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.