What to plant to attract pollinators, insects, bees, moths and butterflies to your garden
Bees and other pollinators are active in the fifesmallholder garden and woodland, from very early in Spring until the Autumn frosts. Sometimes, if you are lucky you might see a bumble bee flying in a warm winter day but rarely a honey bee (because they are inactive at temperatures lower than 10 degrees Celsius). Moths and butterflies are also seasonal, some overwinter and others migrate here in good weather. In order to make sure that there is always pollen and nectar available, it’s important to have suitable plants in flower, at the appropriate time.
“We used to have 27 species of Bumble Bee in Britain, two have become extinct in the last 70 years and several more are on the critical list.”
As well as providing bee friendly habitats and nesting sites why not join the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust and/or your local Beekeepers association?
“Bees and butterflies hibernate in winter, so don’t forage when it’s truly cold. But it’s good to have a few winter-flowering plants that bees can use on warmer days and a regular food source from March to November.”
Plant flowers in groups
Flowers clustered into groups of the same species will attract more bees than individual plants scattered through the border. Where space allows, make the clumps four feet or more in diameter.
“if you plant them they will come”
What is pollen and nectar?
Nectar – nectar is loaded with sugars and is a bee’s main source of energy.
Pollen – pollen provides a balanced diet of proteins and fats.
Bees forage for both nectar and pollen from plants and flowers. Read more.
What Is A Pollinator?
Here in Britain ‘pollinators’ means small flying insects such as hoverflies, bees, beetles, butterflies and moths.
- St Mark’s – fly (Bibio marci) is named because it is often abundant around St Marks Day (April 25th0. You will find males swarming over farmland, especially near trees, drifting slowly through the air with their long legs dangling. Females are more likely to be found on the ground or vegetation. The fly is also common in gardens where it helps to pollinate fruit trees.
What do I need to plant for nectar and pollen?
“Most bedding plants are absolutely useless for bees and so are most with double flowers.”
Research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees and pollinators. They are also usually well adapted to your growing conditions and can thrive with minimum attention. Below is a list of plants and flowers suitable for pollinators and include pictures of ones that grow in our garden and woodland.
“Single flowered cultivars (some are marked as ‘Single Flowers’) are more useful to bees than double flowered cultivars.”
An annual is a plant that grows, flowers and sets seed all in one year.
Although the himalayan variety is very invasive, it is a good source of honey late in the season and the cause of the white spot often found on honeybees (from the pollen which is a very light cream). Himalayan Balsam honey is light in colour and tastes rather like Acacia honey. It is the only significant source of late forage for bees. Himalayan Water Balsam was introduced in the UK by the Victorians. It quickly escaped into the wild and is now a pernicious weed for waterways but a bonanza for bees.
Birds foot trefoil
Hardy annual but will need plenty of water during dry spells. Sow outdoors March to April and will flower May to August. This plant is a great source of nectar for many insects. It will also add nitrogen to the soil. This is a favourite of leafcutter bees. These have broad bodies and can be found on a variety of flowers but they seem to like members of the pea family in particular.
(Borago Offcianalis) Pollen is blueish grey. A hardy annual sown direct outside from March to September. Will flower from May to August. A beautiful flower ideal for attracting beneficial insects into the garden and easy to grow. The vivid blue flowers attract bees as well as other insectivorous species and make an ideal companion plant. Both flowers and leaves are edible.
commonly known as a ‘Pot Marigold’ produces both nectar and pollen.
(Eschscholzia californica) is a good pollen plant for the bees. Flowers are open when the sun is out, closed otherwise. Single blooms are orange to yellow in color and there is an orange spot on the base of the petals. The plant can be poisonous, so you should not ingest it. Make sure to wash your hands after handling the plant, too.
also known as Iberis. Preferring full sun and dryish conditions Candytuft is very easy to grow and can be planted almost anywhere in the garden except deep shade. Native to the Mediterranean it flowers from May to August.
(Clarkia unguiculata) is a nectar plant.
cneorum also attracts honey bees.
(agrostemma githago) Hardy annual sow direct outside. seeds and plants harmful if eaten. Sow March till May, and flowers June till August. Attracts bees, butterflies and birds.
(centaurea cyanus) Hardy annual sow direct outside from March to May. Drought tolerant. will attract bees, butterflies and birds. Flowers from June to September.
also know as Foxglove. Woodland-edge biennial with spikes of large purple or white flowers which attract longue-tongued bumblebees such as B. hortorum.
Also know commonly as Viper’s Bugloss. Blue flowered large biennial, a bit spiny to touch. Needs a sunny place and dry well-drained soil. Loved by all kinds of bees and Lepidoptera, but needs careful management in a garden situation. Seeds itself and liable to take over if not strictly controlled.
