Butterflies and bees

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It’s a easy job to make your garden more wild-life friendly – starting with insects.

I’ve been truly delighted this year at the number of butterflies in the garden.

Apart from the swarms of Painted Ladies – a massive hatching that was noticed back in Morocco in the spring and which, right on time, hit France a couple of months ago – this year has also seen Red Admirals, White Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Clouded Yellows, Brimstones, various small blue butterflies that don’t stand still long enough for me to see them, Swallowtails, Cabbage Whites and Marbled Whites in greater profusion than I ever remember. As you walk past our buddelia bushes, the butterflies rise up in great clouds. This year I even left some ragwort in the hopes of encouraging the Cinnabar Moth, and have seen hoardes of their stripy yellow and black caterpillars, so my hopes are high. 

We’ve tried wherever possible to plant our garden – formerly a bleak, windswept field – in a way that encourages wildlife. We have pheasants and partridges, which wander in from a nearby copse; a family of rabbits (regularly killed by our cats, sadly); red squirrels; innumerable voles and moles galore (whose molehills I collect as beautifully-turned garden soil).

There are also one male and three female deer that regularly visit the garden – preferring my rugosa roses to pretty much anything else, and stripping the willow and cherry bark in springtime. Therefore we leave every seedling tree, knowing that the deer will kill at least a third of them. They’re partial to rosebuds and rosehips too, and only those out of their reach survive. This, however, is a loss we’re willing to accept for the occasional thrill of seeing one ambling along in the dawn or twilight, munching casually. We are on a deer migration route and they were here long before we were. 

We aim at biodiversity in the garden, so we allow patches of nettle and bramble, and allow the wildflowers such as kidney vetch and clover to flower, along with grasses which are the food plants for many caterpillars, especially those of moths. We also scatter hogweed seeds around, and honesty, foxglove, euphorbia – anything that will grow and fill up a corner. Nettles are an important food plant for the Red Admiral caterpillar among others, while Swallowtail caterpillars like the feathery fronds of fennel.

Even more important than the butterflies, of course, are the bees, especially given that we have an orchard. I have looked into beekeeping but find the idea a tad intimidating at the moment. But it is an easy matter to make life easier for bees, while at the same time making your garden more beautiful. Here are 10 tips to make your garden more bee-friendly.

1 Plant flowers in the colours blue, yellow and purple. These are the colours that bees prefer. I have a lot of white, so need to skew the garden a little. Lavender, lilac, asters etc are all useful plants.

2 Don’t use chemicals, of any kind. Ever. 

3 Plant flowers with single flowers, rather than double-flowered varieties where the bees can’t get at the pollen. Single-flowered roses; buddleia (where the flowerhead is made up of hundreds of tiny single flowers); and ‘umbelliferae’, where the flower-heads are shaped like umbrellas (think yarrow, hogweeds, cow parsley, elder etc) are all bee magnets. So, of course, are flowers such as foxgloves, which break all the rules for colour and shape – but only the bumbles can get in!

4 Plant flowers in big, plentiful swathes, and have some diversity in there so the bees can forage around and get different sorts of pollen. Don’t make some poor insect fly across acres of lawn and then find only a couple of flowers to harvest. Mix up the flowerbeds with flowers of different kinds and choose a mixed hedge rather than a single-species hedge. 

5 Have some water around, including shallow, muddy areas (some bees use mud to make nests and some butterflies like to drink muddy water). Even an old saucer laid on the ground and filled with water will soon turn into a haven for insects, toads, frogs, you name it. In larger containers, add some rocks at one corner so that animals can climb out if they should fall in. We have small water containers in every flower bed – some deep, some shallow, to act as waystations for wildlife. When we walk around the garden, our dog and cats regularly stop off for a drink.

6 Plant for year-round flowering. Our early bees come out to play for ivy flowers in January (good food for the birds, too, with its plentiful berries), then move onto willow in February and March before the cherries and plums come in, in April. Planting for year-round colour results in a beautiful garden for humans too.

7 Provide some habitat. A corner full of old twigs and brushwood; a rotting log hung up in a tree; a log drilled with holes. All of these make great houses for bees and other insects such as beetles. If a tree dies, leave it where it is and grow a climber over it such as a rose or clematis (or both).

8 Don’t tidy up too much. A messy garden, full of dying vegetation over winter provides habitat for animals. Don’t clear up until spring. 

9  Favour native plants. A native oak is scarcely less beautiful than a scarlet oak, but it will support hundreds more species of native insects.

10 Choose plant varieties with lots of pollen – don’t worry about your allergies, these are caused by wind-born pollens, not the heavy, sticky pollens of insect-pollinated plants. 

Tomorrow: encouraging birdlife

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