
Clematis ‘Jingle Bells’ (Clematis cirrhosa ‘Jingle Bells’) – large, nodding, scented cream-coloured flowers are ideal for over a doorway. It needs a sunny, sheltered spot and possibly protection from harsh winter frosts.
Sweet Box (Sarcococca confus or Sarcococca hookeriana) – works well as an evergreen hedge. Its tiny white flowers carry a heavenly scent until March.
Viburnum tinus; Witch Hazel (photo credit: Laura Ockel, Unsplash); honey bee on Winter Snow heather
Heathers (Erica carnea) – perfect for a rockery or small flower bed with acidic, ericaceous soil. Winter flowering specimens, include white ‘Winter Snow’ (Erica carnea f. alba ), or ‘Winter rubin’ (Erica carnea ‘Winter Rubin’) for a splattering of pink.
Winter Daphne (Daphne odora) or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ – a slow-growing medium-sized, evergreen shrub with clusters of pinkish and white flowers and an intoxicating scent in winter and early spring.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) –fragrant, strange-looking ribbon-like flowers hang off bare twigs in early winter. There are many cultivars with slightly different coloured flowers ranging from sulphur yellow to coppery red.
Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflora) – what it lacks in fragrance, it makes up for with small, yellow flowers on bare stems from January to March.
Bastard senna ‘Citrina’ or Scorpian Vetch (Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’) – pretty pea-like, yellow flowers appear in early spring and are often followed by a second flush in later summer. A native of Southern Europe and Northern Africa, it will benefit from the protection of a sunny, south-facing wall.
Camellias – but only those with single-headed flowers with well exposed pollen-laden stamens, unlike the many double-headed cultivars. They need acidic, ericaceous soil.
Japanese quince (Photo: Yoksel Zok, Unsplash); Camellia (Photo: Annie Spratt, Unsplash); Rhododendron (Photo :Padre Moovi, Unsplash)
Honey spurge, or Canary spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) – small, honey-scented, bonze tinted flowers are borne on an exotic looking, architectural dome-like structure.
Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) – clusters of pinkish/reddish tubular flowers are loved by long-tongued bumblebees and hairy-footed flower bees.
Burkwood viburnum (Viburnum × burkwoodii) – a later flowering evergreen viburnum with similar domed clusters of fragrant white flowers until May, that open from pink buds.
Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis darwinii) – an evergreen, with similar holly-like leaves to Mahonia, but clusters of orange flowers which are a major source of nectar and pollen in early spring and again in the autumn.
Lilly of the Valley shrub (Pieris japonica) – its bell-shaped flowers are visited by long-tongued solitary bees, such as hairy-footed flower bees, and bumblebees. Requires acidic, ericaceous soil.
Rhododendron – its flowers contain low concentrations of poison for honeybees, but long and short-tongued bumblebees find the single-flowered varieties highly attractive for both nectar and pollen. Best in acidic soils. Compact varieties can be grown in pots filled with ericaceous compost.
Californian Lilac (Ceanothus) – a stunning evergreen small ‘tree’ smothered in clusters of electric blue flowers that buzz with bees all month in full sun.
Firethorn (Pyracantha) –the bunches of small white flowers on this spiny-branched shrub are visited by many solitary bee species, but it’s mostly grown for the profusion of showy, bright orange-red berries in autumn.
Japanese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira) – profuse and intensely scented flowers open white and then turn yellow in April and May against the attractive large, glossy foliage of this drought-tolerant shrub.
Californian lilac (Photo: Charlotte Harrison, Unsplash); Fuchsia with bumblebee (Photo: David Clode, Unsplash); Beautyberry berries in autumn ( (Photo: Yamasa, Unsplash)
Cotoneasters are a great source of nectar and pollen during the ‘June gap’ – when there’s a dearth of bee food between spring flowers dying and summer perennials flowering. Research at Cambridge Botanic Gardens found that the clusters of small white or pink flowers of many Cotoneaster species can provide a succession of forage for short-tongued bumblebees and honeybees from May to August. Varieties include the low-growing red-berried C. horizontalis, which can be trained up walls, and Franchet’s (C. Franchetii) which makes an evergreen pollution-tolerant hedge; and the graceful willow-leaved (C. ‘Rothschildianus‘) which has yellow berries.
Senecio Sunshine (Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’) – a compact, drought-tolerant, evergreen shrub from New Zealand that works well in coastal areas and has hairy, grey leaves and bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in June and July.
Beautyberry ‘Profusion‘ (Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’) Prized for its clusters of violet, bead-like berries on bare branches in the autumn, which are much-loved by birds, and its striking foliage that changes colour during the seasons. This deciduous shrub also has small pink flowers in midsummer which attract the bees.
Daisy bush (Olearia × haastii) – an evergreen drought-tolerant shrub smothered in white, daisy-like flowers with big yellow centres in July and August. Its glaucous, glossy leaves make it suitable for coastal, windy gardens.
Hardy fuchsias – bushy, compact shrubs with a profusion of dainty two-tone pendent flowers that the RHS describe as dangling in pairs, “like mini ballerinas with tutus”, along the stems towards the tips. They can last well into the autumn and bring a tropical touch to a garden if planted in a sheltered, sunny spot and watered.
Bluebeard or Blue Spiraea (Caryopteris × clandonensis) – clusters of slightly fluffy, blue flowers appear in August and September on long stems among pointed, aromatic, grey-green leaves. (Although I have to admit, I’ve not had much success with this drought-tolerant shrub.)
Bluebeard (Photo: Emily Simpson, Unsplash) Buddleia (Photo: Gavin Allanwood, Unsplash) Chaste Tree (Photo credit: Griffin Taylor, Unsplash)
Butterfly bush or buddleia (Buddleja davidii) – buy a small cultivar of this coloniser of railway sidings for bee and butterfly visitors from July to October. Dense spikes of honey-scented, brightly coloured flowers can be encouraged by regular deadheading.
Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) – cone-shaped clusters of violet-blue lavender-looking fragrant flowers appear from July to October – if planted in a sunny, sheltered garden – on this attractive, slender drought-resistant plant with finger-like leaves .
Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica) – an autumn-flowering tropical-looking, evergreen with huge, glossy, palmate leaves for shady corners. It produces showy panicles of spherical, creamy white flowers from September right through to November.
Oleaster or Silverberry (Elaeagnus × submacrophylla) – in autumn, very small, but well-scented, creamy-white flowers open until November on this shade, drought and wind-tolerant evergreen that can be grown as a hedge.
Fastsia Japonica (Photo credit: The Blow Up, Unsplash); Strawberry tree with Buff-tailed bumblebee queen
Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) – an evergreen, Mediterranean shrubby tree, with bell-shaped white flowers late in the year which hang from its branches unusually at the same time as its jolly, round, red fruit dangle like baubles on a Christmas tree.
Sources: RHS, Graham Rice, Buzz About Bees.net, The Garden Buzz, Dave Goulson, Gardening for Bumblebees, Pollinating London Together, BBC Gardeners’ World magazine, Addicted to bees, Urban Bees plants for bees list, Crocus.co.uk
Thanks to Diana Weir for her suggestions and help compiling this list.