Plants for Insects
Victoria Logue, from Whitehall Farmhouse Plants, with advice on some of the best garden plants for bees and insects. - 22 May 2015
As a beekeeper I am very concerned to ensure that my garden provides nectar and honey for the honey bees in my hives as well as other pollinating insects.
There is, in my opinion, a huge amount of misinformation about what plants should be planted to attract insects. Some commentators suggest that only wild flowers should be planted, but given the British Isles' comparatively restricted native flora, that would lead to a somewhat dull garden. The important point is to use lots of different flowering plants, to give the longest possible period of food. Just don't plant too many double flowers, where the stigmas and stamens are likely to have mutated into additional petals to give the double appearance, such flowers won't produce much, if any pollen and nectar.
So here are my easy to grow, garden-worthy favourites:
A wonderful, comparatively new, hardy geranium. It is sterile and so does not seed around - no need to deadhead. It comes from a single rootstock, which it dies back to, so doesn't run around madly like it’s x oxonianum cousins. It makes a 75cm by 50cm mound of blue flowers from the end of May to November. It also produces nectar, and probably some pollen, since it is always covered in honey bees.
Fishbone Cotoneaster - Cotoneaster horizontalis
A wonderful, deciduous shrub which can be easily constrained to fit into small gardens, it grows naturally in a flat plane, so just grow it up a wall, where it can fan out and shouldn't need too much hacking back with secateurs. The small, pinkish , five-petalled flowers are full of nectar, in late May the whole bush buzzes with the sound largely of honey bees. Your reward will be a fantastic crop of bright red berries clothing the branches in autumn.
Probably the best pink lily in the world. 150cm tall, self-supporting, bright pink and a heavenly scent, reliable and long lived both in a pot and in the garden - what more could you want. Full of both nectar and pollen, beloved, in particular, by bumble bees. However, I have to admit that I do mutilate the flowers in pots next to the front door, by removing the stamens and preventing pollination, the flowers last much, much longer. I allow the flowers in the garden to go unmolested!
Lily beetle is a pest, you just have to be vigilant and squash the bright red adult beetles. If you see one, put one hand underneath the insect before you try to pick it up with the other, they have a trick of falling off the plant and landing upside down, since they are black-brown underneath, they merge with the soil.
Buddleia Mint - Mentha longifolia
Insects love this plant, so much so that a clump can be alive with insects, hoverflies, butterflies as well as bees. It grows anywhere and can be invasive, but has wonderful long spikes of flowers, hence the name. You can obviously use the leaves in your new potatoes, but for the best herb flavour, you shouldn't allow the plant to flower, to increase the amount of volatile oils. The choice is yours - perhaps just allowing a few stems to flower is a sensible compromise.
Borage - Borago officinalis
Wonderful blue, and occasionally white, flowered annual, which seeds itself around. But the seedlings are quite distinctive - glaucous rough leaves can be easily identified and weeded out. The flowers are used in Pimms and, since edible, provide an interesting addition to salads. The plant has copious amount of nectar and produces a very pale, runny honey.
Ivy - Hedera sp.
Any sort will do - ivy flowers very late in the year, has nectar and pollen, and so is vital for honey bees and bumblebee queens to feed on just before the winter sets in. You just need to remember that ivy only flowers when adult, that is when it is more than 2m tall, so neatly clipped ivy hedges are no good at all for insects. Allow ivy to climb up a fence, tree or building towards the sun, where it will flower.
Foxgloves - Digitalis purpurea
In my experience bumblebees visit foxgloves more than honey bees, but they are good for insects and look really imposing in a garden. Once you have got the biennial sequence sorted so that you have some plants flowering each year you never have to do anything else, they just seed around.
Given that this piece is about all insects, remember that the hated wasp is a very good predator of pest species early in the season. Only in late summer, when the adults can no longer get the sugars they need from their larvae, do they focus on your jam sandwiches.
In summary, to help insects just plant your garden with flowers that grow well and which you like. Not too many double flowers and since honey bees have comparatively short tongues, grow a number of flat open daisy flowers, like Echinacea, which they find easy to extract nectar from. It goes without saying that you really should use as little pesticide as possible, preferably none. Once you have done all that just sit back and listen to the buzz of insects.
Victoria Logue runs Whitehall Farmhouse Plants, a small Cotswold nursery specialising in interesting herbaceous perennials.