Gardens & Plants

Butterflies and Bumblebees

Turn your garden into a pollinator paradise

November 9, 2020

It’s mid-summer, time for Al-fresco dining, butterfly watching and relaxing outdoors to the soporific drone of bumblebees... That’s if you are lucky enough to have bees and butterflies in your garden.

With global decline in bees well documented, UK wild bee species have fallen by 30% in recent years.

Butterflies have fared even worse, with 72% of UK butterfly species declining over the last 10 years. Bumblebees visit flowers to gather pollen and nectar. In doing so they pollinate our ornamental plants and vegetables. Commercially entire crops and orchards rely heavily on them.

It’s reassuring to know we can help reverse these declining numbers by making our gardens a little more pollinator friendly. So if you are wanting to bring pollinators back into your garden here are a few suggestions:

Choose the right flowers

Only single flowers produce nectar and pollen, those frilly doubles and most bedding plants are sterile so won’t bring in a single bee.

Little and Large

Bees come in all shapes and sizes, visiting flowers to suit the length of their tongues. Plant species with different sized flowers, preferably in drifts as bees prefer to work groups of the same flower.

Bumblebee crawling into a foxglove flower at Ellicar Gardens

Look at flower shapes

Plants are classified by their flower shape, and bees prefer certain flower families. They love the lipped flowers of Catmint, Salvias, Agastache, Rosemary, all good for early summer colour. Try growing creeping thyme along pathways or lavender in a pot. 

Bumblebee enjoying creeping thyme in Ellicar's gravel garden
Creeping thyme carpeting Ellicar's gravel garden, framing pathways through the gravel

Tubular flower shapes work well too, like foxgloves. I enjoy seeing giant bumble bees crawl up into these stately flowers. These seed out gently around our garden, keeping bumblebees happy.

Here you can see how the lipped flowers of Salvia nemerosa Caradonna attract bees

Borage is a top bee plant, its electric blue flowers look fabulous tossed into salads or frozen in ice cubes for summer drinks.

Flowering time

Choose plants to extend the flowering season in your garden as bees are out and about from late winter to Autumn. Our earliest Bumblebees feast on hellebores, winter heathers then pulmonarias and grape hyacinths.

Pulmonarias, fantastic bee plants in early spring, in Ellicar's woodland garden

Structural Plants

If you are looking for architectural interest, the giant cardoon is a must. Its huge silver leaves are a foil for those towering artichoke-like flowers. Or Echinops ritro, with silver-blue ball shaped flowers is crawling with bumblebees in our garden.

Giant cardoon, a feast for hungry Bumblebees, towering high in Ellicar's rose garden

Elegant spires of Veronicastrums, lovely woven in drifts through borders, are fantastic bee plants. But my favourite of all is aromatic Bergamot, aptly known as Bee Balm. Choose from hot red through to silver pink, plant in sun or shade. It flowers and feeds bees all summer- what more could you ask from a plant?

Bright red Bergamot, Monarda didyma Cambridge Scarlet, flowering around Ellicar's natural pool, is a magnet for bees

 If it's butterflies you are after, choose later flowers with a landing plate. Scabious, Achillieas, Echinaceas, Rudbeckias, Asters and the huge dinner plate flowers of Eupatoriums are magnets for butterflies.

Red Admiral butterfly on Eupatorium maculatum Riesenschirm at Ellicar Gardens

In our gravel garden a sea of purple Verbena bonariensis attracts clouds of tiny white butterflies every summer, simply magical.

Ellicar's gravel garden with purple verbena attracting white butterflies in summer
Wild carrot, Daucus carrota, flowering in Ellicar's meadow garden, good for butterflies

 But the one plant I would never be without is Aster frikartii Monch. Flowering from June to November, great for butterflies and bees, I think its lilac flowers adorned with a single burnt orange tortoiseshell butterfly one of the loveliest sights in any garden.

Large tortoiseshell butterfly on Aster x frikartii Monch at Ellicar Gardens

 Oh, and don’t forget to leave a few nettles for her to lay her eggs on.

Caterpillars feasting on nettles growing in the borders at Ellicar Gardens, this clump was left growing in the borders especially for them