We’ve been drinking in the glory of high-def tv this week with the sumptuous floral close-ups of Sarah Raven’s latest Bees, Butterflies and Blooms episode. Unfortunately Britain’s insects are drinking very little in gardens that lean heavily on double begonias, busy lizzies and other flowers that offer no pollen or nectar. They are empty: their sweet nectary bits have been bred out of them, in exchange for extra petals and other showy attributes. (Jump to the bottom of this post if you want tips on how to choose flowers that are bee-friendly).
Our garden here at Mercat Cottage is fairly buzzy with flowers that make insects happy, from the February crocus to the early November cosmos daisies. This flower choice was more through accident than art; so was our choice to put in a pond, which was really meant for the newts and slugivore frogs, but which I’ve learned is vital for bees, who consume litres of water. (In this week’s episode, Sarah Raven’s beardy garden naturalist told her she could bump up the wildlife value of her walled garden “two points” by adding water).
The “perfect for pollinators” initiative launched by the Horticultural Trades Association and the RHS, also discussed in this week’s show, was probably the single most important blow for Sarah’s campaign. Gardeners need advice at the point of sale, and the yellow and black logo will now make it easier to choose pollen and nectar-rich plants in the garden centre. It’s a shame it’s taken so long to do something so sensible; gardening magazines, even those I love, haven’t done enough to drive home the urgency of the biodiversity message. The magazine messages I remember about pollinating insects and garden plant choice have been along the lines of, “double plants don’t do much for bees.” After listening to Sarah, I think her alarmist opening gambit (“pollinators are in crisis and we gardeners have to act now”) is more appropriate at this stage of the game: three species of bees are extinct and hundreds more insects are on the brink because traditional habitats (country wildflower meadows) have been replaced by modern farming methods.
The millions of hectares of British back gardens could feed rather than frustrate pollinators who land on our flowers looking for a nectar payload, not just pretty colours. My husband calls the foodless plants — like the double begonias — “Franken-flowers” and he’s right. Over-bred and over-valued by gardeners craving a “wow” factor, they could easily be exchanged for colourful and nutritious alternatives, flowers that take care of the “wow” as well as the welfare of insects. Don’t forget, they’re the ones who pollinate the crops that feed our families.
“Why does biodiversity matter?”
It’s fair to ask the question, and I did once, when speaking to an ecologist. I’m a writer by day and was doing a brochure for a university wanting to attract more students to study science at third level. I asked him why biodiversity — multiplicity of habitats and species — is so important. He told me the stories you’ve probably already heard, but which were new to me in 2009, about the disappearance of bees in parts of China, where crops now need to be hand-pollinated by humans. That’s expensive — but it’s also the beginning of who-knows-what kinds of chain reactions in the environment.
Biodiversity, the ecologist said, is like the rivets in an airplane: lose one habitat or species, and it may not matter; but you never know which loss will trigger the catastrophe.
“What flowers should I plant to help bees and butterflies?”
In the cutting garden I’ve been planning as part of my New Year’s Gardening resolutions, I’ll have lots of sunflowers, lemon basil and zinnias. I’d thought about skipping the sunflowers, but now that I know the bees and other insects need them badly, they’re going to make the cut.
Sarah’s experts on the show this week made it clear what to look for when planting bee- and butterfly-friendly flowers:
- Visible pollen: If you can see the yellow centre, there’s probably something there for bees. Bees need daisy-like flowers and other “singles” that aren’t so packed with petals you can’t see the flower’s reproductive bits.
- Variety of shapes: Imagine a crocus, a foxglove, a daisy, a buddleia (butterly bush), an achillea and a lily. From trumpet shapes to goblets, flat landing pads to long clusters of close-packed flowers, all require the insect to work in a different way to get the pollen and nectar. This attracts and feeds a wider range of insects than loading up your garden with a single flower type or shape.
- Early to late: Look for plants offering food in the quiet periods like February and October…fill any gaps like these with flowers guaranteed to offer nectar and pollen, so insects never go away empty-handed.
- No excuse for no water: If you’ve no water already, go outside today and fill a large drip tray or shallow bowl with water and put a stone in the middle for insects to land on. Tiny ponds are also cheap to buy and easy to maintain, if you’re feeling more ambitious.
Make a bee-loud border
Remember the Yeats poem about his desire to live in a “bee-loud glade”? Imagine if British domestic gardens were full of bee-loud borders. We may live in imperfect and troubled times, but still — what a wonderful world that would be.