I don’t know whether I was more non-plussed or depressed at finding a man at a trade fair last week selling bumblebees. Have things got so bad that people feel they have to buy them? Apparently, and it’s not just relatively high-profile insects such as bumblebees and butterflies that are struggling. We don’t really know what is happening to hoverflies, or dragonflies, or – you get the picture. The anecdotal evidence provided in books such as Jennifer Owen’s recently published A Wildlife Garden seems pretty clear: there have been significant long-term declines in many species of insects. As bee scientist Bill Kunin at Leeds University asked me: “When was the last time you had to clean the insects off your windscreen? Some time in the 1980s?”
It’s bizarre, because we are well-disposed to bees and butterflies and can do a lot to help them. The message from Ben Darvill, director of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, is clear: “The root cause of most wild-bee declines is thought to be the drastic loss of flower-rich grasslands and other habitats which healthy bee populations depend on.” They are all suffering from catastrophic habitat loss, which can be at least compensated for in our own back gardens. Why aren’t we doing more to help them, and what can we easily do?
The way in which declines in insect populations have been reported has not been helpful. Honeybees are a good case in point. Their legion and only partially understood problems have attracted a lurid blaze of publicity thanks to books with titles such as A World Without Bees, by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, and The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making, by Dr Henk Tennekes. It is hard to keep a sense of perspective when confronted with the complexity and apparent severity of their problems, which include genetics, viral infections, parasites, climate change, pesticides and some bee-keeping practices. For honeybees too, though, a key issue is the lack of diverse and pollinator-friendly flora.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problems described so graphically, and consequently feel that there is little that can be done to help tackle them. In fact this couldn’t be more wrong. “Gardens ... now provide a stronghold for bumblebees in an otherwise impoverished agricultural environment; furthermore, our data suggest that the positive influence of gardens on bumblebee populations can spill over at least 1km into surrounding farmland,” says Dave Goulson of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Wildlife gardening is no longer about attracting fauna into your garden so much as allowing species to survive. Gardens generally don’t suffer from pesticide use, chemical run-off and soil imbalances. They can mimic natural habitats, offering multiple sources of pollen and nectar, foodplants, water and shelter.
Contrary to popular belief, wildlife-friendly gardens don’t have to be a brambly bio-hazard to be of real value; just sensitively planned, planted, and managed. Jenny Steel, author of Wildflower Gardening, points out that combining native plants in formal design can work very well: “Even a traditional herbaceous border can be a brilliant source of pollen and nectar. Choose your perennials wisely and incorporate a few of our more flamboyant natives. Echinacea, sedum and echinops for instance, plus native foxglove, marjoram and viper’s bugloss will bring many species of bee plus butterflies and hoverflies, too.”
Ask keen gardeners about the wildlife in their garden and many still think of caterpillars, birds and large mammals. However, all gardeners should be encouraged to think of their plots as an ecosystem with plants and insects at their cores. It is critical that “wildlife gardening” becomes just good gardening practice. This is not something that is apparent in the horticulture business; go to any gardening show and you will find a separate area for “environmentally-friendly” show gardens, and judging which often encourages unsympathetic hard landscaping.
There are many commercial pressures working against conservationists. Garden furniture, barbecues and decking carry higher margins than plants for retailers. Balls of plastic are easier to stock than pre-planted hanging baskets. Patios, paving and fences are exciting propositions for landscapers and suppliers. If you are a garden centre, are you more interested in selling a traditional cottage garden perennial such as catmint – an excellent nectar plant – or a showy annual bedding plant? These may be exotic cultivars whose nectar is either impossible for pollinating insects to access or which are completely sterile – so may as well be plastic. These annuals are a good commercial proposition; they look exciting and customers will have to come back for new plants year after year.
There is no point treating your garden as a wildlife reserve, however. First and foremost it has to please aesthetically; gardening is a selfish pleasure. After making gardeners realise how important they are, this is the second challenge for conservationists – to persuade them that creating a healthy ecosystem isn’t just practically helpful but, principally, very attractive. Put a pond in your garden because you enjoy it and its attendant array of animals.
Designer Janey Auchincloss recommends “thinking of bees as needing their ‘five-a-day’ as we do, in order to retain a healthy immune system. Plant in blocks of colour – the design will appear more cohesive. Choose blue, purple, pink, yellow and white flowers.”
Your planting doesn’t have to be native although if it is, you might also help butterflies which need native plants as food plants. Think about a herb garden or a micro-meadow, even in a planter, which is about the best thing you can do for your garden. You will be surprised how easy it is to maintain its sustained beauty through the growing season, and at the rich variety of insects it attracts.
Bees need nectar as an energy source and pollen for protein, particularly for their larvae, for which early flowers such as crocuses are invaluable. Autumn nectar sources (ivy and sedum are both excellent) are also important to give bees and over-wintering butterflies an essential last feast.
Gardeners shouldn’t feel they have to compromise to accommodate these guidelines; they must just do what makes them happy. The knack is persuading them that nurturing their own butterflies and bees is as satisfying as growing fruit and vegetables.
Nick Mann is the founder of Habitat Aid