Favourite Insect Friendly Flowers and Plants – April

Please read the introductory page in the “Real Botany of Desire” for the background to why I’m listing the observed insect friendly flowers that bloom during this month, and which seem to be the most popular, with the groups of insects which frequent our garden in West Wales. Our favourite insect friendly flowers for this month are:

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White honesty, Lunaria annua var.alba, Purple bugle, Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’, and the multiple yellow flowers of Red Russian Kale,  Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’, Apple blossom of all varieties, Malus domestica, (Add in too Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ and Lamium maculatum from March, and the wonderful Scilla bithynica, which will still be flowering).

If reading the introduction is a click too far, then briefly, there’s a huge issue with loss of wild flowers as agriculture intensifies and mono-cultures prevail. This impacts on all the insects which rely on flowers as food sources. But all flowers aren’t equal in their appeal to insects, or particular groups of insects, (e.g. honeybees, bumblebees, hoverflies, moths, butterflies) and many nursery bred plants have been designed to be attractive to our senses, not insects.

Some flowers are useful both as pollen and nectar sources whilst other flowers simply provide just one of these insect ‘foodstuffs’. This simple record is to help gardeners think about this issue, and maybe plant more flowers to help our very diverse native insect groups. I’ve found that many of the best plants seem to be some of our native wild flowers which in other respects also have real garden merit. Equally there are many plants from the other side of the globe which are preferentially favoured over native flowers at certain times of the year – there’s no simple easy guide to their relative appeal.

The positive spin offs from incorporating more insect friendly flowers in our gardens apart from the appeal of seeing the insects themselves will be better pollination of our crops, and more varied wildlife in our gardens, since insects are at the bottom of many animal food chains.

SDIM1155 (2) (There are lots of flowers open in the garden during this month which seem to have little appeal to native insects – this is the only image I have of an insect visiting our many Bergenia flowers, although the small brown punctate spotting on some petals probably indicates damage from previous tarsal talon grips).

It’s certainly not exhaustive, and if you know other flowers which have equal appeal, which are not listed here, do please let me know, and I’ll trial them up here as well.  This work started a couple of years before my blog began in March 2011, but previous to that I’d produced the UK’s first DVD-ROM guide to Garden Moths ” In A Different Light”. This project attempts to widen that work in a more general way. Another point to ponder if you actually stand and watch honeybees, bumblebees or any other insects working in the garden, is how quickly they discover which flowers are their preferred flowers. None of them you observe will ever have experienced the seasonal flowers in a temperate garden before, since both flowers and insect visitors have such relatively short lifespans, yet within just hours of emerging as adult insect forms they develop clearly defined favourites, often to the complete exclusion of many flowers which we may find attractive.

As I mention elsewhere, the actual numbers of flowers of a single plant type growing together, and their position in the garden (e.g. sun, shade) can also impact on how favoured the flowers are by your garden’s insect population – probably because sunshine and warmth can affect nectar and pollen production and release.

Scilla bithynica continues to be a delight heading into early April, both visually for us and particularly for honeybees. It’s like a short, early, paler bluebell, which produces seed freely and which we’re slowly building up, being still quite difficult to source, and crazily expensive for such a fecund plant.

SDIM9322 (2) Scilla mischtschenkoana is another earlier flowering bulb (from February), which in still can appeal to honeybees into April.SDIM9453 (2)And the last few snowdrop flowers, Galanthus nivalis mainly, can still attracting pollen foraging honeybees in mid April in a cold spring.

Pieris flowers continue to be a real nectar magnet for bumblebees, and are visited by many flies in April. Later varieties like P. forrestii ‘Wakehurst’ can continue the period of flower into May. This is P. ‘Forest Flame’.

If you check back, you’ll see that Pulmonaria flowers start to bloom in our garden in early January some years, and here in April with many other flowers to choose from, they’re still one of the most preferred bumblebee nectar sources.

