Planting for pollinators is important on many grounds, so we caught up with our Conservation and Education Development Manager, John Pemberton, to find out some advice for planting pollinators at home.
Firstly our pollinators are declining and any help gardeners can give them is worthwhile, secondly many of our pollinators are loved in their own right, the seemingly lackadaisical but actually hugely industrious bumblebee seemingly pottering around plant to plant or the elegant butterflies bringing the air to life midsummer hold a place many people’s hearts. Thirdly gardeners (and farmers) need pollinators to, well, pollinate.
There is a vast array of taxa which are important to pollination beyond the usual suspects. Species like the hoverflies, many beetles, solitary bees, bee flies, daytime and night time flying moths are also important for pollination of many plants. Generally speaking, though if you get it right for bees and butterflies you’ll be on the right lines for the rest.
Planting for pollinators may seem straightforward as all flowering plants produce pollen, don’t they? Unfortunately, it isn’t always that simple but it also doesn’t need to be complicated and there are some golden rules which can easily followed to make your garden pollinator friendly.
Plant for pollinators all year round
Our flowering season is becoming longer, starting earlier and running well into late autumn. This means that our pollinators are also changing behaviour in response to climate, in fact bumblebees have been recorded avoiding hibernation in some parts of the UK. This means those early food sources are critical. Early wildflowers like dandelion, winter aconite and snowdrop are good flowers to let flourish. Larger shrubs like winter honeysuckle is also an excellent source of winter sustenance.
The purist wildlife gardener will often advocate going native or going home. This is not always necessary but it is worth considering the origins of plants you use. Many exotic ornamental plants have been bred for aesthetic value rather than pollen or nectar production. This means many plants either don’t produce much of the aforementioned “bug grub” but actually many have been bred in a way which physically prevents access by pollinators. This is particularly the case in “double flowered/petalled” strains of plants where the plant has been bred for a fuller bloom, which blocks access to any pollen which is produced, although many don’t actually produce pollen. When considering pollinators, you do need to go with single petal varieties. Some species which are of value in their single petal form but not their double petal form is hawthorn, dahlia and anenomes.
Understand your pollinators
You do not need to become an insect expert to plant well for pollinators but it is worth understanding the stages of many pollinator’s life cycles. Most invertebrate pollinators go through an egg, larval and adult stage. In many species the plants required to support them differ depending on life stage. It’s very easy to focus on the adult, these after all are the ones gardeners are most likely to see and are the ones often carrying out the pollination but without surviving the egg and larval stage there won’t be any adults. Take a garden classic, the peacock butterfly. An avid feeder on garden buddleia as an adult but as a caterpillar they require nettles. Similarly, the comma butterfly caterpillar feeds on hop plants (only the foliage, leaving the harvest available for your home brewing needs!) and holly blue caterpillar feeds on ivy. Try to familiarise yourself with the butterflies visiting your garden and research their larval food plants.
Don’t forget about nectar rich plants
Nectar is the food which keeps the adults alive, it is their fuel (carbohydrate). The pollen is their protein and normally what is fed to the larvae (in the case of bees). A good general rule is that annuals produce much less of both than perennials.
Much of the advice above is based on what to do. You can always do nothing, at least to an area within your garden. Letting the grass grow will normally result in wildflowers you didn’t know were present popping up and these are often high value for pollinators. The longer grass can also provide over wintering habitat to caterpillars and other invertebrate larvae. Cutting once or twice a year, removing the cuttings and only cutting to about 10cm will create a mini oasis for pollinators and other wildlife.
Once you have the food supply sorted you could then start thinking about other elements of catering for wildlife in your garden, bug hotels, shelter spots, nest boxes. Even the smallest garden can create valuable habitat for our struggling wildlife.
Our partners, RSPB have produced a list of pollinator friendly plants available here.