Garden Plants for Butterflies and Bees

Symphytum officinale
Not so good for honeybees...
We’re often asked to come up with a top ten list of garden plants for butterflies and bees, and I’m never quite sure what to say. IBRA (the International Bee Research Association) produce an excellent book, Plants for Bees, with notes telling you whether a plant is particularly good for nectar or pollen, or for bumblebees as opposed to honeybees. It helpfully also covers trees and native plants, which are, of course, important as food plants for butterfly and moth larvae. The British Beekeepers’ Association provide a helpful list, as do the standard beekeeping books I use. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation have good summaries on their websites too. Anway, everyone I talk to or read seems to have their own favourites so I’m just going to come up with some general guidelines pinched from various reliable sources:

    1. Always prefer single flowered cultivars over double flowered.
    2. Don’t buy the fancy hybrids you saw on offer at the local garden centre. If they’re not sterile the chances are that any pollen or nectar they have will be inaccessible. Think wildflowers, or cottage garden perennials, or herbs.
    3. Try to ensure that you provide a continuous supply of forage throughout the active season for bees and butterflies. Different butterfly species and different generations are around from spring until autumn. The trend towards warmer winters means bees could be flying almost any time throughout the year; they need pollen particularly in the spring and early summer for their brood, then increasingly nectar for honey. Traditionally beekeepers referred to a period in mid summer as the “June gap”, when there is often a temporary shortage of flowers which it is useful to compensate for too.
    4. Plant in clumps. Jan Miller makes this point in her helpful article in the latest edition of The Cottage Gardener; butterflies can’t see well and will find groups of flowers more easily.
    5. Plant a variety of plants. Bees seem to be healthier if they are not surrounded by a monoculture, and on a practical basis different species need different sorts of flowers as they have different length tongues. Long tongued bumblebees and solitary bees like the Hairy Footed Flower Bee love comfrey, for example, but short tongued honeybees can’t reach its nectaries.
    6. If you’re particularly keen on bumblebees, concentrate on plants from the pea family (Fabaceae), like the Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) or Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Dave Goulson explains why in his book “Bumblebees”; Fabaceae pollen has the richest protein and highest proportion of essential amino acids. These plants are also of great importance as a source of nectar.
    7. Plant British plants, particularly for butterflies. They need natives to provide food for their larvae, and most need very specific plants. Yellow Brimstones will come to your garden only if you plant Buckthorn. Andrew George’s book “The Butterfly Friendly Garden” has an excellent list of native plants and their associated butterfly species.
    8. Plant helpful trees if you can. There are a lot of flowers on an apple tree.
    9. Make a wildlife pond. Not only will you then be able to grow several of our most beautiful and nectar rich wildflowers (which we’d be happy to sell you!), but the water is good for every insect in the garden. For bees specifically, honeybees collect water (for their brood, to maintain humidity in the brood nest, and to dilute their own honey), and the mud is useful for mason bees to make their nests.
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud At The Pondside

The Cottage Garden Society

Gatekeeper on Oregano
Gatekeeper on Oregano
I’m a big fan – and member of – the Cottage Garden Society. The CGS is a group of about 6,000 friendly and typically experienced gardeners, organized into small regional groups in the UK. Without being preachy they have an underlying philosophy I absolutely empathise with:

Gardens now provide vital habitats for wildlife, as a result of changes in farming methods, increased use of chemicals, destruction of orchards, hedges and ponds. By growing simpler, traditional cottage garden flowers such as lavender, thyme and other herbs, foxgloves, pinks and single varieties of flowers, rather than modern, double-flowered varieties, we can help to maintain a variety of birds, butterflies, insects etc. Modern hybrid flowers are often sterile and produce no nectar for insects, who have an important role in pollinating our fruit and flowers. Bees in particular need gardeners help in providing nectar-rich flowers – bumble bees are especially affected by the loss of food plants, and their numbers have declined. Other beneficial insects, birds, frogs, toads, hedgehogs also contribute to our gardens in helping to keep down insect pests, slugs and snails. By encouraging biodiversity in our gardens, we can help maintain the precarious balance of nature.

This might very well have come from our own website. Membership is from a very reasonable £9, for which you get a range of benefits adding up to a lot of practical help.