The very hungry caterpillars
Wendy Tobitt from BBOWT is going wild in her garden
BEES are not the only pollinators. 1,500 species of insects pollinate plants in the UK, including bumblebees, honey bees, solitary bees, hoverflies, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and moths.
If you’ve been enjoying your gardens this summer I hope you will have seen butterflies, hoverflies and moths flitting between flowers; they’re busy pollinating as they feed on the nectar-rich pollen.
The plight of the bumblebees and honey bees is well-known, and as it’s Bees’ Needs week from July 9 to 17 there’s plenty of publicity around now for campaigns to avoid using lethal insecticides, make more ‘bee hotels’ as well as creating bee-friendly habitats in gardens.
What may be less well-known is the value of other pollinators, which also need our help.
The Wildlife Trusts, along with several other environmental NGOs, are encouraging people with gardens, no matter how small, to give all pollinating insects extra help.
The Urban Pollinators Project, a three-year systematic survey across the UK showed that urban areas are growing and improving their value for pollinators, and should be part of any national strategy to conserve and restore the populations of bees and other pollinating insects.
Insect pollination has been valued at around £600million per year for crop production in the UK, and that includes the fruit and vegetables growing in our gardens and allotments.
Summer plants for pollinators include honeysuckle, buddleia, lavender and sunflowers – all of them rich in nectar. Lesser known but just as essential are food-plants for caterpillars!
Gardeners can sometimes be too quick to eliminate caterpillars, but without them we won’t have the butterflies and moths that are so vital for pollination – and in turn become a food source for bats and birds.
Caterpillars of peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma butterflies will munch through patches of nettles in a few days; and the furry tiger-striped caterpillars of cinnabar moths devour ragwort leaves.
In my garden I’ve seen a striped lychnis moth caterpillar feeding on Erysimum, the everlasting wallflower, which also attracts butterflies, although this caterpillar prefers Verbascum or mullein flowers.
The Butterfly Conservation site at Holtspur Bottom in Beaconsfield is a noted site for the striped lychnis moth, which you’re likely to see feeding on the flower spikes of dark mullein during July and August.
Although most caterpillars prefer to feed on native plants and grasses, some favour exotic plants and can reward you with sightings of amazing insects. The caterpillar of the elephant hawkmoth feeds on fuchsia plants, and pupates into a particularly colourful and large moth that feeds on foxgloves and buddleia flowers.
The general rule about plants for pollinators is to give as wide a variety of food sources as possible throughout the year. If you want to see bees flying on warm winter days, consider planting shrubs such as lonicera fragrantissima that will be flowering from January.
There’s still time to plant flowers to attract moths and butterflies into your garden now. Look out for Verbena bonariensis – seen here with a newly hatched garden tiger moth – Echinacea and Monarda plants in your local nurseries, and find spaces in your gardens and balconies for pollinators.
Cocoon boom: Beautiful pink and brown elephant hawkmoth, a garden tiger moth on Verbena bonariensis, the colourful caterpillar of striped lychnis moth