The bright yellow flowers of ‘Red Russian’ kale, if allowed to open, and not eaten as early purple sprouting, are attractive to a number of flies, honeybees and bumblebees as nectar and pollen sources. Many other brassicas left to flower have equal appeal.

Some varieties of Skimmia seem extremely attractive to the honeybees when in bloom – almost the most visited flowers in the garden at this time, but particularly in sunshine before midday. Many are not as appealing to bumblebees to the same extent, which prefer the Pieris. Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’ AGM, above, is one of the male varieties preferred. Red berrying S. japonica ‘Red Ruth’ and male S. japonica ‘Rubella’ are also visited in turn.  They’re likely collecting nectar as well as pollen, given the amazing honeyed scent that will fill the air near the Skimmias on a warmer day. Over 2020/2021 I’ve been propagating many more of these slow growing shrubs to provide extra forage at this often tricky time of the year, in early to mid April. The mother shrubs below are now all around 15 years old, so the new ones will really benefit the next stewards here!

Like many Mahonia, the Oregon grape’s yellow flowers, Mahonia aquifolium, above, positioned to catch sunshine on its flowers, has appeal for honeybees in particular. It’s taken until 2021, with increasing numbers of honeybees in the garden, for me to observe this. Several other forms of Mahonia were secreted into the garden in 2020 as other options, tucked away with their sometimes rather bright yellow flowers.

Most Rhododendron flowers appeal to flies, wasps, bumblebees and honeybees as well as to human eyes, through April into May.

Once the native wild pussy willows, Salix caprea, begin to bloom, honeybee visits to flowers in the garden diminish somewhat, since this is such a huge resource for them. All pollen arriving at the hives seems to turn golden!

Mossy saxifrage, Saxifraga bryoides, which we grow in profusion will attract a few butterflies, like this Green-veined white, Pieris napi, and various flies, including bee-flies, Bombylius major,  but not very often, bumblebees or other bees. April/mid May.

One of the challenges of writing these pages is I keep seeing new things. So just to prove me wrong here is a blurry image of a bumblebee visiting mossy saxifrage flowers. This queen Bombus lapidarius spent little very time per flower, hence the blurred image, and part of its problem was that its great weight bent the flower double. In essence my observations hold, that most Saxifrage flowers are primarily of appeal to flies, and not bees (with the exception in our garden of the later flowering London Pride, Saxifraga x urbium, which honeybees relish).

Green bottle fly, Lucilia sericata, on mossy saxifrage flowers in early May.

Welsh poppies, Meconopsis cambrica, are wonderfully attractive to bumblebees, solitary bees, honeybees and hover flies from April through May.

The bright yellow flowers of the shade loving Celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, is another poppy flower popular with several fly species, but we haven’t found this a reliable plant here.

Native bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, attract butterflies like this female Orange-tip, Anthocharis cardamines, as well as solitary bees, honeybees and bumblebees in late April through May.

Apple and pear blossom seems to be one of those flowers with diverse insect appeal – Red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta, on apple blossom, beginning in mid April in early springs, though sometimes 3 weeks later in a cold year.

Solitary bee on apple blossom.

Indeed, apple and pear blossom not only looks gorgeous en-masse, but attracts bee-flies, honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, hoverflies, flies and butterflies. Perhaps one of the widest range of insect appeal of any of the plants that we grow. April to May.

Purple leaved bugle, Ajuga reptans Burgundy Glow, is along with Geranium macrorrhizum, one of the favourite bumblebee flowers in the garden when in bloom in April/May.

Several fly species seem to visit Aubrieta flowers regularly.

Aubrieta is also a great nectar flower for early butterflies, like this Orange-tip, bee-flies, but not it seems honeybees in any large numbers.

These large queen wasps are the principle pollinators of our gooseberry ‘Invicta’ flowers. So even these garden visiting insects, which later in the year may reach nuisance levels, do have a beneficial pollinating role to play.

