Favourite Insect Friendly Flowers and Plants – May

Please read the introductory page in the Real Botany of Desire for the background to why I’m listing the observed insect favourite flowers that bloom during this month, and which seem to be the most popular with the groups of insects which frequent our garden. It’s tricky to choose just a top 3 of our favourite insect friendly flowers from a long list for this month, but Geranium macrorrhizum, Aquilegia vulgaris, and Sea Campion, get the nod …

SDIM1959 (2)

… as with previous months, there is an overlap with the flowers from April’s monthly folder.

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, Bumble bees, 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, (P, N) whereas others just seem to provide one of these insect foodstuffs, and I’ll try to include this information with the images. So this simple, incomplete 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 is 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 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.

In a normal year (perhaps not 2012, or 2013!), May will see an explosion of flowers within a typical garden, and an equal explosion in garden tasks. So the challenge is then to be able to spend enough time observing and photographing to make sensible comments about insect-flower relationships. In early May 2012  the cold, cloudy and often wet and windy weather has meant little opportunity for observation, and May 2013 has been even stranger, colder and later, with no apple blossom out as I write this on 12/05/2013 – between 3 to 4 weeks later than normal. Equally its been interesting to see how the insects home in on preferred flowers as soon as the weather does relent and allows them to fly. The weather in the second half of May 2012 flipped and was the sunniest for nearly 20 years…. so a much better opportunity for insect/flower interactions. I’m convinced that planting some of the insect favourite flowers in quantity and close together in the garden, can be a real boon for our native insects which may have very limited foraging opportunities in a poor weather year, like early May 2012.

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

Not only does Red Russian Kale make a great late winter green vegetable up here, but the flower shoots are also delicious, as an early Purple Sprouting alternative. And if you leave some of them to open and bloom, not only do you get seeds for next year, but the flowers have huge appeal for flies, bumblebees, honeybees and butterflies. A fantastic nectar and pollen resource. Other Brassicas probably have similar appeal. 2/05/12

… A native solitary bee on the same plant at the same time as huge numbers of other insects.2/05/12 …

… Apart from Orange-tips, and 2012 and 2013 has been a really poor year for them after a bumper 2011(none at all seen in 2013 here), we see few butterflies in May or June most years other than Large, Small and Green-veined Whites. This recently emerged Large White also seems to enjoy Red Russian Kale nectar. 2/05/12 …

… Pieris forrestii ‘Wakehurst’ flowers about a month later than P. ‘Forest Flame’, so nicely extends the flower season, which the bumblebees really appreciate. It’s a great nectar source for them and certain fly species. 2/05/12 …SDIM0028 (2) … In the late spring of 2013, Skimmia  ‘Kew Green’, a male non-berry forming cultivar of the shrub, proved to be the most popular flower in the garden for visiting honeybees, although it grows in part shade. Bumblebees will also visit …SDIM9786 (2) … also still flowering were Pulsatilla vulgaris, with honeybee and bumblebee visitors …SDIM0030 (2) … and even a few Helleborus hybridus flowers lingered on into May, receiving honeybee and bumblebee visitors …SDIM0016 (2) … and I even saw honeybees, and an unidentified fly species visiting the pretty flowers of Tulip clusiana ‘Peppermint Stick’ and Tulip ‘Little Beauty’  below – it’s very unusual for me to see any insects visit any of our tulips. Did this reflect greater nectar production by the flowers than in a normal year, because of stronger sunlight, perhaps? …SDIM9778 (2) … SDIM0001 (2)SDIM9971 (2) … Dandelions, Taraxacum agg. continue to appeal to some native mining bees, and flies …SDIM9996 (3) … Flowering Currant, Ribes sanguineum, is often mentioned as being attractive to insects, and for the first time in 2013, I’ve actually seen some insects on it’s pretty flowers in our garden. Here a masonry bee. It has had bumblebee visits as well, but the bees rarely seemed to stay on the flowers for very long, hence my lack of images. It doesn’t as yet seem to be a preferred flower …SDIM9904 (2) … Lamium maculatum ‘Chequers’ continued to bulk up between the apple trees in 2013, and continues to be a favoured bumblebee nectar source, but I’ve yet to see any other insects visit its strongly coloured flowers – frankly were it not for its obvious bumblebee benefits, I don’t think we’d have ever grown it, but it’s really lifting the appearance of the shady area between our spirally grown apple trees …

… As this image shows, Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ continues to flower into May, and appeals to flies, some native bees and this interesting wasp.2/05/12 …

… For Bumblebee appeal the Pulmonarias have to be the number one plant in our spring garden, and this variety, P.’Trevi Fountain’ started flowering in 2012 in the first week of January, (more like April in 2013!) and here it is still going strong in May. Throughout this time its the number one flower choice for at least 4 different early flying bumblebee species. So we keep planting more of it, and it’s fortunately easy to split and divide in spring or autumn, and thrives in shady or sunny moist spots. However you don’t often see other insects on its flowers. It fascinates me that one flower can be so preferred over others, particularly since none of these insects will ever have experienced any of these any of these flowers before …

