Pollinators such as bees, bumblebees and butterflies are struggling. Make your garden an autumn haven with some careful planting
Furry and brightly coloured, bumblebees are icons of the British summer. And, as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust charity points out, these important pollinators of our fruit and vegetables contribute a huge amount to the British economy. One in three mouthfuls of food are due to the hard work of pollinating insects – and tomatoes, strawberries and peas, in particular, rely heavily on bumblebees for pollination.
With summer flowers such as lavender, sweet peas and snapdragons in full bloom, many of our gardens will have been providing vital pollen to feed these hard-working insects over the past few months.
But now is the time for gardeners to look ahead to the autumn, and make sure that life-sustaining plants continue to bloom in gardens throughout September and October.
Scabious is fantastic for attracting bumblebees to the garden. Scabious 'Butterfly Blue' starts flowering in July and should continue to flower right through to October. As the name suggests, butterflies – as well as different bees, including bumblebees – love it.
Perennial wallflower – such as erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve' – is another hard-working plant with a long flowering season. It's easy to grow and will tolerate most soils. In mild weather it can continue to flower right into winter, and the attractive mauve flower spikes attract Common carder bees and Garden bumblebees.
Ivy is a fantastic choice of plant for a wildlife-friendly garden, as it brings many benefits to all kinds of creatures. The evergreen climber has nectar-rich flowers that bloom from September to November – it's one of the latest-flowering plants, and an essential source of food for insects when little else is available. Queen bumblebees will fatten up on the nectar before heading into hibernation, and solitary bees love ivy flowers too.
Get ready for winter
Some insects emerge from hibernation during warm spells – so providing food for them, in the form of winter-flowering plants, will help them survive through the colder months.
Mahonia is a hardy evergreen shrub with bright yellow flowers. Or you could plant viburnam bodnantense – another hardy shrub with deliciously fragrant flowers that will brighten up your garden through the bleak winter months. Both mahonia and viburnam can support bumblebees and honeybees – and are particularly popular with the Buff-tailed bumblebee.
Further ways you can help bumblebees and other insects survive through winter is to create bee-friendly habitats. Make a log pile, or pile up branches or rocks in a north-facing position – these could become the ideal place for bumblebees to hibernate.
Leave the dead stems of plants in situ too. They may have solitary bee nests in them, and lacewings and ladybirds often hunker down in dead foliage or hollow stems. Insects such as these are great at controlling garden pests, so keeping them safe during winter is beneficial for gardeners. Dead stems can also look wonderful in winter – especially when dusted with frost or snow.
It's best to avoid cutting back ivy, if you can. As well as its fabulous nectar-rich flowers, ivy produces berries that provide food for birds. And over-wintering butterflies – not to mention birds, bats and other small mammals – often take shelter in the deep, protective foliage that ivy offers.
A bumblebee breakfast
Now is also the time to start thinking about early spring food sources for pollinators. When bumblebees emerge from hibernation they will be hungry – so make sure there's a good breakfast waiting for them in your garden!
Early-flowering spring bulbs need to be planted in autumn. Colourful crocuses are one of the best spring bulbs for attracting pollinators – and they can be grown in the lawn, flower border, or in pots on the patio.
UK bumblebee populations have crashed in the last 80 years, with two species becoming extinct. If populations continue to decline, we could see our five-a-day costs rising – or even lose many fresh, healthy foods altogether.
So bumblebee-friendly gardens, parks and green spaces are more important than ever.
Bumblebee-friendly flowers for autumn
Bumblebees need late-blooming flowers on hand so that the insects can prepare for hibernation through the winter months – and there are plenty of plants to choose from that will provide an autumn feast.
Some bumblebee species have short tongues, while others have long tongues – and the different species will need different types of flowers. So it's best to grow a range of different plants in your garden, that flower throughout the seasons.
Sedum is a drought-tolerant, succulent plant, with umbrella-shaped clusters of nectar-rich flowers. Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy' is a good choice, as it has attractive foliage as well as large, dark pink flowerheads that are popular with honey bees as well as short-tongued bumblebees.
Snowdrops are a good source of nectar too, and can be seen flowering as early as January during a mild winter.
Hazel, flowering currant, aubretia – or even an apple tree – are other plants you could consider growing in your garden to provide early nectar for bumblebees.
What's that bumblebee?
If you succeed in attracting bumblebees to your garden this autumn, the app will help you to identify the 'Big 8' of the bumblebee world, giving you a fascinating insight into the lives of these very special pollinators.
The app offers users a new view of bumblebees, through an augmented reality 3D function – bringing a realistic-looking bumblebee to virtual life in your own garden or living room, for studying in detail and with the option of capturing some entertaining images to send to family and friends.
What's That Bumblebee can be downloaded for free at the Apple App Store or Google Play. To find out more, visit
Little Green Space September 2020