We all want to encourage pollinating insects into our garden but how can we achieve this? Butterflies and moths are challenging as they have a two-stage life cycle, caterpillar and winged adult, whereas bees rear their young themselves so we need only to worry about feeding the grown ups. So I am leaving Elaine the simpler task of making recommendations on which are the best nectar plants, whereas I will take on the more intellectually rigourous topic of larval foodplants, (don’t think Caroline has moved on from her childhood obsession with stag beetles so goodness knows what her insect related contribution is going to be this week …..)
Now here’s the problem for us gardeners, whereas adult Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) have cosmopolitan food tastes and will take nectar from a wide selection of non-native garden flowers, their caterpillars, having evolved alongside our wild British flora, are much fussier, each requiring a quite specific range of native host plants, and the adult butterflies are poor dispersers, never straying far from these plant populations.
Some of these plants are dictated by habitat, such as ancient woodland, heathland or chalk grassland, so unless you live on the edge of one of these ecosystems you are unlikely to ever encounter a silver washed fritillary, a green hairstreak, or an Adonis blue flitting through your garden.
So best to concentrate on the generalist butterflies, which it is feasible to encourage. The orange tip butterfly, which we are starting to see flying around now, simply needs the cuckoo flower (I know it as milkmaid) or hedge garlic, to lay its eggs on, both easy to have in a hedge bottom if you are not overly OCD about tidying up.
If you can get a bit of a native meadow going on some poor soil, put in plugs of birds foot trefoil and you may get caterpillars (and thus adults) of the common blue butterfly or the day flying six spot burnet moth appearing.
I think we all know that a bed of nettles is a Good Thing for all sorts of caterpillars, but some trees are just as good, oak and willow are both wonderful caterpillar pantries, and if you can manage to find a damp patch for a clump of alder buckthorn, you might be lucky enough to establish a colony of the stunning brimstone. (See our feature picture taken by our local butterfly guru Neil Hulme of Butterfly Conservation)
Laura is absolutely right – it is so important that we encourage pollinating insects – it comes down to sex really, doesn’t it (like most things eventually, don’t you find?)…..the bees collect nectar so that they can nurture young and in the process they pollinate the plants so that they can procreate. See, Laura bores you with the science, and I give it to you straight.
My go-to plants for attracting insects are Buddleia (of course -not called the ‘butterfly bush’for nothing!), Verbena bonariensis (such a pretty, tall but airy plant to thread through the border, flowering late and really rich in nectar), and sedums (Hyelotelephium) – the ordinary old-fashioned pink ones like spectabile seem to be much more butterfly-visited than the ones with dark-coloured leaves.
Lower-growing things can be really attractive to bees etc. as well, and I am a huge fan of marjoram (Origanum), which may not be terribly hardy in your part of the country, but certainly is here in the favoured south. You may have to grow it as an annual or tender perennial, sheltered from frost in the winter. It makes a lovely fragrant mat in weed-smothering fashion, and for months through the summer its flowers fairly hum with happy insects. Another option would be winter-flowering heather, which is a godsend for the early bumble bees coming out of hibernation.
An annual I keep meaning to grow again – and then forget again – is the poached-egg flower (Limnanthes douglasii). It’s a crazy-simple low-flowering annual plant to sow in a sunny spot (you’ve still got time now, this is one plant you can sow pretty much any time, actually!); and it becomes utterly covered in cup-shaped white and yellow flowers which are hugely popular with helpful hoverflies. Pop it around your veg beds, and the hoverflies will pollinate the plants and eat the aphids. It comes from California, but sometimes we can accept a bit of help from our friends across the pond, can’t we?
Yes thanks to my beastly sisters I spent my childhood running away from stag beetles as well as dodging wasps, swallowing midges, removing ants from my shorts and delighting in Elaine’s allergic reaction to furry caterpillars.
What a wonderful education, so as well as for butterflies and bees, let’s hear it for the ‘undateables’– the woodlice, centipedes and even slugs – uh-oh I can already hear Laura pointing out that none of these are technically insects, but they are vital for a hedgehog’s healthy waistline so let’s give them less metaldehyde and more tolerance.
Although I admit slug-ravaged hostas are a challenge to my inner ‘eco-warrior’, the slug pellets have stopped after my anxiety attacks about the wellbeing of thrushes (hardly ever see them now).
I’ve mastered the bee hotel (hang on wall), so I’m going to the next level with a ‘beetle bank’ which involves mounding a load of soil into a heap (because beetles and bugs like to get a bit higher up apparently) and planting different grasses on top – all actually within my horticultural skillset.
Camping out all night on Westminster Bridge might be a bit beyond us now but most gardeners are on the frontline of ‘ExtinctionRebellion’!
NB Louise Sims shares one of her most beautiful mistakes in this week’s Great Plants this Month