Forget me not
(Myosotis) has the smallest pollen grain, around 6 µm (0.006 mm) in diameter. In some countries, forget me not is sometimes made into syrup and given for pulmonary affections.
Bees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies will visit, so they are well worth growing if you like them. The varieties Legion of Honour, Spanish Brocade and the ‘Marietta’ types have both nectar and pollen that attracts all sorts of insects, including the day flying silver Y moth, so called because of the silvery-white Y shaped mark on its wings. These plants are particularly good for hoverflies, always worth having around in the garden to devour your aphids.
this plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds.
commonly known as Busy Lizzie has both nectar and pollen for bees, and some species of moths are able to get their long tongues down to the nectar also.
(Lavatera thuringiaca) is a hardy, fast-growing evergreen shrub with attractive greyish-green foliage and pinkish-lavender flowers that will cover the plant non-stop from spring until summer. As an added benefit, the sweet nectar will attract honeybees, and butterflies to your garden.
also known as Poached egg plant.
(Lavatera trimestris) bees get both nectar and pollen from this plant.
give the ‘cabbage white’ butterflies somewhere to lay their eggs rather than using your Brassicas. Nasturtiums are edible flowers that contain cancer-fighting lycopene and lutein, a carotenoid found in vegetables and fruits that is important for vision health
commonly called the tobacco plant in all its varied colours is heavily scented at night, luring moths from miles around.
(Phacelia tanacetifolia) This has lavender blue flowers and can be used as a green manure to suppress weeds and re-introduce nutrients back to the soil. Sow March to May, and will flower May to August. As well as bees will attract hoverflies and ladybirds. Pollen is navy blue and available June to September.
(pollen only. (papaver rhoeas). Poppies are usually insect pollinated. Birds like to eat the seeds. Sow March to May and will flower June to August. See also Californian Poppy under annual flowers.
is not only a favourite with bees and pollinators but the sunflower seeds it then produces is a good source of food for wild birds.
(Dipsacus). Good forage for insects, as well as producing those spiny winter seedhead that attract Goldfinches. Seeds itself everywhere and needs careful management. A tall biennial.
They will not only attract honey bees to your garden, they are also easy to grow and produce large, showy blooms that resemble daisies.
Perennials are plants that flower and die down in the winter but return every spring/summer.
Known commonly as Sneezewort. Attractive to small solitary bees.
Known commonly as Monkshood. Please note all Aconitums are poisonous, wear gloves when cutting back.
Avery tall biennial umbellifer. Needs lots of space. Flowers attract a broad spectrum of insects, including various solitary bees.
or Snapdragons have pollen, and the single-flowered varieties in particular attract bumblebees.
Butterflies and bees love this honey scented flower.
Garden hybrid. Attractive to Bee Fly (Bombylius) early in season; also occasional butterflies.
(Aster spp.) a reddish yellow pollen available from september till first frost.
(e.g. old mans beard).
(Solidago species) This is not a popular honey because the smell is quite putrid and its flavor is “distinctive”. But it does appear to be a popular variety of honey for bakers and for Making Honey Wine. The pollen is a golden colour and available September to October.
Heather honey is made from nectar collected from the tiny purple bell-shaped flower of the common heather plant so named because of its domination of many areas of heath and moorland, and also known as ling heather or Calluna vulgaris . Other heathers, such as the bell heather, flower earlier and are less common which makes them less viable for honey. Thick, amber in color, Heather honey has one of the strongest and most pungent flavors. It is fragrant and floral with a very lingering aftertaste that is almost bitter. Prized since ancient times due to its medicinal properties, Heather honey is extremely high in protein content. Erica is a winter flowering heather and a very useful early nectar source for any insects flying in Feb-March.
(helleborus niger) commonly known as Christmas Rose.Early nectar and pollen source for bumblebees in Feb and March. All hellebores are poisonous, wear gloves when cutting back.
also know as perennial sunflower. Tall and vigorous with small pale yellow sunflowers. Very attractive to a broad spectrum of insects over many weeks in late summer. Needs space and a good soil. Vigorous but not invasive.
the scent particularly in the evening is very strong. For that reason it is very popular with months and the source of the first sighting at fifesmallholder of our first Elephant Hawk moth. A migrant moth with very distinctive markings.
The yellow flag iris prefers damp soil or water. Emerging foliage coloured cream. Yellow flowers are visited by bumblebees.
Honey from ivy nectar crystallises very quickly inside the hive and sets like hard candy, which is almost impossible for bees to eat. This can cause starvation if all, or most, of the colony’s winter food reserves are ivy honey.
