Please read the introductory page, click here, 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 the month are: Pieris ‘Forest Flame’, and P. ‘Valley Valentine’ (early) particularly for bumblebee queens, but also a few honeybees.
Rhododendron racemosum ‘Rock Rose’, (sadly now dead), R. ‘Cilpinense’ and Skimmia X confusa ‘Kew Green’, Skimmia japonica ‘Red Ruth, and S. japonica ‘Rubella’. In addition, several favourites from February, are often still flowering well into March, (e.g. Crocus tommasinianus, Helleborus X hybridus and Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’).
If reading my 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 as both pollen and nectar sources, whereas others seem to provide just one of these insect foodstuffs. So, this simple record is to help gardeners to think about this issue, and perhaps 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 some times of the year – there is no simple easy guide to their relative appeal.
The positive spin off 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. This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, and if you know other flowers which have equal appeal, and which aren’t 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 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. Click below for a short video of early March flower interest for our honeybees in 2021.
Some of these flowers may well be open in February, but except in a mild year, far fewer insects are active this early in the year. Also 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, or degrees of shade) can also impact on how favoured the flowers are by your garden’s insect population – probably because sun and warmth will significantly affect nectar and pollen production and release as well as making it easier for the insects to forage in warmer situations. I haven’t found any other images on-line of moths in snowdrops, and I hadn’t seen this before 2011, but in the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, I observed this several times. Whether the moths were feeding, or benefiting from a higher temperature within the flower, I don’t know. Researching this issue of thermogenesis in snowdrop flowers, is what got me started on writing a garden blog. Visiting honeybees also enjoy simple, late snowdrop flowers for their bright orange pollen, as do a few flies. In 2013 with an on-site hive, ( and again from 2019 onwards), visits to snowdrop flowers in sunshine between 11 am and 2.30 pm were frequent. But snowdrop flowers don’t seem to appeal to bumblebees, with only very occasional visits to them in our garden. Daphne laureola philippii is the most widely used spring nectar source flower in our garden for moths. A single small bush can attract over 30 moths at a time, in suitable weather conditions at night in mid-March. This is a Hebrew Character moth, Orthosia gothica. We’ve tried growing Pulsatilla vulgaris, the native Pasque flower, since 2012, and it’s proved to be a great attraction to bumblebees, honeybees, flies and even early emerging butterflies. But as yet I haven’t managed to get a clear image with an insect inside the bell like flowers. It looks stunning too, but has proved to be difficult for us to bulk up. Crocus flowers continue to attract flies, bumblebees and honeybees in March, and are vital first food source for these insects at the beginning of the year. The above C. chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’ is not as generous with pollen as the following flower. C.c. ‘Blue Pearl’ emerges slightly later and is very popular with honeybees, given the right weather as the photo below illustrates with 4 bees around this single small clump.
Crocus tommasinianus is our preferred Crocus species, for both naturally seeding around, and also its appeal to early bumblebee queens, just emerged from hibernation in time to catch these blooms, and also honeybees since we now have hives nearby. It produces HUGE amounts of pollen, and is easy to bulk up into swathes. A real discovery from 2013, has been how attractive the permanently open, and very cold tolerant early flowers of Scilla mischtschenkoana (S. tubergeniana), above, are to honeybees. They have almost been their favoured early season flower, with abundant pale pollen. Common quaker moth, Orthosia cerasi, in Helleborus x hybridus flower. Helleborus x hybridus flowers are visited by honeybees, bumblebees and even moths from February to April. Their only downside is that they’re very susceptible to being devastated by cold, drying, easterly winds. Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is attractive to bumblebees, and any very early butterflies, and in earlier months is really popular with honeybees, under certain weather conditions, and when snowdrops are the only other real option for them. Emerged queen bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, on Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’. A number of early Pieris and Rhododendron cultivars are visited by bumblebees, and honeybees. In 2012, P. ‘Forest Flame’, which is now a 15 year old maturing bush, was literally humming with over 30 bumblebee queens visiting at the same time. It’s also pretty popular as a nectar source with flies, and at its peak has a wonderful honey like scent. For the first time in 2012, I saw moths visiting Pieris flowers. This is a Common quaker moth feeding, but if you look closely you’ll notice that it’s feeding as a secondary nectar robber through the puncture wound made at the flower’s base by a previous visit from a bumblebee. After seeing this for the first time when the image was being cropped on screen, I checked the Pieris flowers in detail during daylight and most flowers showed signs of being attacked in this way. For a good 10 day period in 2012, our large Pieris ‘Forest Flame’ bush was THE favourite flower for bumblebees in our garden. Rhododendron racemosum ‘Rock Rose’ seems particularly appealing to honeybees, bumblebees and even this early Small tortoiseshell butterfly, Aglais urticae. Even queen wasps seemed to be attracted to the R. racemosum flowers in 2012. Sadly this plant died in about 2015, but R. ‘Cilpinense’, above, is now even more delightful, although it flowers a little later, in mid-March.
Erica carnea ‘Springwood White’ AGM, is a winter flowering heather which is a wonderfully popular flower with bumblebees and honeybees throughout the month.
Scilla bithynica, above, is another favoured honeybee flower which emerges just as the snowdrops and Crocus are finishing and continues to flower for many weeks, and seeds around quite easily.
In the greenhouse, the early and pretty Nectarine ‘Lord Napier’ flowers need a helping pollinating hand since only a few flies are in the greenhouse this early in the year. This situation changed at last in 2021, when one of our very nearby honeybee hives managed to do the entire pollinating of apricots and nectarines, by me opening the door slightly on the few suitable foraging opportunities for them in a very cool spring.This is the blossom of a greenhouse grown ‘Tomcot’ apricot flower. Earlier to bloom even than the nectarine. Commercially, green bottle flies, Lucilia spp. are valued for their pollinating role, and the Dutch firm ‘Koppert’, which specialises in such matters for commercial growers, can supply you with 30,000 of these, as 1 kg of pupae! So don’t exclude the humble fly from your list of perceived valuable garden insects. Overnight refuge for a queen wasp inside a Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ flower. Having talked to lots of people about how Narcissi (Daffodils) cultivars have little appeal for any garden insects, at last we’ve grown one which seems to break this rule. The short and stocky, but really vigorous and garden worthy N. ‘Topolino’ attracts bumblebees, flies and butterflies as a nectar and pollen source. As a result it sets huge quantities of fertile seeds. Most daffodils produce very few seeds. A pristine recently emerged Peacock butterfly, Aglais io, nectaring on N. ‘Topolino’, an old variety bred way back in the 1920’s. Several early fly species also visit N.‘Topolino’, but it only occasionally interests honeybees. It seems to produce some attractive secretions from outside the trumpet as well as inside. With an on-site hive, in 2013 we’ve also had honeybee visits to the species daffodil, Narcissus obvallaris, principally for pollen. This is another daffodil which does set seed quite well.
Scilla(Chionodoxa) ‘Pink Giant’ is another valuable early spring bulb visited by both honey and bumblebees.
Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ seems to be the best early bumblebee nectar source, in our garden, athough most of this year’s photos of it are on video, which don’t show the stunning blue colour as well as this still image without bees! It can flower from January in some years, right through to April, and as well as bumblebees, beeflies, Bombylius spp. seem to value it’s nectar, but again it’s not as popular with honeybees most years. I’ve never seen a moth on its flowers either. Yet! We grow other cultivars of Pulmonaria, but none flower for as long as this one, or seem to attract bumblebees in the same way. A recently emerged bumblebee working the Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ flowers. They move remarkably efficiently at speed, working all the flowers with barely a couple of seconds spent on each individual bloom. Like many bumblebees, this one is carrying a few non-parasitic pale mites on its thorax, just in front of the yellow band. These seem to carry out general cleaning tasks on the bee and in its colony. As I get more usable pictures of distinct bumblebee species I’ll include them. This recently emerged queen is Bombus pratorum. The yellow bands on the thorax and abdomen, with the ginger band on the tail being identification features. One of the earliest species to emerge, and a common UK garden visitor. Lesser celandine flowers, Ficaria verna, continue to interest both flies, bumblebees and honeybees throughout March, even if gardeners consider them a nuisance weed. We have masses of Primrose/Oxlip type flowers, Primula vulgaris, throughout the garden, and they seed around quite well. But 2012 was the first time I saw a bumblebee visit a clump in any meaningful way. By 2021, we had lots more primroses, and bumble and honeybees, and I finally saw both visiting primroses on occasion, but wouldn’t rank it as their most favoured flower. Shortly after uploading the previous image, and making the rash comments about few insect visitors, I managed a couple of pictures of different flies visiting primrose flowers. It reminds me that an observation based record like this is fraught with issues if one is too dogmatic. Nevertheless, given the number of these flowers in our garden, the insect hit rate is very low compared to other flowers listed here. This fly was definitely probing the flower for sustenance, unlike the previous, passive posture image. Another of those commercially valuable pollinating green bottles, I think. Anemone blanda is one of several groups of early, low growing flowering plants which only seem to get occasional visits from flies, and no other insect groups.(Scilla, Puschkinia, Hepatica nobilis are others). Again I can change this advice from 2013! – If you have a honeybee hive close enough, they too will readily visit these flowers. But perhaps without a hive close enough, it might be worthwhile hand pollinating to get good seed set? Anemone nemorosa, our native wood anemone, does get occasional bumblebee visits, but it doesn’t seem to be a preferred flower. I acquired 4 different forms of Lamium maculata, from Fiona’s mother’s garden in mid 2011. It’s clear by spring 2012 that they vary hugely in vigour, floriferousness, and appeal to bumblebees. This variety, L.m.’Chequers’, wins hands down on bumblebee appeal. Though is this simply because there is a greater number and concentration of flowers in a small area, and hence it’s easier for bees to gain nectar from them efficiently? Or is it that individual flowers actually produce more, or more appealing, nectar? We grow masses of White honesty, Lunaria annua var. albiflora, which in 2012 was blooming towards the end of March. It’s got real appeal for many insects – flies, bumblebees and butterflies all visit its flowers. It is a biennial, but once established in a garden will seed around easily without taking over. It also seems to be a plant which with us is sacrificially preferred by rabbits. Finally, the early Orange-tip butterfly, Anthocharis cardamines, can use it as a larval food plant. Why don’t we grow the common purple flowered form? Well we prefer the white, and if you grow both forms they’ll gradually revert to mainly purple, or lilac. Peacock butterfly on white honesty flowers. Unusually, spring 2012 saw a number of Peacocks and Small tortoiseshells around in the garden at the end of March. This was their preferred nectar source flower in the garden. Perhaps part of their appeal this year was that a large new area of honesty plants came into bloom, in the sun, and in a relatively sheltered part of the garden.
Chrysosplenium macrophyllum is a wonderful large leaved, gently spreading, ground cover plant for deep shade, which did attract a few honeybees on a sunny day early in March, after beginning to flower in February. We love this plant’s value as groundcover which mixes with snowdrops and Cardamine quinquefolia.
The ubiquitous dandelion, Taraxacum spp., cursed by most gardeners, is a hugely successful native wildflower. Why? Well in part I guess because it flowers over a very long season, appeals to a wide range of flies, butterflies, bumblebees, solitary and honeybees, and in consequence sets huge quantities of seed which has a great mechanism for widespread dispersal, and once rooted, will regrow from the tiniest fragment. Perhaps every garden should cherish a few. Violets – native wild common dog-violets, and Labradorean violets, Viola spp., flower well in many shady areas under mature trees in the garden, as well as in full sun. They’re visited by many insects, including bees, flies and butterflies but these don’t tend to spend long per flower, so I’ve not had much success photographically yet, but this camcorder capture shows a bee-fly to the right, and a solitary mining bee to the left. Many brassicas start to flower in late March if allowed to, and the bright yellow flowers like these of Red Russian kale are visited by many flies, bees and bumblebees for nectar and pollen. We’ve now decided to just grow Red Russian kale, in favour of conventional early purple sprouting broccoli, since we find it a more reliable crop up here, and the shoots (before they’re allowed to flower like this one) are just as tasty as purple sprouting broccoli.
Last updated 10/03/2021