Apparently insect pollinators are responsible for one in three of every mouthfuls of food we eat. I expect you’ve all seen the apocalyptic scenario of empty shelves in the fruit and veg section if global bee numbers continue to tumble (don’t panic Caroline, grapevines are principally wind-pollinated so the wine aisles will be largely unaffected).
Back in the day, Geoff Hamilton would simply recommend planting a buddleia to tick the ‘nature’ box but scientists now tell us that butterflies are just the eye candy and it is bees that we need to focus on if we want to save the world.
Thank goodness then for the new wave garden gurus from Northern Europe, led by Piet Oudolf, who have introduced an influx of late summer perennials onto the horticultural scene in recent years that provide fuelling stations on an industrial scale for our little buzzing heroes,
Veronicastrums, echinaceas (just look at our feature pic, will you, how could anything resist?) and persicarias all virtually throb with bee activity, like a well organised factory shop floor (and complement grasses as lovely and hard-working as Louise’s Great Plant this Month).
Farmers often cop the blame for our drop in bee numbers, with the application of some over-effective insecticides, but they are making up for it now with some wonderfully nectar-rich ‘pollinator crops’ being planted around field margins. Phacelia and the sky blue chicory flowers make these strips beautiful as well as functional. Around us in the South Downs farmers are going a step further by participating in Buglifes’s ‘B-Lines’ project by joining forces with neighbouring farms to create a linked-up network of these pollinator strips across the landscape so that their insect populations can disperse happily across large areas of the countryside. Perhaps gardeners could learn a lesson or two from them and start to link up with their neighbours and create some bee corridors in their neck of the woods.
Wouldn’t you just know it, the brown-coated botanist is all too ready to dismiss butterflies as ‘eye candy’ in favour of all those dull drones. Butterflies may not be as essential to pollination as bees, but they are important, and lovely, indicators of biodiversity. I hope that lots of you took part in the Big Butterfly Count 2018 which finished last week, and should give us a good idea about how we are getting on with Butterfly Conservation.
I noticed that we had, unusually, almost no brightly-coloured butterflies in scorching July – just whites and the occasional yellow. But peacocks, red admirals and commas arrived in squadrons at the beginning of August. We were rewarded with a spectacular swallowtail one day, and the little brown gatekeepers have abounded in the dusty hedgerows. So I would expect the Butterfly Count to confirm that 2018 has been A VERY GOOD YEAR for our fluttery friends. What doesn’t seem clear is what the knock-on effect of the drought will be on insect numbers for next year, because lots of feeder-plants seem to have shrivelled and gone to seed earlier than usual.
If you are keen to attract beneficial insects into your garden (and you should be), there are some ace ways to make it happen:
1. Keep one corner, at least, a little wild – a few nettles, a bramble or two. They come naturally for gardeners like Caroline of course, but these areas are becoming depressingly few, especially in urban environments, and they provide important ‘nursery’ sites for insects.
2. Plant as many nectar-rich plants as you can. As well as Laura’s suggestions, I’ve found these especially popular in my garden : Eryngium (sea holly), Echinops (globe thistle), Hibiscus, Phlox, Aster, Eupatorium (Joe-Pye weed), Verbena bonariensis, Cosmos, Nepeta (catmint) as well as the more obvious Buddleia and Hyelotelephium (Sedum, as was). Single flowers are better than doubles.
3. Have some water handy, even if it’s just a little bird-bath. Water will draw a great many creatures not all of them desirable, but at least the mosquitoes can provide food for the swallows so everyone is quids in.
Poor old insects – just get water, when they’ve evolved another couple of million years they’ll find drinking so much more fun. Talking of which, my career in journalism has removed, to my sisters’ horror, any embarrassment about asking stupid questions so here goes: How come the bee population is apparently declining when my borders and those of my friends, are literally groaning with a moving tapestry of bees?
Based on my primary evidence – it’s going up. I hardly saw a foxglove this year without a bee’s bottom hanging out of it; they got so high on my Inula hookeri they passed out, spread-eagled on its flower heads and don’t start me on how many gorged on the unpromisingly tight bobbles of my Cotoneaster.
So I ask the question, exactly how many bees does it take to pollinate a world? Gazillions apparently. It looks as if we need to take a leaf out of Laura’s South Down farmers’ book and do more, think about the bees’ broader lifestyle i.e. their entire spring to autumn menu. Research at Wales’ Botanical Gardens shows that bees fed on only 11% of the 437 flower varieties they monitored. They found hellebores; hyacinths and wallflowers (as well as oak; hawthorn; holly and cherry/apple trees) were all very important food sources – in other words EARLY flowers are vital to the survival of our great British bees. Let’s get planting!
By the way, I haven’t seen any research on the benefits of bee hotels – surely the biggest Instagram star of the year. Personally I don’t care if I never see another photograph of one as long as I live. Do they work? Do bees like them? I worry they might be one of those politically correct but rather useless garden accessories. If you’re going to give me one for my birthday please make sure it’s a proper job and looks like this one at the RHS garden at Harlow Carr in Yorkshire. (I know, I’m sharing a photo of a bee hotel, I’m so sorry!)