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Bring back the flowers

November 14, 2012 nadinemitschunas 3 Comments
Nadine M_bio

Hi, I`m Nadine from Reading University. I work in a project that investigates pollinators and their food plants in urban habitats such as gardens, allotments, cemeteries and local nature reserves.

If you’d like to read more about our project please click HERE 


A sizeable number of allotments at our local allotment site are used by their owners to mainly grow a few staples, and the diversity of crops planted on them is low. Such plots with their long rows of particular vegetables may look quite attractive to us, but from the perspective of pollinating insects they are quite barren places. Bees and other pollinators are not looking for cabbages or potatoes but for flowers which they can visit in order to collect nectar and pollen for feeding themselves and, in the case of bees, also their larvae.

This allotment has always something to offer for pollinators

Sadly, honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees, our most important pollinators, are in decline. The reasons for this decline are manifold, and include habitat loss, modern farming practices such as monocultures, extensive pesticide use and an increased occurrence of pollinator diseases. These bees and all the other pollinators need our help, and if you have an allotment plot or a garden, you are in a good position to provide some of that help. In return, by providing some assistance to our native pollinators, you will likely end up getting improved pollination of your fruit and vegetable crops.

One important way to improve the plight of our pollinators on our garden and allotment plots is by providing them with food sources, i.e. by planting nectar- and/or pollen-rich flowers. This also has the added advantage of making the plots look much nicer.

Bumblebee enjoying wild majoram

Different pollinators like different plants, and therefore, to attract a wide range of pollinators, a wide range of flowers will be required.

For example, bees like plants from the mint family such as wild majoram (Oreganum vulgare), mint (Mentha spp.) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and plants from the daisy family such as sunflowers (Helianthemum annuus), cosmos (e.g. Cosmos bipinnatus) and coneflowers (Rudbeckia sp, Echinacea sp.).

Cosmos looks pretty and attracts bumblebees and other pollinators

In my opinion, the best plant for honeybees and bumblebees is Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia). It is sold as green manure and is doing a great job in quickly covering the soil. If you let it flower, you are rewarded with pretty purple flowers and lots and lots of honeybees and bumblebees. On sunny days I have sometimes counted up to 30 bees (honeybees and bumblebees) in 1 m2. It is also visited by moths, nocturnal creatures that you rarely get to spot during the day. Another useful plant is comfrey (Symphytum officinale). I have planted it around my compost area and I am using the leaves of this plant for making comfrey ‘tea’. This liquid fertiliser which is rich in potassium and nitrogen is made by fermenting the leaves in water, and the resulting liquid is diluted 1:10 with water before being used. The flowers of comfrey also have a lot of nectar and will mostly attract bumblebees.

Bees and bumblebees like phacelia and sunflowers

Butterflies may not be the most efficient pollinators (especially when compared to bees!), but they tend to look very pretty, and many butterfly species are not doing too well at the moment.  On my allotment, they appear to be particularly attracted to wild majoram (Oreganum vulgare) and scabious-like species such as Scabiosa macedonica. And if you get to see small tortoiseshells and peacock butterflies in your allotment, it may also be a good idea  to create a small patch where you allow stinging nettles to grow, e.g. around your compost bin, to provide adult females with opportunities for laying their eggs (= oviposition), as nettles are essential food plants for the caterpillars of these butterflies. For oviposition, the female butterflies prefer nettles in a sunny but nonetheless sheltered spot, but they are likely to ignore nettles growing in the shade.

Let some wild plants like nettles and comfrey grow around your compost heaps

Hoverflies are not only good pollinators but their larvae have a predatory life style and will gobble up your aphids, luring hoverflies into your allotment, you will likely have fewer aphids, so this is a win-win situation for both you and the hoverflies. Hoverflies prefer plants with flat, open, easy-to-reach, and often yellow, flowers such as those that you can find in the carrot and daisy families. On my allotment, they particularly like fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), dill (Anethum graveolens), parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) and corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum). Beetles are not the most typical pollinators, but some species eat pollen, and by doing so help with pollination when moving from one flower to the next.  They have similar preferences of flowers as hoverflies, and this year, I have seen them mostly on fennel and parsnip flowers.

Hoverfly sipping nectar from a corn marigold

Another important aspect is to provide flowers over as wide a seasonal range as possible, ideally from early spring to late autumn, so that pollinators have a constant and reliable food source available. Bumblebee queens can emerge from overwintering as early as March, and solitary bees will also start looking for food on the first warm days in spring.  Good early flowers are leopard’s bane (Doronicum sp.), pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), spring bulbs such as specimen crocus (for example C. tommasinianus) and early flowering fruit trees and fruit bushes.

This bumblebee queen has found the pasque flowers on my allotment

Good late flowers are cosmos (e.g. Cosmos bipinnatus), dahlias with single flowers (Dahlia x hybrida) and phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), which will all flower until the first frost.

Rudbeckia, cosmos and sunflowers provide food for pollinators in late summer and autumn

Last but not least if you have a shed on your plot, you can also provide nesting opportunities for solitary bees. You can either buy bee ‘hotels’ or make your own.  For home-made nesting boxes, you can use hollow reeds, canes or twigs stuffed tight in a wooden box, tube or tin or wooden blocks with holes drilled into them (in which case your aim should be to drill holes with a range of different diameters, ranging from 2 mm to 10 mm). You can also cut bamboo canes of different sizes in pieces, bundle them together and hang them up (make sure you cut them before a joint so they are sealed at the back). As with hotels for humans, location is quite important: Ideally, you should hang the bee hotel somewhere warm and sheltered, about 1-2 m above the ground. A south facing wall is often ideal. And don’t be afraid of hanging the bee hotel close to your shed door or window, as solitary bees do not sting. It may take some time for the solitary bees to find the bee hotel, but after about a year or so, if the bee hotel is in a good location, business should be good and you may even have some regular ‘bee guests’.

The first “hotel guests ” have arrived already

So let us all try to bring the flowers back to our allotment plots. By doing so, we will provide important foraging and nesting habitats for our endangered pollinators, and by doing so, we will create well-functioning horticultural ecosystems with improved crop pollination and pest control.

And last, but not least, we will also have some nice flowers to look at when tending to our plot!

Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Anna B says:

    This is a really interesting and useful article. I am really passionate about the plight of the bees and even did some ‘bee walking’ research for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust last year. Really useful ideas on what plants to grow. I’ve got a few wildlife areas going on at my plot already but want to really improve upon those next year so this is very helpful :)

  2. Stuart S says:

    Great article, I shall be researching what flowers are most attractive to all types of bees. Even on the smallest of plots you can always find space.

    • royw says:

      It’s an amazing article Stuart. It certainly has gotten us thinking about next year and our planting regime. I loved the photos taken around the composting area, looked so natural, yet is obviously very well organised. We need to see more Nadine please.. we are all very inspired!

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