Bees are sad. People love bees. Concern for pollinators is at an all time high even as pollinator numbers are reaching concerning levels, squeezed between grass monocultures, sprayed roadsides, and drive up front doors. Whose responsibility is it to guarantee their survival, why, and how? And what role can we as an industry, and we as gardeners play in changing how we interpret outdoor spaces and whom they belong to?
People love bees. Bees are sad. Increasingly people come to us asking about “pollinator friendly gardens” and it’s nice to hear. But it also feels like the latest word that has caught on but nobody’s really taken the time to define it. When somebody asks about plants for pollinators, it very often comes with the expectation that we will point to two or three plants that will single-handedly turn your garden into a haven for wildlife. The reality is it is not that simple. Yet it’s actually even simpler.
There is an in-built assumption that gardening is green and we do great things for the world by gardening. This is a myth we tell ourselves. Many gardens can be barren wastelands for nature – clipped and sprayed to perfection. Really, the act of gardening from its outset has been the removal of nature from the lived environment, and one of the best things you can do for nature is less gardening, allowing that nature to return. Clearly there is a balance to be struck. And we can of course improve nature’s lot with some management and additions. Within the horticulture industry this is especially true and we should be leading by example.
The first step is to seek to understand the garden as a natural environment in the round. That in itself is a statement which needs to be internalised before we move on. The garden is a shared space for us and an entire food chain of creatures. Or at least, that’s the plan. These won’t all be your adorable best friends. Slugs, aphids, caterpillars, these form the bedrock of nature in the garden and if we poison them we poison everything else. It’s frustrating when plants get damaged, and some of them die, but some things die. In many cases plants pull through. Aphids for example can reduce vigour but seldom kill strong-growing plants. We had a problem on some Viburnum x burkwoodii this spring, they looked shrivelled and terrible, and they are now pushing on perfect new growth with exactly no intervention whatsoever. Some of your leaves are going to have holes in them. This is important because predatory insects like parasitic wasps (we like these) and ladybirds (natch) will arrive once the aphid population is numerous.
Where does this leave pollinators? By creating an environment in which nature is allowed to establish – a few weeds, no spraying, let your hedges flower before pruning etc. – we create a home for pollinators right through their reproductive cycle. The majority of bees are solitary species, living locally in holes in walls, in the soil, or in debris left in an imperfectly clean garden (dead wood is a gift to nature). To have butterflies we need caterpillars. And flies! I won’t write about flies, but they too are essential pollinators for many plants, and don’t get their due.
The pollinators that visit your garden are foraging locally. Ideally they can live in your garden. And this is the first step towards a “pollinator friendly garden”, giving them a home. Which plants are pollinator friendly? Well, most of them. Certain specific insects have symbiotic relationships with certain specific plants, but generally speaking having flowers in your garden will attract pollinators to forage them. The point is that creating a pollinator friendly space is less about adding a specific wonder plant to your garden than about taking a big picture approach to how your garden works as an ecosystem. Within that there is an almost limitless palette of plants you can choose from to help them feel at home.