The threat of extinction for British bees has prompted gardeners across the country to build new hives.

Home Hives

The beekeepers of Coventry are huddled around one of their hives at Ryton Gardens, in Warwickshire, headquarters of the charity Garden Organic. Dressed a little like astronauts, in protective white suits and hoods, they carefully lift one bee-coated frame after another to inspect them.

You might expect a bee-friendly organic garden to be a meadow dotted with dandelions and daisies, but Ryton is a series of well-kept beds with a herb garden, a rose garden and all the other trappings of formal horticulture. "A garden doesn't have to be a mess of wild flowers to seduce bees," says Peter Spencer, of the Warwickshire Beekeepers' Association. "It can be as neat and stylish as you like, but it must be planted with certain flowers." This is an excellent time to plant bee-friendly perennials, rich in easily accessible nectar and pollen, and get them established before winter sets in.

At Ryton, a designated bee garden showcases the plants bees like best. Sophisticates such as bergamot, gaura and the architectural globe thistle mingle with helenium, mallow and cobalt pools of cornflowers. The hexagonal garden has a glass viewing hive from which people can watch bees at work and try to spot the queen.

Other gardens open to the public are following suit, putting bee gardens or apiaries in place to illustrate how to plant for nectar: RHS Hyde Hall, in Essex, has just installed hives; Cragside, in Northumberland, now plants with bees in mind; there's a new bee garden at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire; and in Hert-fordshire, a bee garden and education centre, BuzzWorks, is being created.

The main reason for these wonderful gardens is the plight of the honeybee, which, like several of our 250 bee species, is in danger of extinction. "I lost 9 out of 12 hives last year," Spencer says. "Many beekeepers have a similar story." In fact, this year's harvest has been so poor - as many as one in three of Britain's 240,000 hives did not survive the winter and spring - that Rowse, the UK's leading honey producer, predicts supermarkets will have no English honey to sell by Christmas.

The reasons for the crisis are complex, but disease, changing climate - in particular this year's late spring and wet summer, which have kept the bees confined to their hives - and loss of habitat are all important factors. The varroa mite, which originated in Asia, has ravaged our wild bee populations and is now affecting domestic hives, where it weakens the bees, making it harder for them to survive winter.

Experts warn of the arrival of the deadly small hive beetle from America at any time, and there is also the threat of colony collapse disorder - bees mysteriously deserting hives - which has hit American apiaries hard. Avoiding imported honey and flowers may help, as these sometimes harbour disease, but the key to stemming the decline is research.

"The bee is vital," says Francis Rat-nieks, Britain's only professor of apiculture. "It pollinates many plants - if it vanishes, so will a huge proportion of flowers and crops. A lot more must be done to help it. Research is the main way, but we have trouble with funding. Although the bee contributes £165m a year to the agricultural economy, the Government gives it only £200,000 of health-research funds in return." The British Beekeepers' Association is running a campaign to change this (visit, but we can also help by becoming bee-minded gardeners. This means avoiding insecticides, which kill beneficial insects such as bees as well as pests, and cultivating their favourite flowers. If bees eat well, they are less prone to disease - and we'll benefit by having healthier and more abundant flowers and vegetables, all pollinated by them, as well as the pleasing sound of their hum.

So, what should we be planting? In general, bees like flowers of the rose family (which includes apple blossom and pyracantha), the daisy family and herbs with small flowers, such as mint, lavender and rosemary. Plant in drifts, rather than singly, as this makes it easier for them to find these nectar bars, and don't bother with double-flowered species, which have no nectar.

Some beekeepers believe bees favour blue plants - at Ryton, the blue of the lavender seems a magnet - but many yellow flowers also have pulling power. On our visit, the golden rod is covered in foragers, their heads buried in the flowers; only their back legs, dusted with collected pollen, are visible.

We are being encouraged to keep bees, but many people are wary, concerned about swarms and stinging. "Take a course with a local beekeeping group before you buy hives," Spencer advises. "And put them in the right place - then it's safe." The ideal garden is big, with boundary hedges at least 6ft high: bees tend to fly at a constant height, so this will force them above head level and make them less of a nuisance in your neighbour's garden. They rarely sting unless provoked. To be on the safe side, though, a hive should be at least 16ft from a part of the garden you use regularly.

If keeping honeybees doesn't appeal, or you don't have the space, why not make your garden a haven for solitary bees and bumblebees? They are also important pollinators and, like honeybees, in decline. Garden centres sell cute-looking wooden bee homes, but experts turn up their noses at them, pointing out that bumblebees, which form smaller colonies than honeybees, are much more likely to nest underground or in a sheltered, undisturbed spot - underneath a garden shed, say - while solitary bees prefer to shelter in holes in wood.

The best way to help bees, Spencer says, is to provide a constant source of food: "They need food throughout the season, particularly in spring, to feed their young, and in autumn, to see them through hibernation". Certain flowers, including crocus, aubretia, thyme, heather and sedum, provide a richer source of nectar and pollen than others, so include some of these high-energy blooms in your plantings. Fruit trees offer invaluable blossoms in spring.

At the viewing hive in Ryton, Spencer points to a bee that is vigorously waggling her abdomen. "Look, she's telling them where she's just been - where the best food is in relation to the sun," he says. If you fill your beds and containers with nectar- and pollen-rich plants, your garden could also become a Michelin-starred feeding station for local bees.

The bees' needs

Bees love the orange flowers of California poppies ( Eschscholzia californica), which light up a garden and bloom for months. They look great growing through gravel.

Angelica archangelicais a 6ft herb with white-green flowers that bees can't resist, and its architectural shape makes it perfect for the contemporary garden.

Copy Kailzie Gardens, near Peebles in Scotland, and create a pattern on your lawn by planting circular patches of daisies or white clover (above) and mowing around them.

Crocuses provide essential food for the first bees to emerge in early spring. Plant them now in groups in a sunny spot, in pots (where they need gritty soil) or in the ground.

Include patches of campanulas and asters (which provide autumn food) or create miniature hedges of rosemary or lavender (above) to edge your flowerbeds.

Further reading: The Bee Friendly Garden by Ted Hooper and Mike Taylor (Alphabet and Image £14.99)