(Anemone × hybrida)
Commonly know as Red Hot Poker. Honeybees and occasional B. terrestris workers manage to collect nectar from the pendant flowers.
The flowers contain vitamin A, calcium and iron, and is said to benefit your central nervous system.
(Lupinus) produces a brown coloured pollen in early summer.
Produces a dark olive coloured pollen in the summer.
A small Aster attracting late solitary bees and Hoverflies. Very late flowering nectar source for late insects. Not invasive.
(Papaver somniverum) grey pollen available May to June.
a perennial which is prized for its long-lasting flowers. Ideal in full sun or a lightly shaded spot. A good source of pollen and nectar late in the flowering season and much loved by butterflies.
This is a striking architectural plant and attracts bees and hoverflies. Sow February to July and will flower July to September.
(biennial or annual) . Erysimum cheiri (syn Cheiranthus cheiri). The wild form can flower in December, or any time of the year. They have several flushes in a season. Ideal rockery plant.
Bulbs & Corms
A smallish, deciduous, dark blue Agapanthus. The pendant flowers attract Bombus pascuorum. Not completely hardy.
An insect favourite, especially bumblebees and butterflies.
(glory of the snow),
(Autumn crocus species autumnale ) provides nectar and pollen in the autumn. Flowers September, often called Naked Ladies because their leaves come up earlier in the year then die back.
Crocus chrysanthus Crocus species with many cultivars – necctar & pollen from Mid Jan to late March. The yellow crocus has orange-yellow pollen.
(snowdrop), nectar & bright jaffa orange pollen in Jan, Feb, March and April. Plant in the green (with leaves) in the Spring rather than dry bulbs in the Autumn. Single flowered not double.
(daffodil and jonquil),
pollen is orange-red.
(only for pollen).
Flowering low growing garden herb. Great food source for birds. Sow February to May and will flower June to September.
(Cichorium intybus L.) white pollen available.
We always let our chives flower and they are a favourite with bumble bees. Chives are also a good companion plant for roses. Chive blossoms (the purple flower of the chive herb) are edible and contain vitamin C, iron and sulphur, and have traditionally been used to help support healthy blood pressure levels
Commonly know as Fennel or bronze fennel. A culinary herb. Beautiful bronze foliage. Yellow umbellifer flowers attract Diptera (flies/hoverflies) and other small pollinators such as soldier beetles.
(Origanum species) is particularly good for pollinators as its nectar contains a lot of sugar, up to 70%. Produces a buff coloured pollen in the late summer early autumn.
(Rosmarinus officinalis) This honey is quite sweet, light amber in color but will become almost white when it crystallizes.
(Salvia officinalis) Sage honey is light in color, heavy bodied and has a mild but delightful flavor. It is extremely slow to granulate, making it a favorite honey variety among honey packers for blending with other honeys to slow down granulation.
(Alnus incana or Alnus glutinosa Common Alder ) brownish/yellow pollen February to April.
A true variety of apple blossom honey will reward you with a delightful fruity and golden sticky treat. Open the jar and sniff in a subtle aroma of apples. Crab apple (Malus spp.) produces a light olive coloured pollen from March till June. The apples (Malus domestica, Malus sylvestris) produce yellow white pollen in April and May.
(pollen only). The Ash Psyllid is responsible for deforming ash leaves. If you open one of these crinkled leaves , which generally have prominent red veins, you will find numerous nymphs.
Cherry blossom honey doesn’t taste like cherries, it actually has an almost delicious almond flavour with a medium amber colour.
Honey from this tree is not sweet tasting; it is actually quite pungent with quite an intense flavour. It is extremely rich in essential minerals. It has a strong flavour and very dark amber colour.
(Sambucus canadensis) pollen is a canary yellow colour and available from June to July.
This honey can be sought after because of its rarity. The Hawthorn only yields nectar for a short period of time so the bees have to be quick. The honey is dark brown, and thick in texture with a wonderful aroma of almonds and has a great nutty flavour. Very rich in Nutrition it has been used as an excellent alternative for treating many ailments. This honey contains a high concentration of pollen and it enjoyed by those who eat honey because of allergies. The pollen is a yellow brown colour available to insects April to May. The Hawthorn Shield Bug feeds mainly on hawthorn leaves and fruits. Many are called stink bugs because, when handled or otherwise disturbed, they emit pungent fluids. Most of them hibernate as adults. Another insect that likes the hawthorn is the Hawthorn sawfly (Trichiosoma tibiale). It is a fast flying bee-like species. Larva feed on hawthorn but is rarely noticed, unlike the sausage shaped cocoon which remains glued to the bare twigs through the winter. The adults cut their way out in spring. Read more about the Hawthorn tree.
