Favourite Insect Friendly Flowers and Plants – February

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 6 favourite insect friendly flowers for this month are: SDIM6517 (3)Crocus tommasinianus which is a brilliant early season nectar and pollen source for early season bumblebees and honeybees, if they have the likely very fleeting weather opportunity windows for them to visit the flowers, whilst open.The favourite early season flower for recently emerged bumblebee queens after C. tommasinianus, in our garden in late February is Pulmonaria ‘Trevi fountain’ (we think – unfortunately we first planted this before the time when we started to record cultivar names). Principally visited as a nectar source. And our 3rd favourite for 2013 after the arrival of an on site honeybee hive for the first time is the early flowering Scilla mischtschenkoana (tubergeniana), which is loved by honeybees as an early season pollen source and nectar source.

SDIM7917 (2)

The final 3 most popular flowers are Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, Helleborus X hybridus, and any later flowering snowdrops.

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 can in other respects 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.

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. On warmer days in February the insect world begins to stir, usually with small flies first and perhaps also in a very mild spring (and just emerged from hibernation), queen bumblebees. Also if you’re fortunate to have honeybees very close by or on site, then many of these bees will have been foraging already from January onwards, should there be any suitable weather windows, and your garden has flowers to interest them. Another point to ponder if you actually stand and watch honeybees or bumblebees working in the garden, is how quickly they discover which 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 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) will also impact on how favoured the flowers are by your garden’s insect population – partly because sunshine and warmth can affect nectar and pollen production and release, and also because warmer, sunnier or more sheltered conditions allow an individual bee to work for longer before the risk of hypothermia and death dictates a return to base.

The short video montage below, from February 2022, gives an idea of flower numbers in the garden at this time of the year, although in 2022, the first emerged-from-hibernation bumblebee queen didn’t appear on the scene until the afternoon of the 27th.

Crocus tommasinianus, is our favourite, and one of the best early insect friendly flower to bloom in our garden. Usually beginning around Valentine’s Day and continuing for 6 weeks or so, in 2012 it started about 5 weeks earlier in the first week of January. There are few insects around now, but if you look closely at the tiny fly on the top tepal (petal), you can see lots of orange pollen grains on its legs, so even these small flies will play some role in pollination. (Left clicking on the image will magnify it). But there are so few around that if you want good seed set, you can artificially pollinate with a small paintbrush. As with many flower groups, many hybrid Crocus aren’t as attractive to insects, and may indeed be sterile. This image shows a hoverfly on a Crocus chrysanthus ‘Snow Bunting’ on 22/02/12. On a sunny morning at this time of the year, flies get moving  in colder conditions, and therefore before bumblebees. If the weather then changes quickly and the flowers close,  they may have been the only insects which can play a pollinating role on that day. Another early fly species on Crocus chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’ 22/02/12. In a milder part of the country, or in a mild year, the first emerging bumblebees are drawn to clumps of Crocus tommasinianus. These already mated queen bumblebees, which have overwintered in protected sites like holes in banks and are the only survivors from the previous year’s colonies, have to find nectar and pollen to be be able to start a new colony. So the first emerging species (some species don’t re-emerge until much later in the year), really do benefit from flowers like this, since there are very few native wild flowers in bloom just now. This bee took over 20 minutes staggering from one flower to another, soon becoming covered in yellow pollen. This was my first usable photo of a Crocus and bumblebee taken in 2009, and I’m afraid the date wasn’t recorded. In 2012, this was the first day we saw an emerged queen bumblebee on 24/02/12 on Crocus tommasinianus flowers NP. SDIM8072 (2)In 2013 the first 2 early bumblebee species’ queens emerged a bit earlier on 19/02/2013. This is Bombus pratorum with the orange tail, on Crocus sieberi ‘Firefly’ a really pretty Crocus which is now the first to bloom with us, usually early in January. So it has a long time to wait before a pollinator arrives on the scene. SDIM7933 (2) And this is the other early bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, with a white tail, on Crocus chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’  In contrast to 2012 these early bumblebees seem to be relatively mite free. SDIM7987 (3) And on site honeybees mean that for the first time Crocus flowers are frequently visited by them, if they catch any sun that’s going between about 10.30 am and 2.30 pm. SDIM7954 (2) With a honeybee hive on site, Scilla mischtschenkoana, is hugely popular as a pollen source with the honeybees. It has the added advantage of having flowers, which once the buds have opened, stay open all day and night and so should the temperatures suddenly rise, the flowers are available to any bees venturing forth. SDIM8036 (2) Planting all these early flowers in larger quantities and where they will get sunshine between 10.30am and 2.30 pm will also add dramatically to their value for these early season insect visitors. Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, are visited by many flies, occasionally by night flying moths, and if you’re fortunate in having honeybees nearby, they are a highly valued nectar and pollen source for them, but I rarely see a bumble bee visit any of their very numerous flowers – an example of the difference in appeal of plants to different insect groups. I think part of the reason is that the early bumblebees are simply too heavy to be able to be supported by the slender flower stems. Or maybe it’s just a matter of taste? SDIM8006 (2) With the arrival of a honeybee hive in February 2013, we started to have lots of honeybee to snowdrop visits. There is obviously a finite distance for flight from the hive which can safely be managed at low temperatures. The hive was previously located about 900 metres away from our garden, more than manageable with warmer and longer days but not so early in the year. Perhaps this generally poor level of insect appeal from flowers which aren’t anyway indigenous to the UK, at least partly explains why seed set in many clumps and cultivars of snowdrops is often very limited.  This is a bee look-alike fly which seems quite common in the garden around the time that our common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, are blooming. With all these early flies around in February, the many spiders already active in the garden, have plenty of food available.   Pulmonaria are the other favoured flowers for emerging bumblebees, once the Crocus are finishing, but varieties seem to vary in appeal. Our most popular is P. ‘Trevi Fountain’, which flowers from January into April. In our garden it’s mainly the bumblebees which seem to visit these flowers, rather than other insect types, although in a late cold 2021, I did see occasional honeybee visits too. Another image to highlight how the emerged bumblebee queens, within just hours of emerging from hibernation and encountering the flowers in a spring garden for the very first time, will quickly establish flower preferences – the snowdrops and primroses are ignored, whilst the blue Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ is a firm favourite, principally for nectar. Helleborus X hybridus flowers are also visited for both pollen and nectar by many queen bumblebees – at this stage they are still nest building and there are no worker bumblebees about.  Notice again how the vast majority of hibernated bumblebees emerge with significant mite burdens. The standard bumblebee texts say that these are non parasitic and play a role in tidying up the bumblebee colony. The bees seem obviously irritated by them, with excessive grooming behaviour.SDIM6406 (2)Helleborus X hybridus flowers are also visited by flies and moths occasionally. And honeybees. SDIM8017 (2) Good seed set is common in our garden as a result. The bright Lesser celandine flower, Ficaria verna, is popular with flies, and honeybees, although most gardeners in the UK view it as a troublesome invasive weed – with some justification.  There are at least 4 different flies on this flower cluster of Hamamelis intermedia x ‘ Aphrodite’. It doesn’t get visited by other insect groups in our garden, yet sets seeds better than the other cultivars which we grow. And it has a lovely scent (to our noses). So a rare example of a plant with good human and insect sensual appeal. Sadly all our Hamamelis cultivars succumed to a fungal disease in 2018, and haven’t been replaced. In 2012 we planted for the first time some winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, and within hours the flowers were being visited by several different species of flies. Honeybees will visit as well, but the flowers cope very poorly with wet weather.  Daphne laureola subspp. philippi seems to be the spring flowering plant with most appeal to native moths, in spite of its small flowers and faint scent compared to many other more exotic Daphne varieties we grow. It can flower from early January to late March, but never seems to be visited by other common insects around at this time of the year. It is a native, though not that widespread, plant. If you look carefully, you’ll see lots of moths on this plant.

Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ which in some years has been in flower since early December, continues to be a magnet for many honeybees on those typically few days when the weather is sufficiently benign for them to be foraging. Bumblebees will visit as well, and should we enjoy a very warm spell, occasionally one sees recently emerged butterflies.

In 2012 for the first time I saw a Chestnut moth, Conistra vaccinii, nectaring off another Daphne which we grow, Daphne ‘Spring Herald’. This shrub has the advantages of flowering early, with a scent to match Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’.You can clearly see the moth’s proboscis in the flower, but on this cold, moonlit night, the moth will stay in the same position for many minutes without movement. How much nectar the moth is actually consuming isn’t clear.  Another first in 2012 was seeing nearly a dozen moths around a small Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ plant. On what was another cool night the plant was also swarming with a variety of flies. But the flower buds were still only just starting to colour and break. So what was the insect appeal? We grow about 25 Rhododendron cultivars and none of the others had any moths around them on this night. I also photographed a caterpillar on the foliage shown below. The obvious black sooty mould on the leaf surfaces is a clue to the attractiveness of the plant to all the adult insects on the plant on this particular night. This mould forms particularly on evergreen leaves when the leaves have been damaged by other smaller insects – usually aphids or scale insects, (but also some species of moth caterpillar). These all suck the plant’s sap or chew leaf material and extract the nitrogenous rich material, but excrete the sugary materials in their droppings. This allows the mould to get a footing on the leaf surface, but some of the sugars must remain and be valuable to the flies and moths. Or are the flies and moths interested in the nutrient value of the sooty mould? Unfortunately I can’t find any other images or references to moths being attracted to a plant afflicted with sooty mould, on-line. Indeed the following day during daylight I could see several small scale insects were grouped along the under surface leaf vein. As is often the case with this sort of observation, on the following colder, still, moonlit evening there were almost no insects present. So an example of a plant having great insect appeal without producing (at this moment) any nectar or pollen.

About 6 years ago Fiona had the idea of planting some heathers into the very poor chale conditions of the bank behind the house. A selection were tried, and more added over the next 4 years. In particular the low growing winter flowering forms of Erica carnea are a wonderful additional pollen and nectar option for honeybees and bumblebees, once numbers foraging in the garden increase, as the weather warms towards the end of February. Last updated 03/03/2022

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.