I only rarely see visits to Narcissi flowers by bumblebees, and even less frequently by honeybees, even though we now have many thousands in the garden. Occasionally flies visit. Judging by seed set, the most insect friendly and fertile cultivars which we grow are N. ‘Topolino’, N. ‘Brunswick’, N. obvallaris (The Tenby daffodil) and N. ‘Ice Follies’.

Native primrose, Primula vulgaris, is an invaluable flower for us aesthetically for many months from February to April, when it disappears into the background. Very few have been planted, they’ve nearly all appeared from seed. I’ve often struggled to find insects visiting its flowers, but as we have more and more growing, and particularly in the cool spring of 2021, bumblebees and honeybees did visit its flowers occasionally in March, but by April, it’s more likely to be the Dark-edged bee-fly, Bombylius major, whizzing from flower to flower (top picture, above).

I thought I’d include another image of Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ which is preferred as a great nectar source by bee-flies. These vegetarian adult insects are seen hovering like hummingbirds in front of flowers, and then usually end up hanging on with their gangly legs. They lay eggs by underground solitary bee nests, and their larvae then consume the developing larvae – so a carnivorous juvenile stage preceding a vegetarian adult!

We now grow very few tulips, mainly T. fosteriana cultivars, since others fail if left in the ground in our wet conditions. This was the first time I saw solitary bees collecting pollen in a fairly organized fashion from, Tulipa dasystemon (tarda) flowers. Other bees showed no interest.

A rare image of a larger bumblebee visiting a Tulip fosteriana ‘Sweetheart’ flower, and struggling to escape!

Tulips were one of the four plant groups discussed in Michael Pollan’s book ‘The Botany of Desire’ which explained this plants’ global success as a result of appealing to a single animal species – man. In our garden, insects rarely visit tulip flowers, although of late, some honeybees will collect the nearly black pollen from our favourite T. fosteriana ‘Flaming Purissima’, and in part this mismatch between human aesthetics and insect preferences gave me the idea for these website pages.

April sees White honesty, Lunaria annua var. albiflora, blooming for about 5-6 weeks. I never saw honeybee visits before the cool, late spring of 2021, but then have seen some honeybees visiting and bumblebees will visit, if large groups of plants bloom close together. But flies and butterflies regularly use it as a nectar source, and it’s also used as a larval food plant for some butterflies like the early flying Orange-tip.

The flowers of many Lamium maculata cultivars are almost perfectly formed for bumblebee pollination. This cultivar L. m. ‘Roseum’ is a little later than the more vigorous and preferred bumblebee form L. m. ‘Chequers shown below.

Lamium maculatum ‘Chequers’.

Some early flowering strawberries flowers, in the greenhouse, are reliant on flies for pollination – or a paintbrush.

Our 2 Spirea, including this S. ‘Arguta’ or ‘Bridal Wreath’, reliably produce masses of flowers every spring, but it’s only visited by a few flies, not bees or bumblebees.

Every garden should have a few dandelions, Taraxacum officinale spp. This Ashy mining bee, Andrena cineraria, and below, Gooden’s nomad bee, Nomada goodeniana, spent ages working a single flower, and are clearly covered in pollen. Honeybees will visit too. Its appeal to bees and flies, in part I guess, contributes to its success as a wild flower and ‘weed’.

