We are all now becoming aware that our pollinators are in trouble, and that we need them for our food, as well as to enjoy butterflies and bees in the garden.
We have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with pollinators in our gardens.
For example, many people profess to love butterflies while actively destroying caterpillars or their food sources.
Perhaps, in the past, the less desirable caterpillars could find homes beyond our gardens, so that the beautiful floaty butterflies could grace our gardens without their children making holes in any leaves. That time is fast disappearing as there is so little wildness left in our world. We need to find space in our gardens and in our hearts for all the life stages or all pollinators.
What do pollinators need from us?
- A long season of nectar and pollen bearing flowering plants for the adults.
- Food for their babies and youngsters.
- Safe nursery spaces for their eggs and babies and chrysalises.
- Somewhere cosy and undisturbed to spend the winter.
Flowers need to be accessible to the insects. Some double flowers have been bred to appeal to gardeners, but insects can’t reach the nectar even if the flowers produce some.
The flowers also need to be nectar and pollen rich. Many modern, and not so modern bedding plants are virtually nectar free. An example of this would be the begonias so loved by municipal gardeners.
Native plants are known to be about 4X as attractive to pollinators as other plants. This is because many insects are specialist feeders, adapted to our native plants and flowers. This means that making a little space for ‘wildflowers’ will attract yet more insects to your garden.
It may be less obvious that evening nectar plants such as night stocks are also important for the night shift of pollinators such as moths.
Let’s not forget that flowers are found on trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. Also, many flowering plants such as clover and daisies do well in a lawn that is cut (not too often) on a high setting. Leave some of your lawn long, and marvel at how it buzzes with life.
Insects also need a really long season of flowering plants, right from the first bulbs of spring to the late autumn beauties. A gap in the flowering season means starvation for the insects.
A final point about flowering plants. Insecticides do not differentiate between bees, butterflies, and aphids. A pollinator friendly garden that is free from insecticides is a garden full of pollinators. If the aphids are winning and there are no ladybirds in sight, then spray soap or garlic solution on them.
Caterpillars need leaves to munch. Often these leaves belong to native plants such as stinging nettles and wildflowers. Bee babies are fed the stored food gathered by the adults in the form of pollen, or, in the case of honey bees, honey. Baby hoverflies eat lots of different foods – rotting plant material, aphids and thrips, and more besides. Baby lacewings specialise in eating aphids, mites and insect eggs.
In this section I am including safe homes for eggs and pupae, cocoons, or chrysalises.
Their requirements are similar to the overwintering needs of the adults, eggs, or juvenile forms of the pollinators.
They all need loose and undisturbed soil, leaf litter, dead stems and twigs, nooks and crannies in general.
Some juvenile forms cannot fly so they have no fast way of evading strimmers ‘tidying’ the garden, or lawn mowers cutting on a low setting.
Leaf cutter bees need to make those little holes in your rose leaves to line their nests. Many other insects make nests by curling over a leaf to hide their eggs. Let’s marvel at their ingenuity instead of grumbling about the odd folded leaf or semicircle missing from a rose leaf.
As winter draws in there is a little questioned feeling that the garden needs tidying up. This means cutting down dead stems, sweeping up all the leaves, and leaving the ground bare.
Pollinators need the opposite…
Dead stems and twigs to hide in, a bit of long scruffy grass to burrow into, a pile of sticks or logs, and maybe a pile of rocks full of nooks and crannies to settle into for a cosy sleep, waiting for the weather to warm up a little.
Then they will emerge on the warmer days to forage for those early flowers that you have thought to plant in the autumn. The life cycle will be complete, and you can feel the joy of spring when you glimpse the first butterfly or bee in your garden.
Happy gardening for you and all those who live in your garden.