I have read all of Professor Dave Goulson’s books on Bumblebees, following his quest for the rarest bumblebees on the UK and around the world, his purchase of a farm in France to try and recreate his own flower rich meadows and more recently the warning to us all in Silent Earth, about the drastic and potentially devastating effects we will witness if we don’t do something to try and stop the decline of insects that we are already seeing.
I can highly recommend all of Professor Goulson’s books; he has been extremely successful in bring important issues that would otherwise risk remaining in in academic papers to the wider public through his highly engaging and readable books.
His more practical guide of what we can do to help insects is “Gardening for Bumblebees - A Practical Guide to Creating a Paradise for Pollinators”. As allotment gardeners, we are in the perfect place to be part of the solution to increasing the insect populations back to where they should be. Pollinating insects are obviously beneficial to allotment gardeners, as they pollinate our fruit and vegetable crops, and they can also help keep populations down of other insects that we regard as pests. While most people know that honey bees and bumblebees are pollinators, many are unaware of the pollinating services offered by wasps, who also offer us gardeners the service of pest control. For while adult wasps are vegetarian, their grubs back in the nest are carnivorous, and wasps spend their time catching small bugs and insects to take back to the nest to feed their larvae.
There are a huge variety of flowering plants that you can grow to benefit pollinators. It is a good idea to grow as wide a variety as possible, as different flowers are favoured by different pollinators. In nature there is a corresponding insect for every type of flower, the rare Madagascan Orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, has a moth with a 30cm tongue that it uses to get to the nectar), something Charles Darwin predicted in 1862 and which took 150 years to be proven correct. Even among bumblebees there are a wide variety of flowers favoured by differing species of bumblebee. Pollinating insects all have different tongue lengths to reach the nectar in a flower. Longer-tongued bumblee’s such as Bombus Hortorus, or the Garden Bumble bee, has the largest tongue-length of any British bumblebee species, and favours flowers with long trumpets, bell-shaped flowers. Open, daisy type flowers are more favoured shorter-tongued varieties, such as the Buff-Tailed and Red Tailed bumblebees, (these two most common varieties on our allotments).
Another reason to grow a wide variety of flowering plants is that you will get them flowering at different times of the year. Early spring flowers are essential for the queen bumblebees as they forage around and need energy as they set up their nests and start their brood cycle.
Gardening for Bumblebees lists 119 different flowering plants that you can grow, all broken down into their 33 corresponding plant families. Dave Goulson has also listed his favourites at the Goulson Lab on the Sussex University website.
While 119 is too many for me to mention here, I will outline some of my favourites, and also ones that are perfect for allomenteers. The good news is that a lot of the varieties you can already see on the allotments, but it would be great to see more. I've also provided Dave Goulson's star rating of which plants he thinks are best.
A selection of some the best garden plants for pollinators:
Borage **** Borago Officialanis
Also sometimes known as Bee Balm (a clue is in its folk name for being a plant loved by bees!), this annual herb is also useful for lovers of a summer Pimms, as you can festoon your Pimms cup with the pretty blue flowers. You can also put them in salads, where they have a cool cucumber-like taste.
These are very easy to self seed, so once you have a couple of plants you will have them on your plot forever more.
Favoured by honey bees and short-tongued bumblebees.
Comfrey ***** Symphytum Officinale
A hardy perennial, you will see this everywhere on the allotments, as it is already popular withallotment gardeners for its high value in making a liquid fertiliser (known as "Stinky Tea") and speeding up your the composting process on you heap. The incredibly deep tap root draws up nutrients from way down in the soil. It readily self-seeds, so the downside of the long tap root is that once it is established it is hard to get rid off. Not too much of an annoyance I find though, as you simply harvest the leaves and put on your compost. There is a sterile variety, Bocking #14, but clearly not used by many of the allotments!
