How to help garden pollinators

Our gardens are a haven for pollinators. Even if we are unaware of their presence they visit the flowers and plants in our gardens to forage for food, nesting materials and more. Even a small garden, terrace or patio can support these creatures in some way, but there’s more to helping them than growing more flowers, thought that’s a great thing to do too.

Nectar flow

Most of our precious pollinators use flower nectar as an energy source to fuel their activity. Flowers rich in nectar become a magnet for bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths, providing that it is accessible. Double flowers are often highly bred and sometimes at the expense of nectaries and other flower parts, meaning nectar and/or pollen can be absent. Extra petals can make it difficult for bees to reach the centre of the flower. Instead they like landing pads, dinner plates and dining bar flowers where they can easily land and feed efficiently. But different flowers suit different pollinators because they have a variety of tongue lengths and feeding requirements. That’s why growing a wide range of flowers is important. What suits one pollinator may not suit another. Big bumblebees need strong flower stems to support their weight while feeding, while dainty hoverflies can feed from the airy platforms of umbellifers.

Large bees like this bumblebee need flowers on strong stems to support their weight
Image: Jean Vernon

Some plants like borage and echium replenish their nectaries regularly, making them excellent pollinator plants, but remember that in hot weather, nectar flow can dry up, so it’s important to water your pollinator plants.

Insects need water too so be sure to create a bee drinker of a shallow bowl of pebbles filled with water.

Extend the flowering season

Our garden pollinators are on the wing from February until early winter. They need food plants in flower throughout this period. Some are even active right through winter too. Take a look at your garden month by month. We’ve all got lovely summer gardens, but there are dearths. June is often a big gap in garden forage, but very early spring and late autumn can also be difficult times for pollinators. Leave some of your lawn to flower in summer. Divide it into thirds and leave a third to flower for a few months, cutting it just two or three times a year. You’ll be amazed at the wildflowers that will emerge.

Plant wildflower plugs into a small area of your lawn and allow it to flower
Image: Jean Vernon

Deadhead your garden flowers, this will keep your plants flowering for longer. The more flowers, the better it will be for your pollinators. Learn how to prune your plants to flower for longer. Pruning after flowering will often encourage new stems that will mature to flower again next season. The Chelsea chop will extend the flowering period of a clump of perennials. Cut part of them back in mid May, so that they flower a bit later.

Keep plants flowering by dead-heading regularly
Image: Jean Vernon

Nest sites

Bees and pollinators need the right conditions to breed and to nest. An insect house is a great addition to the garden, but bear in mind that only about 2% of pollinator species will use them. The others prefer different conditions such as boggy ditches, rotten wood, sandy soil, sunny banks, hollow stems, walls, tree bark and more. Leave part of your garden to go a bit wild. You’ve probably already got a whole host of pollinators nesting in and around your garden. You might not notice them, but that’s because they don’t want to be noticed. Some such as mining bees will excavate little holes in tightly mown lawns on sandy soils; look out for mini volcanoes of sandy soil marking the spot.

Look out for bumblebee nests in odd places. Some nest in shallow dips in the ground, especially in mossy areas. Others nest in old rodent holes, under the shed or in the compost heap. Most nests will complete their life cycle by mid to late summer.

Live and let live. A bumblebee nest is a blessing.
Image: Jean Vernon

Once the new Queen bees and males leave the nest the work is done and the nest will gradually die back. The bees don’t reuse the nest site so when the activity ceases it is safe to excavate and garden in the area. If the nest is still busy, leave it alone until it dies off. Put a sign up warning others to stay away. Bumblebees rarely sting unless their nest is under threat.

Food plants

When it comes to food plants for pollinators we always think about flowers. But remember that many pollinators need host plants and food plants for their larval stage. Caterpillars! Gardeners often regard these creatures as a pest, not understanding that they are actually the ugly duckling before the beautiful adult emerges. Many will use what we might consider as weed plants as a food source and almost all species only feed on a limited range of plants. The peacock butterfly lays its eggs on nettles in a sunny spot, and its spectacularly spangly black caterpillars devour the leaves, pupate and become their garden beauties. It’s the native wildflowers that are the food plants for many species of butterfly and moths and many of these plants grow in our lawns and wild in the countryside, spilling into our gardens. If you can leave a few to mature out of sight and be less hasty tackling weeds, it helps some butterflies and moths to complete their larval stage.

Native plants are important food plants for our precious caterpillars, like this peacock butterfly caterpillar on nettles
Image: Jean Vernon

The hostile garden

One of the best ways to help our garden pollinators is to reduce the use of pesticides. If you need to deal with a pest explosion, then choose an organic option but be aware that these can still be toxic to beneficial insects, so use sparingly if necessary.

Many of the plants we grow in our gardens hail from far distant shores and evolved with different pollinators. One or two present problems for some insects. The lovely Acanthus plants or Bear’s breeches has fabulous spikes of flowers with a rich source of nectar.

Not all plants are good for bees. Look out for trapped bumblebees on bear’s breeches (acanthus)
Image: Jean Vernon

Large bumblebees like the Queen garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) are attracted by the nectar prize and crawl into the flowers to feed, but sometimes the cage like bracts trap them inside where they starve. Keep an eye on your plants and consider growing this plant for its foliage rather than its flowers.



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