… The common Daisy, Bellis perennis, grows in our mossy lawns, and if you don’t cut the grass as short or as often you get a few flowers which are visited by some flies, and occasionally bumblebees for nectar and pollen. 3/05/12 …SDIM0088 (2) … our Aubrieta continued in bloom well into May 3013, and the main beneficiary was the spectacular Bee-fly, Bombylius major …

… Along with Pulmonaria, and Geranium macrorrhizum (see below), Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’ pictured above is the third fantastic spring nectar flower in our garden for bumblebees. On a warm day the bugle flowers will attract huge numbers of bumblebees. I’ve also occasionally seen a honeybee on it, but rarely native bees or flies. But its bumblebee popularity, as well as its ability to spread easily and drift through other plantings means that we grow masses of it, in sun or shade. 2/05/12 …

… The image above is the only one I have yet of a non Bumblebee bee, visiting bugle flowers.3/05/12 …

… Bugle, Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’, was also visited by Orange-tip and Green-veined White butterflies in 2012, in what was a very poor butterfly year …

… We grow quite a lot of Bergenia in areas of the garden, but this is the only time I’ve seen an insect on their flowers, so it doesn’t rank as a popular flower. But if you look closely at the flowers a lot have evidence of petal damage, possibly from bumblebee’s hooked talons. 2/05/12 …

… In a cold spring like 2012, Pear blossom is still out here in May, and can attract a wide range of pollinating flies, bees and bumblebees. 2/05/12. (In 2013, the first apple/pear blossom did not open until 13/05/2013. Will there still be time for any fruit to develop?) …

… Apple blossom is equally appealing to a diverse insect range of bees, flies, bumblebees and butterflies …

…  White Honesty, Lunaria annua var. albiflora, continues to flower into May and attracts many different flies, a few bumblebees, and some butterflies, particularly the Orange-tip (In 2013, I have yet to see any males in the garden by mid May). With lots of other flowers open in our garden, it’s now less popular as a nectar source for bumblebees than earlier in the year. All those insects makes it a good place for a spider to get weaving. 2/05/12 …

… We grow some Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium, which doesn’t really thrive in our garden in its current location. Mahonia have a reputation of being a good early nectar and pollen source, but this is the only photo I have of a Bumblebee visiting its flowers. 5/05/12…

… Right at the beginning of the month both bumblebees and some flies visited the flowers on female Holly (Ilex) bushes 1/05/11 …

… Hover fly on female Holly Flowers …SDIM0023 (2) … For the first time in 2013, I’ve seen honeybees and an unknown small bee or wasp below, visiting the flowers of mossy Saxifrage, which grow in many parts of the garden, but which have usually finished flowering by mid May. 2013 sees them just getting going by this time, and usually its just various fly species that we see visiting them …SDIM0053 (2)

… Simple Aquilegia vulgaris flowers are the favoured flowers for many Bumblebee species in May, along with …

… Geranium macrorrhizum, which when in bloom, is the other preferred Bumblebee flower attracting huge numbers. In 2012,  G. macrorrhizum was also one of the most popular flowers with visiting honeybees. 8/05/11 …

… Some early mossy Saxifrage attract flies, though not usually Honey or Bumblebees 10/05/11 ( but see noted above from 2013)…

… However common London Pride, Saxifrage urbana, seems very attractive to solitary bees, honeybees, hover flies and wasps 17/05/11 …

… Wasp on London Pride 20/05/11 …

… Most Rhododendron varieties seem valued by bumblebee species, from March through to June …

… From April through until October Sea Campion, Silene uniflora, is a native flower which has great appeal for bumblebees and several moth species, though it gets fewer visitors later in the season …

… Bumblebee on Kidney Vetch, Anthyllis vulneraria. This is another native flower, which in spite of our acid conditions grows well in full sun and partial shade 26/05/11…

… Thrift, Armeria maritima, is a really popular native flower with both bumblebees and butterflies, and along with the other coastal plants (as above – Sea Campion, Yellow-horned Poppy and Kidney Vetch) which we sow into the gravel at the end of our yard, makes a great insect feeding area in full sun, out of an otherwise barren spot …

… Welsh Poppies, Meconopsis cambrica appeal to many flies and bumblebees 28/05/11..

… Meconopsis cambrica also seem to be a preferred pollen source for yellow-legged solitary mining bees …

… After Geranium macrorrhizum, Geranium phaeum is the next most popular Geranium species for some of our bumblebees in early summer 28/05/11 …

… Geranium phaeum also appeals to Honeybees …

… For the first time in 2012, I’ve seen insects visiting the pretty flowers of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Mayenne Blue’, but only Honeybees. The equally sized pink flowers of native Geranium lucidum in this picture, were ignored…SDIM9897 (2) … A poor image in low light, but included here because flowering in May, (not the more usual April, 2013), at least 2 species of bumblebees were visiting our ‘Invicta’ gooseberry flowers, as well as the usual pollinators which seem to be queen wasps, below …SDIM9981 (2)

