The last swallows have finally fled, the sun hasn’t showed for the last 3 days, the forecast shows more of the same and the nights have really drawn in, so I thought it might be appropriate to explore a topic which is unlikely to surface for the next few months – “Insect friendly flowers“.
Last week in the garden. Rose ‘Frau Dagmar Hartopp’.
Some regular readers may have explored an expanding separate section on my blog under the title ‘The Real Botany of Desire’, but a lot has happened over the last few weeks to make me want to review this issue in a blog post.
Firstly, I should say, since I don’t seem to have done elsewhere on the blog, that the reason we hit on ‘The Garden Impressionists’ as a title for our ventures is a play on the inspiration we gained from a visit years ago to Monet’s garden at Giverny in late May. In particular I noticed the huge numbers of insects of all kinds in the formal part of the garden, amongst more intermingled flowers than I’d ever seen in a British garden. Obviously, it’s a very labour intensive garden, in a different climate, with many annuals, and only open to the public for half the year, but it stimulated us to try to develop our garden in such a way that it would become equally alive with industrious insect diversity, and perhaps therefore support a greater wildlife diversity, across the animal kingdom.
Did you know that 32 of the 50 most common garden bird species in the UK have insects, at all stages of their life cycle, as the major part of their diet?
As I thought more about the subject, I realised that particularly in temperate zones, flowers have developed over millions of years in an extraordinary and often complex symbiotic relationship with insects – the flowers attract insects to fertilise them and so set seed, and in return the insects are rewarded with food as either nectar or pollen. Much more recently humans – gardeners, plant breeders and nurserymen have muscled in on the scene. To claim flowers as their own, and breed their own cultivars. And select them for largely aesthetic considerations, be that colour, scent or form.
As far as I know there are no, (and probably never have been), nurserymen who are selecting let’s say Aster varieties for their relative appeal to late season insects, yet there are big variations in the relative appeal in our garden of many Aster cultivars to the flies, bees, moths and butterflies which will visit their flowers with potentially valuable pollen and nectar. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be of value to apiarists to know which cultivars or species of flowers produce the best nectar quality or yields from a given area?
Unknown ( or rather unrecorded!) Aster in the garden last week.
However, awareness of the merits and value of insects in our gardens and landscapes is at last getting a bit more good press, and a couple of weeks ago I watched on line a recent disturbing American documentary on the decline of honeybee numbers and its possible links to large scale agricultural pesticide use (Click here for link). In particular a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. I’d encountered two of these, imidaclopramid, and fipronil as pet flea treatments called Advantage and Frontline, in my days as a veterinary surgeon.
Always wary of drug companies’ claims of human safety, I was nevertheless appalled to find their relative toxicity compared to DDT on a weight for weight basis, in a well laid out summary paper pdf by J P van der Sluijs from the Copernicus Institute at the University of Utrecht – 7,297 times as toxic and 6475 times as toxic as DDT to be precise. Click here for more. It’s worth also checking out their maps of groundwater contamination with these pesticides in France and Holland to get a feel for what our insects are up against. Never mind what humans are being exposed to! But never mind, it’s just insect nervous systems that are being disrupted by these chemicals, isn’t it?
This year, in our own pesticide free garden, in a pretty pesticide free part of the UK, in spite of the terrible wet summer insect numbers in early October have, on sunny days, been extraordinary. So perhaps our planting regime with insect friendly flowers is paying dividends after all these years.
Actea ‘Brunette’ last week in the garden.
Is this why some of our garden visitors from even coastal gardens in Wales have commented on our bumper apple crop, compared to their own? Actually it’s way down on last year, with smaller apples and I didn’t need to do much thinning in June. Nevertheless, we still had pretty good pollination and fruit set, given our altitude and rainfall.
Also driving over the mountain last week I spotted a new sign advertising ‘Honey for Sale’. This hasn’t appeared before, and in view of my comments in earlier posts about regular honeybee visits to the garden throughout the year for the first time in 2012, peaking with hundreds of bees on our Sedum spectabile a few weeks ago, I figured I should call in and see what the local honey looks and tastes like.
Interestingly the owner of the hives, Andy Ryan, happens to be the current chairman of the Lampeter and District Bee Keeping Association. I wondered how he came to have honey to sell after such a wet summer? He explained that the bees were able to bring in quite a lot of honey early in the year in the very sunny March and April. But that they’d used most of this up as food, through the wet summer. Then in August/September the bees from one of his 4 hives started to bring in a lot of honey, making a surplus of 55 lbs. I bought a couple of jars figuring some of it was sourced from our Sedum nectar. And like all natural products it has a very distinctive taste and light yellow colour.
The local honey, French comparisons, and Sedum spectabile in the background.
Andy’s comments confirmed my thoughts that particularly in an environment like ours, at relatively high altitude and with 70 inches plus of annual rainfall, there’s a need to try to plan your garden so that there are nectar and pollen source flowers available to bees, and all the other insects around, right the way through their periods of flight activity. Because a bad weather spell may mean an inability to fly for long periods, and stored food will be necessary to keep some of the colony insects going.
Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ last week.
But how do the gardening media and big plant retailers fare in promoting insect friendly flowers? Around the time I collected my honey from Andy, our 2 monthly subscription gardening magazines arrived on the same day. ‘The Garden’ magazine, produced by the Royal Horticultural Society, RHS, had an in depth article on Sedum cultivars. The RHS have done much to encourage awareness of beneficial insects with their ‘Perfect For Pollinators’ range of plants, and an ongoing ‘Plants For Bugs’ project.
