This week I’ve been planning out a bee and butterfly garden to plant out in the spring with one of the school groups I teach in West London. The school has a large space (already home to several happy chickens) which will be used to plant lots of vegetables, but the students are keen to put all the odds in their favour by attracting as many friendly pollinators to the site as possible.
You may have read a lot of stuff in the news recently about the British bee population being in decline – there are several reasons for this. The major issue is widespread pesticide use, but a problem we don’t hear so much about is reduced biodiversity. Studies have shown that bees tend to be healthier and have more resistant immune systems (bees suffer from varroatosis, a disease spread by the varroa mite) when they feed off the nectar of a wide range of plants, rather than just one.
If you think about the British countryside, you’ll find it’s largely a series of monocultures, or large areas dedicated to just one crop, such as rapeseed, corn or potatoes, and as a result, bees in the surrounding area are continually feeding on the pollen of that one plant species. In the urban environment, parks and gardens mean that there is greater plant diversity, and the bee population is actually higher than in the countryside.
Bees are responsible for pollinating an estimated 35% of our food supply, and without them, its thought that the UK alone would lose food worth up to £850 million a year. Of course the point is not the financial loss, but the very real issue of human beings no longer being able to feed themselves should the bee population decline further. Albert Einstein is credited with the speculation that if the bee population were to die out, humans would follow just four years later.
One of the best things British agriculture could do for itself (aside from curbing its dependence on chemical pesticides and planting crops solely as monocultures – but that’s a whole other post) is to plant a range of species of flowering trees around fields, or to incorporate mixed wild flowers into sites used for growing crops.
Back in West London, the same applies to our school vegetable garden, where we’ll be planting these (mostly) native flowers and shrubs to attract bees and other pollinators to our crops, providing them with a rich and diverse source of food. Any of these, aside from the Lonicera spp., Buddleja spp. and Berberis spp. will do well in a large pot (at least 30cm across) on a balcony, and the annuals, Anthemis tinctoria (Yellow Chamomile) and Lavendula spp. will do fine in window boxes.
Herbaceous perennials, from left Symphytum officinalis (Comfrey), Trifolium pratense (Red Clover), Penstemon heterophyllus, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, Centaurea scabiosa, Linaria purpurea (purple toadflax), Anthyllis vulneraria, Verbena bonariensis