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 their benefit, not ours, 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.
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, 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.
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. Sallies, 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
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. Rapeseed, which
Americans discreetly renamed canola, has been widely introduced as a biofuel crop
here, and turns some fields a brilliant yellow every spring.
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.
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.
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.