(Corylus avellana Common Hazel) pale, greenish yellow pollen in spring - flowers from Feb. Worked by bees for pollen only as no nectar secreted. Requires calm still weather for bees to work it. Small pollen loads as difficult to collect.
the common lime (Tilia) produces a peach coloured pollen in the autumn.
(Acer) – a source of pollen for honeybees in February to April. Pollen is light yellow in colour.
(Quercus robur, Quercus pedunculata) pollen is light olive in colour.
pollen is reddish yellow.
pollen is light grey available between April and May.
(Ligustrum) produces a yellow pollen in the autumn.
Sweet and horse chestnut
(all varieties e.g. goat & grey). Salix spp. pollen is available February to April and is lemon in colour. The male plant of pussy/goat willow offer high quality pollen, female plants are rich in nectar.
(esp. B. globosa), insects like the flowers and birds like the seeds.
The flower from the elder is popular as a flavouring in drinks (along with the berries). The flower attracts pollinators and the berries attract wild birds.
Escallonia is commonly used for hedging and grows quite rapidly, about 1 ft per year and reaches between 4-8 ft in height. Flowering from June to October Escallonia has masses of white or rosy crimson flowers, with a honey fragrance.
(Ulex europaeus) – do not buy cultivars with double blooms. Nectar & pollen, on almost every day of the year.
The bell heather (Erica) which flowers in the autumn produces a grey coloured pollen. Ling heather ( Calluna vulgaris) produces a buff coloured pollen in the summer and autumn.
is an evergreen shrub and ranges in size from dwarf shrubs to small trees up to 7 metres. They are native to New Zealand, and South America. They come in a variety of colours and they attract butterflies as well as bees.
(Ilex – Mountain Ash) produces an olive coloured pollen in late spring early summer.
(mahonia japonica Japanese Mahonia) – nectar & pollen Jan to March.
(Ligustrum) produces a yellow coloured pollen in autumn.
(chaenomeles japonica) nectar & Pollen in Feb and March.
A weed is a flower in the wrong place.
or bramble as we call it here in Scotland. (Rubus spp.) The honey from this plant is dark, thick but also clear set. It is as you would expect quite fruity with a waft of flowery perfume. The pollen is a light grey colour and can be easily seen in this picture.
pollen is yellowish.
Depending on the location and source, clover honey varies in colour from water white to different tones of amber. White clover in particular is grown as a widespread blooming pasture crop and is a major nectar source in many parts of the world. This classic honey has a pleasingly mild, floral sweetness, and the most distinctive characteristic of this honey is its lingering hint of sour after taste. White clover pollen is yellow to dark yellow.
(Taraxacum officinale) pollen colour is red yellow to orange available April to May.
(Knautia arvensis) produces a pink coloured pollen in the late summer early autumn.
produces a pale yellow pollen.
Hedera helix known as common Ivy
Ivy will not flower for perhaps fifteen years, so it is pointless to plant this in your garden. Bees will find it in the wild. Honey from ivy nectar crystallises very quickly inside the hive and sets like hard candy, which is almost impossible for bees to eat. This can cause starvation if all, or most, of the colony’s winter food reserves are ivy honey. The pollen is a peach colour in the late autumn.
(Heracleum) produces a yellow pollen in the summer.
Centaurea nigra very light olive pollen.
Rosebay willow herb
produces a green/turquoise colour of pollen.
(Achillea millefolium) provides pollen for insects and pollinators.
Vegetables (when left to flower)
Beans of all varieties
(vicia faba) produces a grey pollen in the spring and summer.
(Allium schoenoprasum) Chive blossoms (purple flower) are edible they contain vitamin C, iron and sulfur, and have traditionally been used to help support healthy blood pressure levels.
(Vicia) produces an olive coloured pollen in the late spring and summer.
Kale (and other brassicas)
Oil seed rape
Produces a yellow coloured pollen in spring and summer. This honey granulates into a solid very quickly and it must be removed from the hive and extracted before it sets in the comb.
(Allium cepa) pollen colour is light olive.
Blueberry honey is a beautiful runny honey with quite a bite to it. It will surprise your tingling taste buds with its sharpness of un-ripened fruit, almost lemon in flavour.
(Rubus idaeus) pollen is a white grey colour. Raspberry honey has a delicate taste of fruity undertones. However it has a sugary texture and will crystallizes quicker than most honey varieties. (It is really easy to liquefy if a runny texture is what you want, just loosen the lid of the jar and stand it in a pan of hot water for a short time and it melts into a runny state).
Hellebore. Flowers point down protecting pollen and nectar from bad weather, long flowering season.
Poached egg plant
flowers are edible – they contain rutin, a phytochemical with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help strengthen capillary walls.
Websites used in the making of this article: