Hoverfly on verbena

Gardening for pollinators

Insect apocalypse is the latest buzz phrase regarding insect decline. But gardeners might be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief in the belief that that might mean few problems to deal with in the garden. Sadly that’s not the reality and what it means is that insect populations and indeed many other wildlife groups like birds and bats are all in decline too.

Not just pollination

It’s so important to support our pollinators, of all sorts because many of our insect pollinators are predators too and form a vital layer of the food chain. While bees are the obvious pollinators hoverflies, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths and even beetles are pollinators too. Many of these feed on a range of other garden bugs often the ones that gardeners regard as pests. If you removed them from the food chain you would deny another creature its food source and create an imbalance in nature. 

Ladybird eating aphids
Ladybird feeding on aphids. Image: Jean Vernon

Pollinator food

We all know that pollinators need pollen and nectar, but many pollinators have a larval stage that requires plant material to feed them before they transform into the beautiful butterflies and moths that frequent our gardens. Unfortunately that means caterpillars. But caterpillars really aren’t the enemy. Sure there are a few that will decimate your plants and might be regarded as pests, but reaching for toxic pesticides is not the answer. The adults of these caterpillars are vital pollinators and play an essential role in the natural balance. It’s really important to understand that most butterfly and moth species need very specific plants to feed their young. The adults actually taste through their feet to ensure that they lay their eggs on the correct plant. So if you’ve got a few cabbage whites on the brassicas you can be sure that they won’t eat your roses because they need cabbages and relatives to feed. It’s fascinating. What’s more, even if your verbascum is heavily pruned by the fantastical blimp like mullein moth caterpillars, the plants will recover. They will grow back stronger and flower a bit later and longer. It’s a bit like nature doing the Chelsea Chop. Plus the caterpillars are spectacular!

Mullein Moth Caterpillar
Mullein Moth Caterpillar. Image: Jean Vernon

Larval plants

Learning about the larval plants that butterflies and moths need for their survival is fascinating. Many moths use different grass species to lay their eggs. There are several butterflies that lay their eggs on the leaves of stinging nettles growing in the sunshine. Native wildflowers like Bird’s foot trefoil are important larval plants for common blue butterflies and an important nectar source for pollinators too. If there is a species of butterfly or moth that you really want to see in your garden, learn about its lifecycle and the food plants that it needs and grow them.

Comma Butterfly
Comma butterfly. Image: Martin Mulchinock
The Secret Lives of Garden Bees by Jean Vernon
Image: Jean Vernon

Flower Power

But the easiest way to help our pollinators is to ditch the pesticides and plant more flowers. Choose plants with open easy access flowers, where the pollinators can land and feed. Plant a variety of different flower shapes and choose plants known to be good for pollinators. Many gardeners have loved my bee book because it is packed with lots of fun facts and information about garden bees, especially the bumblebees and solitary bees. Read more about it here: The Secret Lives of Garden Bees by Jean Vernon

Nesting sites

The final way you can help support pollinators is to think about nesting and overwintering sites. Leaving a patch of garden to grow wild and some undisturbed soil is extremely helpful. Think about adding an insect house such as this lovely Bee Brick. It can be incorporated into a south-facing wall or make a frame for it somewhere sunny and see which solitary bees you attract. Leave the spent flower heads and stems of your perennials over winter as they protect overwintering creatures and many insects use the hollow stems for nesting.

bee brick set into wall
A bee brick incorporated into a wall.

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