Native Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, flowers are equally popular with flies, honeybees and occasionally bumblebees, although viewed as pernicious garden weeds in many gardener’s eyes. But after the exceptionally cold late March/April of 2013, and also 2021, Lesser celandines were one of the first flowers to recover and open once the weather turned and the sun shone, and allowed the honeybees to begin foraging again.SDIM9222 (2) The other recently added bulb which excelled in early April 2013’s freeze drying conditions were the pretty, low growing blue flowers of Chionodoxa forbesii ‘Blue Giant’. The honeybees seem to love them. (Contrast this with my observations at Kew Gardens on a warm April day in 2011, where no insects were seen on a sea of such flowers. Click here for link). And I saw a Small tortoiseshell butterfly, Aglais urticae, repeatedly visiting the flowers, but not any bumblebee visits.  SDIM9249 (2)SDIM9568 (2)SDIM9315 (2) Another first in 2013, was seeing honeybees visiting the flowers of native Anemone nemorosa, (this is a named cultivar whose name we’ve lost!). Although we’ve had these flowers in the garden for at least 4 years, they’re only just beginning to bulk up in a meaningful way, and this perhaps now creates a more obvious nectar and pollen attraction. In the very cold 2021, I did no hand pollinating of these, as I have in many previous years, and yet seem to have excellent seed set, and an increasing range of Gelli unique forms from previous years of hand scattering the buttercup like seeds before they fall to the ground. Updating these records in 2021, I should record that we now have 3 separate on site honeybee colonies.

SDIM9540 (2) Anemone blanda flowered right through April in 2013, and again continued to get honeybee visitors.SDIM9331 (2)Knowing that heathers were a great honeybee nectar and pollen source, persuaded us to buy a dozen or so small plants of different cultivars in spring 2012. Flowering at different times, most have survived, but this is the first image of a honeybee actually visiting the flowers. Again this image was taken after a very short lived on-site, loan colony had died out, but during a brief warm respite, from the horrors of spring 2013. A couple of bees were on the small plant’s flowers. A sufficient endorsement for me to think that this will be a valuable addition to the garden, particularly since white is a good spring flower colour, especially when backed by vigorous green foliage and an AGM award. It’s called Erica carnea ‘Springwood White’ AGM.  Many more plants of different cultivars were gradually added, with even more in spring 2021, planted on the rear bank where it catches most sun, mid-morning, to give useful early forage, and in 2021 many bumblebees visited the heather flowers too.

SDIM9264 (2)Few of our hundreds of Helleborus x hybridus kept flowers into April in 2013, or similarly in 2021. Most were withered by the dessicating winds. But this honeybee was still managing to salvage some pollen from the few remaining just viable blooms.SDIM0866 (2)

Muscari armeniacum, the grape hyacinth, hasn’t yet taken off with us, but I did get this photo of a smaller bumblebee effectively working the flowers, and honeybees visit too. Perhaps with larger drifts of flowers they would be more popular.

In 2015, we trialed 200 bulbs of Muscari latifolium, a very appealing two toned blue flower. Like many bought in bulbs, the majority failed to return the following year, but they are so appealing to honeybees, bumblebees and bee flies, that seed set was excellent, and we’re now slowly developing our own seed scattered Gelli Uchaf ecotype, which seems to survive in many areas of the garden. The 3 shown below, with the visiting bee-fly, are all such seedlings growing in the gravel of our terrace yard, from simply scattering seed.

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The Pasque Flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris, continues to be visited by bumblebees, flies, honeybees and even butterflies in April, but sadly we struggle to bulk it up in the garden.

Native Common dog-violets, Viola riviniana, and Labradorean violet flowers, Viola labradorica, continue flowering throughout April and are used as nectar sources by bumblebees, butterflies and this bee-fly, Bombylius, (right) and solitary mining bee (left). I’m hopeful that with time, and more of them growing throughout the garden, we may get visits from some of the native Fritillary butterflies which also use some types of native violet as larval food plants. (This has indeed happened in recent years).

Native Ground-ivy, Glechoma hederacea, which is quite an invasive low growing sprawling member of the Lamiaceae, or Dead-nettle family, is very popular with bumblebees. We have it growing on some of the garden’s hedgerow banks.

We grow several spring flowering Camellia cultivars. Walking round the garden just before dusk, I spotted this wasp systematically visiting the flowers of C. ‘Waterlily’, but rarely see other insects on them, although this is probably because most of our cultivars are double forms, acquired before I realised the significance of flower type, to insect appeal. Indeed a classic example of a plant group where the nurseryman’s eye in selecting large and often double flowers, has taken no account of whether the flowers have any insect appeal.

Last updated 02/04/2021

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