‘Gardens Illustrated’ magazine had an even more extensive feature on Japanese Anemones. Both Anemones and Sedum are stalwarts in our garden and produce masses of late season flowers. The Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ which we grow, is a fantastic flower with honeybee, bumblebee, moth, butterfly and fly appeal. The Japanese Anemone has a more restricted appeal, mostly to a diversity of flies, and occasionally bumblebees and honeybees as a pollen source. It’s difficult to take a photo of either of them without some insect being included in the image.
Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ when the honeybees came calling on 9/09/12.
Anemone x hybrida ‘Honourine Joubert’ in the garden last week.
But what caught my eye was that none of the lovely flower images in either of these articles featured a flower with an insect actually on it. So, I broadened the analysis.
Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica, in the garden last week.
- ‘The Garden’ magazine contained just a single insect on flower image in its 98 pages. The last page had an image of Nerine flowers with possibly (!) an out of focus bumblebee on it.
- ‘Gardens Illustrated’ contained 3 small insect on flower images out of about 115 flower images. All were butterflies.
- The extensive wholesale bulb catalogue from J. Parker, including many species of insect friendly Allium cultivars, contained … actually, I gave up looking after 79 pages with about 20 flower photos per page and not a single insect on flower image.
- The 2013 seed catalogue from leading British seed firm Thompson and Morgan features 151 plants to grow from seed which carry the RHS ‘Perfect For Pollinators’ logo. Yet there were only 2 insect on flower images – both were butterflies.
Finally, whilst researching the scientific name for Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, which we inherited from another garden and which seems to be a lovely and insect friendly flower for autumn, I came across Sarah Raven’s website. Sarah has also done a huge amount to raise the issue of the decline in wild pollinating insects, and the value of native wild flowers for supporting healthy insect populations. She also has a range of flowers to grow from seed which are attractive to bees and butterflies for sale on her website. Out of 169 plants and images there are just 4 insect on flower images with 3 butterflies and 1 of a bumblebee.
Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, in the garden last week.
Errors and omissions excepted, as the saying goes.
So in total, in all these glossy pages stuffed with thousands of flower images which, you will recall from earlier in the article, are largely a life form which has evolved to appeal to insects, there are only 5 butterflies and possibly 2 bumblebees illustrated.
No beetles, or ‘Bugs’.
Not even a single honeybee.
It’s difficult to do photographic justice to the hundreds of insects gorging on common wild ivy, Hedera helix, in the garden last week. Over a dozen insects in this small section.
There are lots of possible reasons for this dearth of insect on flower images. Perceived aesthetics, or perhaps detracting from the flower’s clarity or appeal on the page? Lack of suitable images to include? Commercial pressures from pesticide manufacturers and advertisers, to mention a few which spring to mind? But my point is that if this sort of skewed media coverage were applied in the UK to any other minority group, and heck, insects by total numbers, let alone species numbers, are the most numerous and diverse life form on the planet, so hardly a minority group, then there would be an outcry at the huge discrimination in operation.
Is it naive to hope that our gardening media and nurserymen might see that a gradual and progressive shift in the percentage of images selected where insects featured might, over time, help to raise the gardening public’s awareness of these creatures which are essential to the ecology of the planet? And awaken more to the issues surrounding vital pollinator loss.
A late flowering self sown Buddleia davidii plant in the garden last week.
More mushrooms have popped up in the garden as autumnal temperatures and rainfall stimulate fruiting, including a rare yellow waxcap, probably Hygrocybe subglobispora, in the high meadow, a short distance from all the Red Data Book pink ballerina waxcaps mentioned in the last post.
Another unknown from the high meadow.
2 unknowns from our mossy croquet lawn (see why we call it mossy?)
Another one from the equally mossy shrubbery lawn, for Kevin.
When the sun shines, I love this time of the year, the changing foliage colours, light and shadows. And particularly the ever reliable Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (below). It always provides a stunning, if rapid, shift through the colours of its leaves before shedding them, lighting the fire of the autumnal leaf season, often in less than a fortnight, and exposing the dark red stems to lift the garden during the winter months. A clump planted near the greenhouse, which unfortunately has turned out to be sited in one of the colder parts of the garden, always turns sooner and more dramatically than others.
And only Acer aconitifolium (below) and a Euonymus match it for speed off the mark as the days shorten.
Finally from the garden:
The long house border.
Mist in the valley.
Asters in the magic terrace garden.
Malus ‘Gorgeous’ – a crabapple.
Sedum, Asters and mushroom in the magic terrace garden.
Another Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica, with attendant pollen munching flies.
Not only are insects crucial to the survival of birds, reptiles, etc, but they are crucial to the ultimate survival of humans. Pesticides play a part in their demise (I garden organically), but I think the disappearance of native plants and ecosystems is even more important. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, I highly recommend Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy.
Thanks for the comment. I’m really interested in the Doug Tallamy book that you’ve recommended above, having just googled it, and I think that your comment about native plants and ecosystems is very valid. I do try to put the message out that this is a hugely important topic which we all need to pay more attention to. Sadly I suspect that the many very adaptable insects will be around long after we’ve wrecked the world, and become extinct. But with my more optimistic hat on, I reckon that gardeners can play a great role in stressing the need for action in this area, since most of us actually still value the natural world and are pretty good at observing what’s going on in it,
best wishes for autumn,