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Bumblebee on thistle

10 easy ways

to help bees, butterflies and other pollinators

Want more pollinators in your garden or local green space? Here are some easy things you can do now to attract them and help them thrive

There are more than 24,000 types of insect in the UK – from beautiful butterflies and endearing bumblebees to less familiar species such as hoverflies, crickets and shield bugs.


Insects are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem, and they play an important role in our food security. Most fruits and vegetables rely on insect pollination, and not just by bumblebees and butterflies – flies, wasps, beetles, solitary bees, and all sorts of other insects are pollinators too. Some insects, such as ladybirds and red soldier beetles, can help with keeping aphids and other pests under control.

Red soldier beetle on cow parsley

Insects are a vital part of the natural food chain too, providing meals for bats, badgers, hedgehogs, frogs, and many different species of bird.


But our pollinators are struggling, with recent studies suggesting that insect populations have crashed by 60% in the last 20 years.


Key causes of decline include habitat loss, climate change and pesticides. Changes in agricultural practices over the past 70 years or so have played a major part. With more than 60% of UK land being used for agriculture, an increase in insect-friendly farming methods could have huge benefits for pollinators.


Gardeners can help too. In the UK, 87% of households have a garden – and together these cover more than 400,000 hectares. In England alone, this amounts to four and a half times more than the combined total area of England's 224 National Nature Reserves.


So if you want to help reverse the staggering declines in insect numbers and create insect-friendly spaces in your garden or community, here are some simple ideas.


Grow nectar-rich flowers

Nectar and pollen are vital sources of food for insects. Growing a range of plants to provide nectar-rich blooms throughout the year ensures pollinators can keep feeding in all seasons.


Some plants have a long flowering period, producing flowers throughout spring and summer and into autumn, so these are a good choice. Try perennial wallflowers, especially Erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve', nepeta (catmint) and hardy geraniums.

Red soldier beetle

Red admiral butterfly on purple hebe flower

Red admiral butterfly on hebe

For easy-to-care-for shrubs and plants, grow hebe, verbena bonariensis, lavender, and sedums – the latter are useful autumn-flowering plants that provide nectar later in the year. Annuals such as sunflowers and cosmos are also easy to grow, and are a budget-friendly choice as they can be grown from seed.

Bumblebee on pink cosmos flower

Include blooms that are different shapes. For example, some species of bumblebee have long tongues and prefer tubular flowers such as aquilegia, while ladybirds and hoverflies like flat flowers such as fennel.


Grow native flowers

Growing native flowers helps boost biodiversity. Native plants are uniquely adapted to thrive in the particular climate and conditions of a country or region, and some insects are particularly dependent on native plants. Yellow loosestrife bees, for example, feed mostly on nectar from yellow loosestrife plants.

Foxgloves

Bumblebee on cosmos

Foxgloves

Native plants that are particularly good at supporting pollinating insects include bugle (ajuga reptans), foxgloves, purple loosestrife, primroses, heather, and ox-eye daisies.


Also consider including honeysuckle when choosing native plants. As it releases its strongest scent at night, it attracts moths and other night-flying insects.


Grow caterpillar food plants

Butterflies and moths are attracted to nectar-rich flowers. But they also need certain plants to lay their eggs on – these plants then provide food for the caterpillars when they emerge.

Cinnabar moth caterpillar on ragwort

Cinnabar moth caterpillar on ragwort

Nettles are one of the best caterpillar food plants – they are eaten by the caterpillars of comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral butterflies. Orange tip butterflies will lay their eggs on lady's smock, garlic mustard and honesty, and ragwort is the main food plant for cinnabar moth caterpillars.


If you have enough space to leave a corner to grow wild, many of these plants may well appear on their own – without cost or effort! Lots of trees are also excellent caterpillar food plants – see below.


Plant native trees

Like native flowers, native trees can boost biodiversity. Hawthorns support more than 300 insects, with blossom in May that provides nectar, and leaves that are an important food plant for the caterpillars of several different moth species.

Honesty flowers

Honesty flowers

Oak leaf

Oak trees also support hundreds of different types of insect. An oak's nectar-rich spring blossom is a vital source of food for the rare oak-mining bee, which relies almost exclusively on oak pollen for food. Purple hairstreak butterflies and dark-crimson underwing moths (another rare species) also feed on the flowers.


Trees that produce blossom early in the year, such as hazel and blackthorn, are especially useful as they provide food when there's not much else in flower. Hazel leaves are eaten by many moth caterpillars, and blackthorn leaves are also a food plant for the caterpillars of various moths, as well as the caterpillars of brown hairstreak butterflies.


