We live by the grace of invertebrates. They work around the clock, collect and dispose of our waste, replenish the soil, feed animals above them on the food chain and allow plants to return each spring. Most importantly, perhaps, bees, butterflies and other insects deliver valentines between plants, which must procreate but cannot move, and so rely on couriers. Flowers grow for the benefit of these pollinators, not us, and bloom in more colours than we can see – only insects’ superior eyes can see all their shades and patterns.
Now, of course, humans have changed the face of the world; we have levelled forests, eliminated thousands of species in a field in favour of a single crop, and sprayed those crops with a cocktail of exotic poisons never before seen on Earth. After several decades of this, bee populations are collapsing around the world, and while we do not know the specific causes, we know that areas that have been heavily hit with pesticides have also seen serious collapses. In a few areas of China, farmers have begun laboriously pollinating cash crops like pears by hand, taking brushes from flower to flower – a method that would not be feasible for most survival crops should the problem spread.
This time of year, as those of us in the northern hemisphere plan our gardens and sow our first seeds, we must remember to invest part of our garden to reimburse the armies that work for us. What sorts of armies you have, and what payment they accept, will vary depending on where you live: our forest here has bluebells and my Missouri hometown had mimosas, but the principles should remain the same.
You could bring pollinators in by the box-load if you keep bees, and you get honey and wax from the arrangement. Bee hives can be kept easily on a small plot of land, a backyard, a balcony or even a rooftop, so long as the bees’ flight path to and from their headquarters is located away from humans’ personal space. They tend to like simple flowers with an easy landing pad, like poached-egg flower, daisies or dandelions, and our local beekeepers recommend putting out water for them as well.
Honeybees, however, are only one of 20,000 species of bee in the world, and we can encourage the rest of them as well. They don’t give us honey or wax but they do pollinate our gardens – sometimes more effectively, according to some experts – and many are stingless. Dozens of species are bumblebees, which live in small colonies, but most are solitary, often named according to where they make their hole – miners, carpenters, masons and plasterers.
Depending on the type of bees in your area, you might want to leave a rim of unmown weeds around your property, or plant or maintain a hedgerow that can give ground bees a place to shelter. Some gardeners give bees a pre-made home –boring holes in wood or stacking reeds or bamboo for carpenter or orchard bees, stacking adobe bricks for mason bees or building a small, cotton-lined box with a large entrance hole for bumblebees.
If you want to plant for bees and other pollinators, you need to plant foods that bloom in early spring and late autumn, the off-season months when bees struggle to find enough food. Snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils are emerging now in our gardens, giving bees their first taste of nectar for the year as honey stores run low. Ling heather, the plant used to make thick heather honey, does the opposite, blooming after everything else has gone. Ivy, similarly, grows up every tree and building here, and blooms as late as Halloween.
One of the champion bee flowers, in our experience, is borrage – our bees go nuts for it. It also makes a great herb to add to salad, with a tangy melony flavour. We find that verbena draws legions of bees and butterflies— my wife and mother-in-law bought some from a garden store after seeing one covered with them last spring. Almost all herbs, in fact, make great bee fodder – thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage and mint.
Hedgerows, the ubiquitous borders here, often provide the best source of bee flowers. Blackberry brambles, in hundreds of varieties, grow widely here and make another flower beloved of bees, and of course they grow in the margins where their thorns and the bees are out of your way. Sally or pussy willows seem to be a particular favourite of bumblebees in our observation – at times we have seen dozens of bumblebees on a single tree near our house. They also love hawthorn, which grows rampant here and usually starts flowering in May – it’s sometimes called the May bush.
Come summer, whole fields here erupt with red and white clover, which have many uses — bees love them, we and animals can eat them, and they actually put nitrogen back into the soil. They like moist earth and warm days, and beekeepers say that, once the flowers emerge, their beehives start filling up with honey. Oilseed Rape, which Americans call canola, has been widely introduced as a biofuel crop here, and turns some fields a brilliant yellow every spring.
Bees and other bugs use many other flowers common to our area, and which our local beekeeping society recommends – poppies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, zinnias, wallflowers, bellflowers, dahlias, hellebores and roses. In exchange they service many vegetables, including artichokes, lamb’s ears, asparagus, brassicas, broad beans, cucumbers, cherries, apples, currants, gooseberries and courgettes.
You can draw insects other than bees to your garden, of course, but you want to be choosy about which ones. We all love butterflies, but they spend most of their lives as the caterpillars that we spend picking off our crops, so you want to encourage only those species that eat the plants you don’t want anyway.
Few words sound less appealing than “parasite” and “wasp,” yet parasitic wasps can be very useful in the garden, preying on the bugs that would eat your plants and doing no harm to humans. Sally Jean Cunningham, author of Great Garden Companions, cite herbs like caraway, anise, mint, chamomile, dill, fennel, yarrow and cicely for drawing wasps, along with wildflowers like cornspurrey, lamb’s quarters, wild mustards, oxeyes, red sorrel and clover. Similarly, some gardeners buy ladybirds (ladybugs to Americans) to unleash on their aphids, or even recommend planting nettles to attract aphids to attract ladybirds.
Finally, you can plant species designed to repel certain insects you don’t want – many gardeners recommend hyssop and thyme for cabbage moths, or marigolds for nematodes. Such recommendations often carry a high folklore-to-evidence ratio, though, so experiment in your own garden and take notes on what seems to work.
Of course, your area has its own system of plants and pollinators, fine-tuned over millions of years and unique to that region; bluebells flourish here in Ireland but not in my native Missouri, mimosas there but not here, and clover and dandelion in both. I list Irish plants and pollinators here, but you should have them or their equivalents where you live, and the principles should remain the same everywhere.
As David Attenborough once pointed out, if we and other large animals were to disappear, the vast majority of the world that remained would get along just fine. But if they were to disappear, the soil would become sterile, the lands desert, and almost all life would perish. As you walk through your garden, thousands of them are labouring like elves around your feet, unthanked and occasionally swatted. As you plant your garden this year, make sure to give something back.