Tips for choosing plants that help insects thrive

Monday 25th March 2019

We could all do more to help with decreasing insect populations, but it can be tricky to know exactly what makes a difference and what doesn’t. Nicky Roeber, Online Horticultural Expert at Wyevale Garden Centres, has given us these tips for choosing the best plants to encourage beneficial insects into your garden.

Insect numbers are falling dramatically across the globe. A recent review estimated that the worldwide insect population is dropping 2.5% a year, with 40% of species in decline and a third now endangered. If changes aren’t made, we risk losing most insects within the next century. Planting insect-friendly trees, plants, and flowers is a great way to do your part to save these valuable members of our ecosystem and you can help no matter what size your garden is.

Why insects are important

Insects are big helpers in UK food production. According to Countryside, 1 in every 3 mouthfuls of our food was made possible by insects because 75% of crop plants need them for pollination. Pollinator insects such as bees, butterflies, and hoverflies feed on nectar from plants and end up transferring pollen on their bodies and wings to the next plant, allowing new plants to grow. With the insect species in danger we risk the crop plants that we use for food being in danger too.

They also play a valuable part in the UK’s ecosystem as pest control. Only 1% of insects are pests that destroy crop plants, and predatory insects such as ladybirds, lacewings, and wasps are a big help keeping them at bay. If the predatory bugs stop eating the pests, then the pests will consume our crop plants and affect food production.

Which plants to choose

It’s best to have a variety of plants in your garden so that as many different species of insect as possible can thrive. It’s also a good idea to plant all year round – even though you will see the most insects in the summer, making sure that you have flowers in your garden during spring, autumn and winter too ensures that there’s a continuous supply of nectar to eat.

Try to stick to native plants rather than exotic plants from Asia or North America as natives are most beneficial to the UK ecosystem. Native flowers that are good for bugs include poppies, cornflowers and primroses. Flowerbeds are a great way to attract insects, but they also love wildflowers, weeds, and herb gardens with aromatic leaves including marjoram, rosemary, and fennel. Let your lawn grow out a bit, too — white clover and buttercups are great insect magnets!

If you don’t have a garden, don’t worry. Insects don’t need a lot of space, so a hanging basket or window box is as good a place as any for them to thrive.

Who likes what?

Even though some insects eat pests, they feed off the carbohydrates in nectar just like other pollinators, so it’s important to have as many flowers in your garden as possible. Bigger is not always better, as ladybirds and hoverflies prefer small, shallow flowers rather than ones where the nectar is too deep to reach. Luckily, wildflowers like yarrow and garlic fit this criteria and can be easily grown into a mini meadow.

Butterflies can feed off bigger, tubular flowers that most other insects can’t reach the bottom of, like buddleia. They love it so much that it’s nicknamed the ‘butterfly bush’! Don’t forget about moths — they come out when it’s dark, so night-scented flowers such as jasmine and honeysuckle are best for them.

Bees like a mixture of shallow and tubular flowers depending on what type of bee they are; solitary bees prefer shallow flowers, for example. Flowers that are generally a big hit with bees include lavender, bluebells, and foxgloves. Although not a flowering plant, bees and butterflies both love ivy so it’s best let it grow up walls and along fences if you can.

By making a conscious effort to choose plants that help insects thrive in our gardens, we can all play a small part towards saving beneficial insects that are a crucial part of the UK’s ecosystem. With these tips in mind, we can achieve fuller, busier gardens of bees, butterflies, and other bugs.