Holly flowers bloom from early spring, providing nectar and pollen for pollinators like bees and bumblebees. In spring, the caterpillars of holly blue butterflies rely on holly leaves, buds and berries for food.


Let the grass grow long

Leaving a patch of grass to grow long provides a place for insects to nest and shelter. Bumblebees nest in long grass, and long grass stays cooler and damper than grass that's cut short – this can provide wildlife with a cool haven during droughts and heatwaves.

Long grass with white, yellow and blue wildflowers

When you leave grass to grow long, wildflowers almost always emerge within a few weeks. Look out for red and white clover, forget-me-nots, red campion, dandelions, buttercups, ox-eye daisies, and cowslips. This can look stunning, and the flowers provide nectar for pollinators.


If you're taking part in No Mow May, consider leaving an area of grass uncut for the rest of the summer too – wildlife will have longer to benefit from this excellent habitat, and wildflowers will have a chance to establish themselves if you leave the cutting until the end of August. In larger gardens, mown paths through areas of long grass and wildflowers looks lovely, and even a small patch of uncut grass will benefit all sorts of creatures.


Grow a fruit tree

Apple, pear and plum trees produce blossom that's rich in nectar and attractive to insects – especially bumblebees. Because fruit tree blossom is usually prolific, it provides masses of these nectar-rich blooms in a compact area – meaning insects don't waste energy flying around to find food.

Oak leaf

Fruit trees age in a particular way, creating hollows in trunks and cracks in bark. These holes and fissures provide a valuable habitat for all sorts of invertebrates.


When the fruits are ripe in autumn, allow some windfalls to remain in situ. Ripe apples and plums are an excellent source of food for butterflies – they are particularly loved by red admirals. Blackbirds and thrushes eat them too.


Let dandelions grow

Dandelions are amazing plants for insects, as they start flowering early in the year and continue to flower for months – offering a fantastic source of nectar for all sorts of insects.

Bumblebee on apple blossom
Yellow dandelion flower

In fact, dandelions can support more than 50 insect species – and when the seeds appear, they're eaten by birds such as goldfinches. Please allow a small patch of these wonderful, cheerful flowers to grow!


Create a wild area

If you have space, an undisturbed, wild corner can create a fantastic habitat for all sorts of creatures, including insects. The key thing here is not to be too tidy.


Nettles, thistles, dandelions, bramble and teasels are all plants that are beneficial to insects, and will often spring up in areas that are left alone. Teasels and thistles, if left undisturbed over winter, offer cosy crevices in seedheads and hollow stems that insects can hibernate in.

Blue forget-me-not flowers

Forget-me-nots

Gatekeeper butterfly on a bramble leaf

Creating a log pile, or pile of branches or leaves, also creates a useful habitat for invertebrates – beetles in particular love rotting wood, and log piles can be a haven for all sorts of other wildlife including wood mice, toads and slow worms.


Reduce your carbon footprint

Climate breakdown is one of the biggest challenges faced by insects and other wildlife. So every action you can take to reduce your carbon footprint helps nature.

Gatekeeper butterfly on bramble

Bumblebee on apple blossom

Using public transport, walking or cycling, saving energy in the home, and buying local, seasonal food are all ways to reduce your impact on the environment. Choosing organic food, if you can, helps to reduce the use of pesticides in agriculture.


If growing your own food, or when buying plants from garden centres and nurseries, be sure to avoid peat – peat-free compost and plants grown in peat-free compost are widely available. Using peat-free alternatives can help reduce CO2 emissions – and peatlands are precious landscapes that support all sorts of plant and animal life, so they need to be protected and restored.


Reducing your carbon footprint comes with benefits for you too. Reducing car use and walking more can improve health; saving energy also saves money; and local, seasonal food can taste better than produce that's been imported from far-flung countries. Shopping locally supports local economies and communities too.


See this article about reducing your carbon footprint when travelling on our sister magazine Green Adventures – the tips here are equally relevant to our everyday actions.


Say no to pesticides

Pesticides kill insects, including pollinators.


Action for all

If you don't have a garden, you can still help insects. Take steps to reduce your carbon footprint, and contact your local council to ask about its management of nature-friendly public spaces.

Green bicycle leaning against a yellow wall

If you have a balcony or window box, choose insect-friendly plants – and you can even grow some of your own food, such as salads, chillies and tomatoes, on a sunny windowsill. Every small action you take can have a positive impact to help our struggling pollinators.

Long grass and white wildflowers around a tree

Little Green Space April 2024

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