National Pollinator Week

It's National Pollinator Week - bringing to attention the essential needs of pollinators and the simple actions that can be taken to aid their survival.

Bee Cornflower
Bumblebee on my cornflowers in the cutting garden

When we think of pollinators, bees immediately spring to mind, but there are at least 1,500 species of insects that pollinate plants here in the UK. These include bumble bees, honey bees and solitary bees but also hoverflies, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and moths. All have complex life cycles and specific needs. Most require food in the form of pollen and nectar, and need a home for shelter and nest-building. Summer is the time when numbers of insect pollinators are at their highest which coincides with peak plant growth and corresponding supplies of nectar and pollen.

Here are 5 simple steps that anyone can take which will help pollinators (advice taken from The Wildlife Trusts - visit their website for a host of information on this subject).

  1. Grow more flowers (yay!), shrubs and trees that provide nectar and pollen
  2. Let it grow wild - leave patches of the garden to grow wild with plants like stinging nettles and dandelions
  3. Cut the grass less often to encourage growth of wildflowers
  4. Don't disturb nests and hibernation spots
  5. Limit pesticide use
Butterfly feeding on Verbena
Comma butterfly feeding on Verbena bonariensis in our perennial borders

Our garden is stuffed full of nectar-rich flowers which also happen to be good for cut flowers. We don't use any pesticides in our garden, with the exception of organic slug pellets (spread very thinly in our raised cutting beds at the start of the growing season). We have an army of slugs at work in the garden and probably wouldn't have any annual flowers if we left them to their own devices. Birds, hedgehogs and other wildlife that eat slugs and snails are not harmed by organic pellets, unlike with other commonly available slug pellets.

We have a wilder, woodland area at the back of our garden and some of our raised beds have been built from pallets and filled with cobbles and flints around the sides to provide crevices for sheltering insects. We would love to have a wildflower meadow but don't have the space and have children who appreciate a lawn to play on but maybe one day! Having said that, we are not fanatical about having a closely clipped lawn and have Clover, Buttercups and Daisies growing away merrily among the grass. We often include a wildflower meadow when designing client's gardens  if they wish to have a wildlife-friendly garden.

Raised bed with insect shelter
Raised bed with insect shelter

When choosing plants, it's important to have a range of pollinator-friendly plants which flower at different times of the year so that beneficial insects have a food source / habitat year-round.

Which flowers are best for pollinators is an area of intense research by organisations such as the RHS and plant lists are refined every few years.  In the following lists, I have focused on plants that I find are also good for cut flowers so you can harvest some for the house and leave some for the bees and their pals. In general, the simple, natural flowers are the best nectar sources for insects as they have an open shape for easy access. The highly bred, showy, double varieties aren't as accessible.

Feb/March-May

Many insect pollinators will be emerging from Winter hibernation and need access to nectar quickly. Willows, Hawthorn and Fruit tree blossom such as Apples, Pears and Plums are good sources. Other important plants include Wallflowers, Crocuses, Primroses, Polyanthus, Rosemary, Snowdrops (single flowered varieties), Violets, Grape Hyacinths, Hellebores, Sweet Rocket and Honesty.

June-Mid-July

Most insect pollinators will be on the wing and actively foraging for food. Pollen will be collected as a protein source to produce and feed the next generation. Good sources are Ox-eye daisy, Foxgloves, Snapdragons, Cornflowers, Mallow, Lavenders, Alliums, Aquilegia, Borage, Hardy Geraniums, Ragged Robin, Lupins, Poppies, Honeysuckle, Marigolds, Salvia, Scabious, Oregano, Valerian, Buddlejas, Dahlias (single and semi-double varieties), Sea Holly, Fennel, Lupins, Phlox, Roses and Liatris.

Bee feeding on Allium nectar
Bumblebee on Allium sphaerocephalon

End July-October

Insect pollinators are looking to build up their energy levels and reserves before they head into hibernation. Good garden plants at this time of year include Ivy, late-flowering Hebes and Asters, Dahlias (single and semi-double varieties), Lavender, Roses, Salvias, Sedum spectabile, Sunflowers, Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea, Fennel and Rudbekias.

As you can see, there is a wide choice, so just including a few from each category will provide a food source for these important insects, in addition to providing you with a wonderful garden and flowers for the house. This list is by no means exhaustive, find a full list on the RHS Perfect for Pollinators page.

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