… The pretty, scented single flowers of Rosa rugosa, Frau Dagmar Harrtop, the earliest into bloom of any of the roses we grow, had honeybee visits in 2012. Apparently roses only have value as pollen source flowers, apart from the native Dog rose, Rosa canina, which does produce some nectar …SDIM9879 (2) … An unknown form of grape hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum, which doesn’t really thrive with us, continued to attract honeybees and bumblebees into May 2013 …

… We struggle to grow Allium species well in our garden. This one A.’Purple Sensation’ certainly gets regularly visited by both honeybees and bumblebees…SDIM7801 (2) … But in 2014 the 100 or so Nectaroscordum/Allium siculum  recently planted just a yard from a Cotoneaster horizontalis were almost exclusively visited by great numbers of large tree wasps (Dolichovespula sylvestris), although there were huge numbers of honeybees and bumblebees in the garden nearby. Elsewhere in the garden we’ve seen bumblebees visit these flowers in June, so whether other insects were scared off by the large numbers of big wasps around the Nectaroscordum flowers, or whether they will visit when the Cotoneaster flowers are finished remains to be seen. As with the huge numbers of bumblebees earlier in the year, most of these late May big wasps will have been overwintered queens, recently emerged. It seems that the  very mild winter weather has allowed significant numbers to survive. Click here for my post on this wasp from August 2013. Quite what this will mean for tree wasp numbers in the garden in August this year remains to be seen. Perhaps we will have to wear protective gear when gardening! For now the wasps, which have a reputation for being aggressive, seem too intent on gathering nectar to be bothered about the photographer …

… Another first for 2012 was seeing this honeybee on the beautiful pink rimmed flowers of Deutzia x rosea Carminea. Interestingly Deutzia are in the Hydrangeaceae, which as a family seem to be generally poor bumblebeebee, and solitary mining bee attracting flowers. I’ve yet to see any other insects on this plant …

… In 2012 this unnamed Weigela has turned out to be one of the most popular flowers in our garden in May for bumblebees, along with Geranium macrorrhizum, Bugle and Aquilegia …

… Erodium macranthum is another Geranium like flower which is a big hit with bumblebees 19/05/11 …

… Geranium himalayense did have a few honeybee visits in 2012, but it’s nothing like as popular as G.macrorrhizum or G.phaeum …

… Dicentra spectabile f.alba always gets a few visits from bumblebees, though it is not one of the most popular May flowers for them in our garden …

… Other Geraniums which we grow lots of, seem to have less appeal for bumblebees, though these bumblebee look-alike flies are attracted to them 28/05/11 …

… This recently acquired bronze leaved Polemonium yezoense ‘Purple Rain’ (Jacob’s Ladder) has been a really attractive flower for bumblebees, honeybees and flies19/05/11 …

… Native Germander Speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys which we grow in profusion as ground cover, mixed in with other suitable plants, does attract small flies, though not in any quantity any form of bee, though small bumblebees and solitary bees will occasionally visit its pretty blue flowers … 28/05/11 …

… When in flower, the rather common Cotoneaster horizontalis buzzes with Bumblebees, wasps, flies and solitary bees. Fleetingly it creates an insect generated din in the garden  27/05/11 …

… And in 2012, although only just opening in May, the Cotoneaster horizontalis is attracting honeybees as well …

… Masses of dramatic flowers on Crataegus laevigata ‘Crimson Cloud’, a Hawthorn cultivar, but only a few fly visitors …

… Though considered to be a pernicious garden weed, in its place, native creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens, is a much visited flower by moths, (like this day flying Mother Shipton Moth), bumblebees and other flies 19/05/11 …

Thanks for reading. And do browse around the rest of the Blog Pages….

Our garden at Gelli Uchaf opens from February to August in 2014, when we’re around, by appointment, for charity under the National Gardens Scheme. Please see the Garden Overview page for visiting details, or by clicking here. 

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Last updated 07/06/2014

2 thoughts on “Favourite Insect Friendly Flowers and Plants – May

  1. Love your site, being based in Aberdeen i find the pollinator friendly plants you list are almost a month behind and i have slightly different results with the plants. I had great success with the Sicilian honeygarlic with solitary bees, my lamium beacon silvers even though planted in full sun are always loaded with bumble bees, caryopteris dark knight and salvia cardonna are fantastic with the salvia flowering for near 4 months they are probably the best all round performers. I have 4 buddlejas and they are living up to their butterfly attracting reputation with the white and deep purple flowered attracting everything including honey bees and hover flies ive never seen before. The mahonia and ribes have been a washout and suspect they flower to early when there are very few insects around.

    • Thanks for the comment David, and glad you enjoyed this. I haven’t done very much to these pages recently – will have to look into the Salvia you mention though. This year our bumblebee queens have had to struggle with really bad weather in March – the one plant they seem to zoom across the valley for is the RIbes sanguineum – I wonder as with many plants whether their might be clonal differences in nectar production maybe? I’m also convinced our local bumblebee population has been helped by our move to wildflower restoration on our 11 acres – I wish I’d got onto this earlier, but there’s never enough time for everything…I wonder if there are still good wildflower meadows in your neck of the woods?
      best wishes
      Julian

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