By now, we all know how important bees are. Not only do they help pollinate wild flowers and plants, they also play a huge role in pollinating crops meaning we rely heavily on bees for our food production.
Bees are the only insect for which the whole life cycle is dependent upon flowers. The adults live on pollen and nectar and also collect it to feed their larvae. We are most familiar with honeybees and bumblebees, but there are around 270 species of bee in Britain, 250 of which are solitary rather than social. When you are trying to help bees in your garden, remember that there are other important pollinators too:
There are more than 2,400 species of moth in Britain. Some of the most spectacular are Hawkmoths, Burnets and Tigers! Most are hidden away during the day, feeding only at night but if you want to encourage moths, key plants include trees like oak, willow, birch, hawthorn and blackthorn. The latter two can be incorporated into a hedge, but if you need to scale down further (most of us don’t have space for an oak tree!), try evening primrose, night-scented stock or an area of wildflower meadow plants. Moths also visit ivy flowers to collect nectar in late summer, and any climbing plant will provide shelter for them during the day.
Butterflies are a more obvious visitor and are a welcome sight in most gardens. Some species have very specific needs. The caterpillars of the Brimstone, for example feed exclusively on Common and Alder Buckthorn with the adults needing woodland flowers like primrose and grape hyacinth. Other species, thankfully, are less discerning and there are many types of plant that will attract a whole variety of butterflies. Buddleja is particularly famous for its appeal but red valerian, marjoram, scabious and lavenders are also big favourites. Butterflies have long ‘tongues’, and seem to favour foodplants with tubular flowers, which make the nectar more difficult to reach for other insects.
Flies might not sound like the kind of insect you want to encourage, but, apart from houseflies and mosquitos, they rarely cause a nuisance, and they help with pollinating. Hoverflies even eat aphids! Hoverflies are sometimes mistaken for wasps, but if you take a closer look they’re easy to distinguish. Hoverflies tend to have a glossy appearance and short antennae and they hover, of course, whereas wasps are not shiny, have longer antennae and don’t hover.
All of the pollinators I’ve mentioned also play an important part in the food chain. So if you help them, you’ll automatically be helping birds and mammals, reptiles and amphibians too. Some general tips for helping pollinators:
- Have a variety of plants that flower at both ends of the season e.g., willow and primroses for early spring, and ivy for autumn.
- Provide nest sites like earthy banks, grassy tussocks in undisturbed grass, climbing plants.
- Grow flowers with a variety of shapes, avoiding ‘doubles’ and those that have been heavily altered genetically. Often, these have little scent or nectar.
- Bees are mostly attracted to blue, purple and yellow flowers, whereas red flowers look black to them.
- One plant in my garden that is guaranteed to be swarming with pollinators all summer is lavender. The new varieties do not seem to hold the same appeal, so (even though I am not keen on the smell of lavender) I have planted three of the old-fashioned type. If you can recommend a plant loved by pollinators in your garden, please add it to the comments.