The Importance of Pollinators
Honey bees, bumble bees and other pollinators play a vital role in ecosystems across the world. Without them we wouldn't have the fruits, nuts and vegetables we have so readily available today. The loss of pollinators has a knock-on effect on other wildlife - those which rely on plants for food or shelter, and the predators which in turn feed on them - thus affecting entire ecosystems.
Loss of habitat (hedgerows and wildflower meadows) and suitable forage are major factors contributing towards a decline in pollinator populations. You don't have to be a beekeeper to help, even if your home only has space for a window box you can help your local pollinators by providing them with some much-needed forage.
Honey bees and forage
Honey bees visit flowering plants to collect nectar - a sugary secretion made by the plant - and pollen, which contains protein and fat. Therefore, by foraging on flowers they are collecting all the key nutrients they need for themselves and their young. Since only a very small amount of nectar and pollen can be collected from each individual flower, the bee must visit a large number of flowers, resulting in many flowers being pollinated at once.
Bees tend to prefer to stick to the same species of plant while foraging. This can be observed when a honey bee returns to the hive as the colour of the pollen in its pollen baskets can be linked to which plant it has been foraging on. Pollen comes in many different colours depending on the flower; some blooms provide black, blue, green white and purple pollen!
How can we help?
Anybody can do their bit to help pollinators thrive so that we can continue to enjoy seeing them in our gardens, and indeed enjoy the fruits of their labor - beautiful flowers, fruits and vegetables and the other wildlife which rely on pollinators.
With Spring just around the corner now is a good time to be thinking about what to do with your garden this coming year. Ideal plants for forage are rich in nectar and/or pollen and bloom for a long time. Plants which bloom at a time when not many other flowers are blossoming (e.g. crocus, hellebore species, snowdrop) are particularly useful for pollinators as they can provide much-needed nutrition when food is scarce. The following links contain information about the best plants for pollinator forage throughout the year:
When purchasing your plants it is important to avoid newly-bred cultivars if you want to provide forage for pollinators. The reason for this is because these cultivars are propagated purely for show and are often sterile and as such do not provide any nectar/pollen.
"A major consideration will be our choice of plants. Perhaps, little over one hundred years ago, this would have been a simple process of elimination arriving at the most desirable plants which are open-pollinated; that is pollinated by insects, usually bees, which transfer pollen from flower to flower leading to fruit and seed set. Now, we are faced with a plethora of red herrings. Looking for the perfect plants for bees and other pollinators has become much harder than our grandparents could possibly have imagined.
One reason for this is that plant breeding has become a competitive hobby and big business. Most ornamental plants now for sale in garden centres are modern hybrids known as cultivars. They are bred for certain traits such as dwarfing, larger blooms, different colours or double blooms. They are propagated on a large scale by vegetative cutting, which means they are genetically identical. They have no need for pollinators, most produce no nectar or pollen and most are sterile." - Sarah Holdsworth, horticulturist and beekeeper
Tips for creating a pollinator-friendly garden:
Choose a range of plants which will provide a source of forage throughout the year
Avoid newly-bred plant cultivars
Select plant varieties with single blooms rather than double blooms
Do not use insecticides, especially around flowers
Install an insect/bee house (make one if you are feeling crafty!) to help pollinators, particularly mason bees, overwinter
Provide a source of water for bees e.g. a shallow saucer
If you aren't already; become a beekeeper!
Happy 2020! We would love to see photos of your pollinator-friendly gardens later in the year.