Bumblebees are an essential part of global ecosystems and without them we cannot grow crops such as beans, coffee, berries, nuts and much more. Concerningly, bumblebee populations are at risk. During the 20th century two bumblebee species went extinct in the UK with another eight species experiencing large scale declines. Major increases in the demand for cheap and unblemished crops, the increased use of pesticides, loss of habitat and climate change all contribute to the issue.

Collective action, however, can help tackle the disappearance of pollinator habitat. Small green spaces can help support pollinator populations by extending the availability of food throughout the flowering season. NHS health centres and hospital sites have been working to create urban havens for bumblebees while also benefitting staff, patients, visitors and the wider community. These spaces have been particularly popular among NHS staff during the Covid-19 pandemic:

The bee garden is a source of great enjoyment every morning when we come into the surgery. Lots of people have commented on the flowers appearing. Especially in these strange times, it provides a nice distraction and a reminder of the natural world, oblivious to it all.

GP, Summertown Health Centre, Oxfordshire

Plants that attract bees will support other pollinators, too – such as butterflies, moths and beetles. These are equally as important in sustaining our crops and other plants, and they have wider ecosystem benefits, too – an increase in insect populations can result in the return of bats and certain bird species, for example.

NHS Forest sites with bee-friendly planting initiatives

The NHS Forest’s ‘Bee Healthy’ programme has created pollinator-friendly green spaces at several medical centres in Oxfordshire, including Windrush Medical Practice in Witney. Windrush already had a meadow area containing lavender flowers, which attract bees in June and July. As part of the project, raised beds were filled with species that bloom from March through to October, and plans drawn up by an ecologist and a landscape designer ensured that these were low-maintenance species that would not need constant watering. The plants were purchased from nurseries that do not use harmful pesticides.

Planting for Bee Healthy project at Windrush Medical Practice. Photo: Roselle Chapman, Wild Oxfordshire. All rights reserved.
Planting for Bee Healthy project at Windrush Medical Practice. Photo: Roselle Chapman, Wild Oxfordshire. All rights reserved.
Wildflower ID session led by the ranger at Southmead Hospital
Wildflower ID session led by the ranger at Southmead Hospital. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Southmead Hospital in Bristol has several areas set aside for meadows, where native wildflowers bloom from early spring through to autumn, creating a months-long feast for pollinators. Our on-site Nature Recovery Ranger has engaged hospital staff with these thriving habitats by leading butterfly transects and ID sessions around the site, during which participants can learn about the many species that inhabit their workplace, and monitor numbers and locations.

How to create a bee-friendly space

A simple, bee-friendly garden can provide food for bees and other pollinators throughout their flight season. Consider the flowering period of different plants to ensure they will provide flowers at different times during the growing season.

Easy-to-find, nectar-rich perennials such as star of Persia (Allium cristophii) and purple sensation (Allium hollandicum), which flower in the spring, can be combined with plants such as oregano (Origanum vulgare), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantine) and caradonna (Salvia nemorosa), which usually bloom between June and September. For further advice on plant selection visit the Royal Horticulture Society’s website which offers extensive information on over 3,000 pollinator-friendly plants, including advice on plant care.

Developing a garden plan with details of plant selection and a map showing where they should be placed is helpful in guiding the purchasing of plants and coordinating planting efforts. When drawing up a garden map, include plants in groups of three of the same species, rather than having just one of each plant or placing the same species at different spots around the garden. Clustering them together in this way makes it easier for pollinators to feed, as one plant may not supply enough nectar, and the insects might find it hard to find food if same species are spread out.

Bee Healthy planter at St. Bartholomew’s Medical Centre, Oxford
Bee Healthy planter at St. Bartholomew’s Medical Centre, Oxford. All rights reserved.
Bee-friendly planting
Bee-friendly planting. All rights reserved.

In borders with access from one side, place tall species at the back, grading down to short species at the front. Planting areas with access from all sides should have tall species in the middle with shorter species around them. It can be a nice idea to include signs with information on bees, other pollinators, and the featured plants, so that staff, patients and visitors can learn more about these spaces, and consider pollinators when planting up their own gardens, planters or window boxes.

Lastly, it is essential that plants and soil are free of toxic pesticides. The Royal Horticultural Society has good advice on pesticides and pollinators.

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