This is favoured by short and long-tongued bumblebees, as even though it is a long flower, if you watch the short-tongued bumblebees you will witness the wonder of “nectar robbery”, this is shorter-tongued bumblebees who’s short proboscis cannot reach the nectar through flower use their mandibles to bite little holes at the base of the flower so they can push their tongues in hole and rob the flower of its nectar.
Lungwort **** Pulmonaria Officinalis
A great example of an important early flowering spring plant. I have lots of this in my garden at home, and it is heartening knowing that I am helping the first bumblebees I see each year are the queens, whose offspring I will be seeing in a short time.
Viper’s Bugloss ***** Echium Vulgare
This is one of the bumblebees' favourite plants, in Dave Goulson’s Bee Quest, when he is travelling around searching for bumblebees, whenever he sees Vipers Bugloss he will stop to look for bumblebees knowing he has a high chance of finding them there.
It favours chalky soil and can rot in heavy clay, although I have managed to grow smaller varieties on the allotments. In Cornwall it is everywhere, and I have spent many a holiday stood photographing the bees buzzing around this enormous plant (it can grow up to 1.5m tall).
Aquiligia, *** columbine, granny’s bonnet
A cottage garden favourite, that readily self-seeds. Once you have a few plants on your allotment you will see it spreading everywhere. It can happily be potted up and transplanted to borders, or a specific area, or you can give plants away. Another long tubular flower favoured by our long-tongued varieties of Bumblebee.
Geranium ****, meadow crane’s-bill, Geranium Pratense
A very popular flower, that gives good ground cover under rose bushes. Geranium “Rozanne” has shown in trials to be particularly popular with bees.
The Daisy Family (below) an enormous family of flowering plants, more than 30,000 varieties, and all great for pollinators:
Cardoon & Globe Artichoke ****, Cynara cardunculus
Cardoons (much championed by the late great Clarisa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies Fame, as an underrated culinary vegetable) and the globe artichoke are different varieties of the same species. Globe Artichokes were regarded by the Romans as one of the two greatest vegetables (the other being asparagus, showing that things haven't changed much in two millennia). Like many people in the UK though (where perhaps we lack the skill of the Italians and French to harvest and eat it properly!), I mainly grow my globe artichokes for bees, letting their globes turn into an enormous beautiful purple thistle, that will be crawling in bumblebees and covered in pollen.
An important late-season flower, as it is favoured by young queens who are fattening up before their winter hibernation.
Cosmos ** Cosmos bipinnatus
One of my all time favourite flowers, and possible that one that got me more interested in growing flowers. One free packet of brightly coloured Candy Stripe Cosmos that was cover-mounted on a gardening magazine several years ago and my allotment has not been without it since. It readily self-seeds, and happily transplants, which mean you can move them to a specific Cosmos-bed position. Every year I try and create a “Cosmos corridor” running down my central path on my plot. This looks great, and also means they are easy to pick for cut flowers. You will find you have more than enough flowers to leave for the bees and have cut flowers at home.
This year I’m looking forward to trying a new apricot coloured variety from the Dobies catalogue.
Definitely a great flower for beginners and children, as they are easy and quick to grow. Lots of varieties to choose from.
For pollinators, they are favoured by all short-tongued bees and also hoverflies.
Dahlia **** "Bishop of Llandaff"
Not often listed as a plant for pollinators, but the right variety will be a magnet for them. They need to be the "open daisy" variety, Bishop of Llandaff is a good example. Cactus varieties are useless, and Pom Poms need to be left on the plant to fully open for the bees to get to the nectar.
French marigold *** Tagete species
Not the double flowered variety, and certainly not the African marigolds which are of no use to pollinators, French marigolds are very attractive to short-tongued pollinators, especially hover flies, and also has the added benefit of attracting aphid-eating insects. They are well known to give off a strong scent that deters whitefly, and are useful grown around and near the door of greenhouses, polytunnels etc, or edging around your tomatoes outdoors.
A magnet to honey bees and a wide range of other pollinators
Michaelmas Daisy ***
A large clumping variety from the daisy family, especially attractive to honey bees.
