In praise of roses

'What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'. When William Shakespeare wrote these immortal words in Romeo and Juliet, he suggested that all roses were the same (in respect of their sweet smell, at least). Indeed, in Shakespeare's day, perhaps most roses were the same, or similar. But he wasn't to know that over 400 years of selection and breeding of roses by horticulturalists would result in a stunning explosion of roses in many colours, shapes and scents. But in the pursuit of beauty, insect visitors of roses have been largely forgotten. Many varieties of rose are now off-limits for bumblebees and other insects, but why?

As with many popular plants, it all comes down to the breeding. Most natural versions of roses (for example, dog rose, Rosa canina) are simple and elegant things: they usually have just five petals, splayed out to show the centre of the rose. The centre is where all the pollen and nectar (bee food!) is, so these roses are perfectly shaped for bees, which have no problems in getting to the centre. The trouble comes when plants get bred for their appearance. Quite often, this results in varieties of roses which, although beautiful, are closed off to insect visitors. Some have too many petals, which are tightly bunched and cover the centre of the flower, preventing bees from reaching the pollen and nectar.

That's not to say that all 'bred' varieties of roses are useless for bees, and many of those that can be easily found in garden centres are just fine - but not all are. My tip when buying roses for the garden is simply to think like a bee: if you can see the yellow centre of the flower, then it's probably safe to say that it can be used by bees for food. If no flowers are visible, check the image on the label, or see if it mentions that it is bee friendly. I find that most of the roses that we refer to as 'ramblers' (those which can climb along trellis or up walls) are generally good for bees. Also, most of common Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa) varieties are excellent forage plants, and come with an even stronger scent that many of the other varieties. The names of these varieties are few too numerous to list, but if you stick to the golden rule (think like a bee!) then you can't go too far wrong.

Here are some of the roses with shapes which are perfect for bees, so you know what to look out for:

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