Plants for Pollinators
Photo: Louise Curley
Insects are crucial to the health of the planet and our survival as humans – they provide food for a whole range of animals and insectivorous plants, and also pollinate plants that provide us with food. Increasingly though insects are under threat from the overuse of chemicals, climate change, habitat loss and diseases. As gardeners though we can do something to help: we can transform our gardens into safe havens for these creatures. Crucially this means ditching any forms of chemical use. Then the next step is to grow a wide range of plants that will provide a rich source of food in the form of pollen and nectar.
Think about creating layers of planting that will provide sources of food throughout the year and not just during the summer months. Some bees will emerge from hibernation on mild days during winter so it’s important to have plants that produce flowers at this time of year; plants such as winter-flowering honeysuckle, aconites and mahonia. In spring it’s crucial to have plants such as crocuses, daffodils and flowering shrubs which will give insects a boost after a long winter, and in autumn they need to be able to build up their energy reserves, feeding on plants such as ivy, asters and sedum to help them survive the colder months.
Plant breeders have created increasingly blowsy blooms with multiple layers of petals which obscure the centre of the plant where insects would normally access the pollen and nectar, and even if they could get to their food, these hybrids often produce little in the way of pollen and nectar anyway. If you want to attract bees and butterflies and other pollinators then avoid these types of plants and instead grow ones that have simple, open flowers, which are like landing pads for passing insects.
It’s not just daisy-like blooms that appeal to bees and butterflies, tubular flowers like foxgloves are loved by bumblebees, and the tiny, narrow flower tubes of Verbena bonariensis and buddleia are popular with butterflies and, if you’re lucky, the hummingbird hawk moth. Umbels – flat-topped flower heads made up of small individual blooms – are especially good for hoverflies and honey bees. The key is to plant a rich variety of different types of flower to keep the different types of insects happy.
Studies have shown that bees see the colour blue much more clearly than other colours and are therefore more attracted to flowers on the blue part of the colour spectrum. In my own garden bees certainly make a bee-line for purple salvias, purple catmint and the purple geraniums.
British insects have evolved alongside native plants which means they recognise them and can access the pollen and nectar easily, so if you can find space for plants such as foxgloves, ox-eye daisies and ragged robin that’s great. But non-native plants can be just as good, for instance astrantia, heleniums, single-flowered dahlias and cosmos are all magnets for bees and butterflies.
Top Ten Plants for Pollinators
- Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’
- Verbena bonariensis
- Geranium ‘Azure Rush’
- Veronicastrum ‘Fascination’
- Cosmos ‘Purity’
- Astrantia ‘Roma’
- Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’
- Achillea millefolium
- Stachys byzantina
Photo: Louise Curley
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
- Current blog posts
- Three tips for the greenhouse
- For the plants to grow it takes fertilizer but which one?
- Sterile soil is not good for the plants
- Greenhouse plants also get sick
- Hens in the garden
- Provide shade for your plants
- The philosophical gardener’s theory of perennials
- Create good living conditions for animals and insects in the garden
- The golf courses great secret
- What you need to be aware of when growing in plastic