Rudbeckia black-eyed Susan **
Herbaceous perennial, very attractive to honey bees and moderately so for bumble bees.
Sunflower *** Helianthus
Sunflowers are great for all sorts of insects, and look great on an allotment plot. They readily self-seed, although they don’t particularly like being transplanted. More often than not you will have enough self-seeding dotted around the plot and you can pull up any if you have too many. Children love growing them, especially if you got for a really tall variety, Dobies’ tallest is called Giraffe and can grow up to 15 feet!
The varieties that grow large dinner plate sized flowers I find completely crawling with bumblebees in the summer.
Foxglove **** Digitalis puperia
A classic and popular cottage garden plant and popular on allotments also. Very popular with long-tongued bumble bees such as Bombus Hortorum.
A perennial similar to foxgloves, another flower favoured by long-tongued bumble bees
Field Scabious and Scabious ****
A native meadow perennial or an annual. Is a great addition to the flower bed. Easy to grow and the pin cushion flowers are very popular with all sorts of bees, hover flies and butterflies
Another spring bulb that is an essential early source of nectar for queen bumblebees. Can be naturalised in lawns and looks great at the front of beds.
Giant Hysop *****, Agastache,
“One of the very best plants for bees”, according to Dave Goulson, and one of the few to get a five star rating. When I visited the Potato Ground in 2022 to help judge Loughton’s Best Allotments Awards I saw a plot that had a fantastic bed of Agastache, absolutely buzzing in bees.
A very popular plant in its own right, and a must for every gardener. These are also very popular with all sorts of pollinators; bees, butterflies and moths.
There are very plenty of varieties to try, and if you want to choose one that’s best for pollinators its worth researching. Apparently in trials at Sussex University Dutch lavender came out best, English lavender was not as attractive and Spanish lavender was even worse.
Another popular herb, especially in the kitchen, it is a great spring flower for early bumblebees.
A herb that is very popular with honeybees.
Popular with only the longest-tongued bumblebees, although shorter-tongued species have been observed biting holes to rob the nectar, this is also an interesting flower in the salad bowl, giving a peppery taste.
Although you can buy ornamental alliums with big showy pompom flowers that are popular with pollinators, you can also let some leeks and chives go to flower to provide food for pollinators.
In the garden white clover can be easily naturalised in lawns. Once upon a time it was regarded a part of a healthy lawn, until the weed and feed manufacturers came along and convinced everyone it was a weed, only because they couldn't formulate a product that didn't kill it) Clover looks lovely in a lawn, and bumblebees love it. It also means you only need to mow your paths when one it’s flowered.
In 2021 I had a lot of clover in my lawn paths but none flowered in 2022, showing it probably suffered in the drought.
California Poppy ***
Easy to grow and great for beginners. It self-seeds well, brightening a plot with its orange flowers. You can easily pull up plants if you get too many.
Primrose * Primula Vulgaris
A lovely early spring flower for early bumblebees.
Extremely popular with birds and insects alike, although not so much with gardeners. Anyone who has taken over a previously abandoned plot has had to contend with hacking back brambles and digging out their roots. If you have space on your plot, you can can always keep them in an area for nature, and also a crop of lovely fruit in the autumn.
Verbena Bonariensis **
A lovely tall plant that has tiny flowers, favoured by butterflies and hawk moths or any insect with a tongue long enough to get to the nectar which is secreted in long deep tubes. Freely self-seeds and is happy to be moved. Last year I saw an amazing display of half a bed of closely planted verbena at the Potato Ground.
A useful plant as it has a long flowering season, popular with long-tongued bumblebees.
This short list just outlines some of the flowers you can grow for pollinators on your allotments, in his book Gardening for Bumblebees, Dave Goulson also has comprehensive chapters on trees and shrubs you can grow for pollinators and also has broken down the information by time of years and length of tongue of bees so you can make sure you plot is buzzing all year round!
You can find a more comprehensive list at the Goulson Lab at Sussex University’s website, or you can read more in Gardening for Bumblebees by Dave Goulson.