We are all aware that bee populations and other pollinators have been having a hard time of it in recent years. I am pleased to say that the situation has been embraced by gardeners and the horticultural industry here in Britain, and I am sure that is the case in many parts of the world. What most of want to know is what we can do about it? How we can change our gardening habits to be wildlife friendly? Most are aware that we have to reduce our use of chemicals and garden more organically. But on a more positive note, what can we grow easily to benefit bees and other pollinators?
One of the reasons for the plight of pollinators is the lack of nourishment in the form of nectar and pollen available for these insects. This need not necessarily come from native plants, but it does come from nectar and pollen rich subjects whose food resources pollinators can easily access. It also needs to be available for as long as possible. Insect food reserves in gardens are much a case of feast and famine. There’s plenty around from mid spring to midsummer, but that’s not the only time of year that insects are around and hungry.
Suttons Seeds have teamed up with the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) to provide the ultimate collection of seed varieties that will keep the honey bee and other pollinators nourished all-year-round. Keeping these amazing insects strong and healthy enables them to pollinate our crops so we can benefit from fruit and vegetables, not only from our gardens but from the crops that are grown commercially that we depend upon. We rely heavily on honey bees and other pollinators for much of the food that we eat, for example tomatoes, strawberries, beans, peas, apples, to name but a few. Even the cocoa tree that provides the beans which chocolate is made from is dependent upon bees and other pollinators. However, it is not just us that benefit from the work of pollinators; pollination helps to feed many other animals and birds in the food chain and is a vital part of creating the diversity in the environment that we all enjoy.
The Wildlife Sanctuary collection from Suttons Seeds includes annual and perennial flowers, fruit and vegetables. Every package tells you what the variety provides in the way of pollen and nectar and a fascinating bee fact. The packets also offer the opportunity to ‘Adopt a beehive’ or become a ‘Friend of the Honeybee’. Best of all the chosen varieties are easy to grow, many being subjects you can sown directly in the open ground or in pots where they will flower. This is such an inexpensive and accessible way to increase the biodiversity of your garden and so attract more bees and other pollinators.
So what is a pollinator?
I use the term ‘pollinator’ so frequently I thought it would be worth clarifying what it means. Bees, butterflies and other insects visit flowers to collect nectar and sometimes pollen for food. They are attracted to the flower by colour and scent. The petals of a flower are there to show the way and direct the insect to the heart of the flower where nectar and pollen are waiting. In the process of collecting nectar and pollen the insect transfers pollen grains from the stamens to the stigma of the flower. This fertilises the bloom and enables it to produce fertile seeds. The flower has evolved in close association with the pollinating insects to make sure this pollination happens. It is important to remember that some flowers are pollinated by crawling insects, some by night flying moths, some by bats: fascinating!
Some flowers, such as the primrose, have evolved to ensure effective cross pollination as the bee moves from plant to plant.
The honey bee is a particularly effective pollinator because it collects nectar for the production of its stored food: honey. However lots of other insects, including some of the most attractive butterflies are effective pollinators. There are lots of subjects in the Wildlife Sanctuary range that are highly attractive to butterflies, including the butterfly bush, Buddleja davidii. This is easily grown from seed and idea for those on poor, alkaline soils.
Another easy to grow subject for poor soil, especially chalk is the field scabious. This can also be naturalised in thin meadow grass. Its delicate pincushion blooms are soft lilac-blue and will soon be found by summer bees and insects. Grown in the flower garden it is lovely for cutting too.
Many herbs are wonderful wildlife plants. Fragrant lavender is always a magnet for bees and butterflies as is marjoram. The sapphire blue flowers of borage are most commonly associated with a glass of Pimms, however in the garden they will be more appreciated by pollinators. Borage self-seeds in most gardens once you get it established, so it’s a long-term plant in any wildlife sanctuary.
We all love blue flowers, they are such great mixers and I have always had gardens with forget-me-nots that seed randomly through beds and borders. I always lift a few plants and add them to my pots of tulips in spring. I am so pleased to see myosotis, forget-me-not in the Wildlife Sanctuary range; it is such a valuable source of early nectar.
Another subject that seeds freely in most gardens is the lovely Verbena bonariensis. Wildlife Sanctuary includes a different cultivar of this superb plant; one that will sit happily in any garden. Start the seeds in cell trays and then plant out between shrubs, roses and perennials. Alternatively plant a few in the vegetable plot to attract pollinators and provide some flowers for cutting.
For those that crave the colour from seasonal bedding subjects rather than more naturalistic wildflower subjects there is still plenty in the Wildlife sanctuary range to appeal. Last summer zinnias were a great success and incredibly popular with bees. Again these are plants to start on the windowsill indoors and plant out after the frosts. Vibrant colour – wildlife friendly too.
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If you would like to learn more about gardening for wildlife and what to grow to attract pollinators join me on my next online 4 week online gardening course – gardening for wildlife.