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It’s not just bees and butterflies on your flowers

A blog post by Dr Stan da Prato

Here Dr Stan da Prato, a Beautiful Scotland judge, has taken time to write about the importance of pollination and provided some top tips to increase biodiversity.

There is now considerable public support for our bees, and awareness they are in decline and that pollination services are important economically. Garden centres regularly feature ‘bee friendly’ plants in their sales areas. Amateur gardeners are keen to do their bit. The good news is that most flowers are of some value to pollinating insects. 

Avoid double flowers and some highly developed bedding plants – though don’t worry if you have a few e.g., double begonias in your hanging baskets provided there are lots of single flowers elsewhere. Aim for as long a flowering window as possible which implies a wide range of plants.

It always interesting to look at other people’s gardens so when you are out for a walk look at what is in flower, grows well in your area and is attracting insects.   

Talk to other gardeners, they may well be happy to divide their plants to give you some. Hardy perennials are easy to divide at the right time of year so you get plants for free. If there is a local garden club join it. 

Although honeybees get most of the credit, at least 1,500 insect species pollinate plants in the UK. Different colours, shapes and sizes of flowers tend to attract different pollinators. In the UK the majority of pollination is carried out by bees (wild solitary and bumblebees, as well as domesticated honeybees), flies (including hoverflies and bee-flies), butterflies, moths, wasps and beetles.  Bumble bees are important pollinators. They fly in lower temperatures than many other bees. Their round, fuzzy bodies perform buzz pollination, when they grasp a flower vibrating their wings to dislodge the pollen. Plants like tomatoes and peppers benefit from this. Many other plants are pollinated by shorter-tongued insects including honeybees and hover flies. Most fruit tree pollination is carried out by solitary bees and honeybees.

Although attractive to us there are just 34 resident butterfly species in Scotland, compared to around 1,300 moths. Many moths operate at night when they are attracted to pale flowers with a strong scent.

Beetles are attracted to flat, open flowers, which allow them to graze, such as cow parsley. Approximately a quarter of the UK's beetles are pollinators, around 1,000 species. Some birds like the warblers will transfer pollen as they take insects from flowers. Abroad some plants e.g., fuchsias are pollinated by hummingbirds but in this country they get by with insects.

It not practical to give a full list of the plants that are used by pollinators as it would be so long! Early flowers are especially valuable to us as well as wildlife. Ivy, many spring bulbs, primulas and hellebores are all good. As the season progresses a wide range of perennials come into bloom. All the hardy geraniums are good with Rozanne one of the best due to its very long flowering season. Particularly good for bees are the catmints e.g., the vigorous Nepeta Six Hills Giant and Russian sage, Perovskia, an easy to grow lavender substitute. Annual mixes are cheap and colourful. Those containing cosmos have a very long season into autumn. In later years they often become less attractive to humans as thistles and docks take over so you may wish to resow annually. Sunflowers are fun for children to grow. Borage is an easy annual that bees love. By late summer there many good perennials such as asters, echinacea, rudbeckia and many more.   

An obvious late summer flower is the butterfly bush, Buddleja davidii. However, this brings us to an important point. Most flowers, even if not native wildflowers, will attract some insects. However, the caterpillars or larvae are usually much more specialised and will only survive on a limited range of species, some on only one. Comma, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell caterpillars will not feed on butterfly bushes but need nettles; only four of the 40 invertebrate species that need a plant many regard as a troublesome weed.

In your own probably limited space aim for maximum returns. It’s easier to run a large garden than a small one where you have to think more carefully about what to leave out!

How about taking an interest in your local park or other public open space?  Here there is much more room for planting but local authorities are all under financial pressure. They are likely to welcome input from local volunteers, especially for the fiddlier tasks- weeding is one! - which their staff don’t have the time to do. Do remember council managers will be concerned that you may start a project but not keep it up so discuss this issue thoroughly at the start. It easier to have wilder areas in parts of a park   with native weeds/plants.  Note that rotting logs and piles of stones usually have more invertebrates than elaborate bug hotels though these can be useful educationally in school grounds. Solitary bees- there are over 300 British species - can benefit from pieces of timber with holes drilled into them.

It's worth having a notice board explaining to the public what is happening, so they don’t presume the wilder areas are just about saving money. 

Letting your lawn grow a little wilder has become popular though initial results can be disappointing as short grass becomes longer grass. However long grass can be food for caterpillars including the skippers and several brown butterflies. No Mow May has become a slogan, but many would leave cutting into the autumn and, crucially, remove the clippings to reduce fertility.

It's well worth keeping a record of your progress, easy nowadays with digital cameras and phones.

More information can be found on the Butterfly ConservationBuglifeBumblebee Conservation and Plantlife websites. The Royal Horticultural Society website has lists of pollinator friendly garden plants.

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