Bee and Butterfly Gardens – Cultivating Nectar and Pollen

April 20, 2012

Gardens are Nature Reserves

While there is a dedicated effort to feed and supply habitats for birds, there are less gardens feeding the needs of bees and butterflies. Traditional flower gardens filled with a variety of flowers, blooming between March to September, are havens for bees and butterflies. However flowering plants need to be ‘joined up’ routes and corridors where bees and butterflies can roam freely. These corridors can encompass domestic and community gardens, hedgerows, fields and wild habitats. The combination of cottage garden flowers, annuals and wildflowers work to create a nectar trail across a variety of landscapes. Drifts of flowers planted close together in a sunny location will attract bees and butterflies. A garden should be a naturescape, or habitat for beneficial insects.

The loss of flowering biodiversity habitats (i.e. wildflowers, flowering native hedgerows, and  domestic gardens filled with a variety of flowers) is the cause of the decline of many bee and butterfly species. Changes in farming have deleted the contributions of hedegrows and wildflowers, which traditionally framed agricultural crops. The move away from hay to silage has also had negative impacts. Pesticides and pollution also contribute to the decline of bees and butterflies.

Gardening for Bees: Bee Friendly Gardens

In Ireland there are 101 species of bees including bumblebees, honeybees, and solitary bees which do not form colonies. There are currently 6 species of bees that are endangered in Ireland, a further 16 species are vulnerable and an additional 13 species are threatened. More than half of Ireland’s bees have been in decline since 1980, and 3 species of bees have become extinct.

Bees require early flowering trees, herbs and plants beginning in March, and then a continuous supply of flowers blooming until September. Bees have different tongue lengths, so varying different kinds of flower heads is important to attract a variety of bees (e.g. foxgloves, daisies, borage, thyme, etc.)

Bees are essential for the pollination of crops, fruits and native plants. The services of bees are of significant economic and ecological importance. An Taisce estimates that the value of this service to the Irish economy is 53 million Euros annually.

Solitary bee species make their homes in holes within sandy or clay soils, while other species of solitary bees prefer to nest in dead wood, south facing stone walls or in hollow twigs or reeds. Bumblebees and honey bees live in colonies.

“The root cause of most wild-bee declines is thought to be the drastic loss of flower-rich grasslands and other habitats which healthy bee populations depend on. They are all suffering from catastrophic habitat loss, which can be at least compensated for within household gardens. Gardens now provide a stronghold for bumblebees in an otherwise impoverished agricultural environment: furthermore, data suggests that the positive influences of gardens on bumblebee populations can spill over at least 1km into surrounding farmland. All gardeners should be encouraged to think of their plots as an ecosystem with plants and insects at their core. It is critical that wildlife gardening becomes just good gardening practice. Gardens generally don’t suffer from pesticide use, chemical run-off and soil imbalances. They can mimic natural habitats, offering multiple sources of pollen and nectar, food plants, water and shelter” (The Financial Times, February, 2011).

Gardening for Butterflies:  Blossoming Nectar Habitats

Approximately 18% of butterfly species in Ireland are threatened. Butterflies are also pollinating insects, but do not transport the same volume of pollen as bees. However, they are able to move pollen over larger distances than bees.

Butterflies are attracted to clusters of short tubular flowers (e.g. lilac, buddleia, verbena bonariensis, valerian).

A sunny flower garden near a hedge will supply shelter from wind, retain moist ground for butterflies to drink from, and offer food for caterpillars (who are not seeking flowers, but often leaves). Caterpillars require wild grasses and common ‘weeds’ (i.e. thistles nettles, plantain, dandelion, docks) as their food source. Other caterpillars use the leaves from willow, blackthorn, hawthorn, alder, birch and oak as their food sources. During the winter months do not clean up your garden by cutting back overgrowth, as you might will disturb the habitat of caterpillars and their pupae. Dense vegetation, log piles and sheds are also places where butterflies might hibernate.

Annual bedding plants do not offer nectar supplies for bees and butterflies, therefore they do not attract these insects. Bedding plants are temporary garden decorations that are disposed of once their blooming period is past. Double flowers do not produce nectar (e.g. double begonias, double petunias, double flowered carnations, double flowered peonies), and do not have any appeal for bees and butterflies.

Flowering periods can be prolonged by deadheading flowers, mulching and watering flowers regularly, preferably with a liquid feed made from nettles, or seaweed and water. Healthy plants will produce more nectar for butterflies.

Beneficial Plants and Flowers for Bees and Butterflies

Heathers, Scabious, Knapweed, Honeysuckle, Clovers, Bird-Foot Trefoil, Lavender, Bluebells, Buddleia, Rudbeckia,Valerian, Borage, Lilac, Foxgloves, Fruit Tree Blossoms, Viburnum, Yarrow, Aster, Cornflower, Hollyhock, Mint, Thyme, Sage, Oregano, Rosemary, Fennel, Chives, Primrose, Viper’s Bugloss, Nepeta (Catmint), Columbine, Lavender, Purple Loosestrife, Goldenrod, Lupin, Sea Holly, Phlox, Cornflower, Sedum, Bergamot, Azalea, Echinacea, Verbascum (Mullein), Geranium (Cranesbill), Teasel, Red Campion, Ox-eye Daisy, Cowslip, Bluebell, Sweet William, Californian Lilac (Ceanothus), Broom, Bugle, Flowering Currant, Poppy, Comfrey, Cardoon, Hyssop, Delphinium, Rock Rose, Salvia, Michaelmas Daisy, Ivy, Chrysanthemum, Wallflowers, Forget-me-Nots, Bergenia, Cosmos, Flowering Brassicas (i.e. Kale and Broccoli).

“Gardens make up a huge amount of our land mass and they provide food and shelter for a huge number of birds, butterflies, and other important wildlife. Growing native trees, shrubs, and flowers or planting old-fashioned traditional garden plants from herbs to scented flowers provide more food and shelter than the newer hybrid and exotic breeds. Everyone could play a part by planting native and traditional plants and using less insecticide and other garden chemicals in their gardens and public spaces”  (The Heritage Council of Ireland)


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