Very Interesting read . . .
Go native for bees and butterflies by Fiann Ó Nualláin
“Biodiversity is a word that relates to the diversity of life on this planet, covering the full spectrum of animal life from microorganisms to mammals, and all plant life from ferns to flowering plants and all the genetic variations within each species of plant or animal. In recent years it has come to stand as a watchword for the protection of endangered species and the protection and promotion of their habitats, be that the humble back garden (keeping urban birds in food and shelter) or the big headline habitats like tropical rainforests. Be it the plight of the white tiger or a tiny tiger moth, ‘biodiversity’ seems to herald seriousness. But it can be fun. And it can be immensely heart-warming and gratifying. Planting a tree with your child or grandchild is such a beautiful contribution to the collective memories of family and to the boarder human family by supplying more oxygen to the planet and more habitat for the wildlife we share it with.
Two of the ‘species’ most under treat in recent years are the pollinating hymenoptera and the lepidoptera orders. By simply becoming conscious of how we garden and what we garden with, we can play a role in reversing their declining numbers. Chemicals affect the immunity of pollinators so we could use homemade liquid feeds of comfrey and nettle in stead of fertilizer or how about a blender blitzed garlic and water concoction in a spray bottle misted onto garden insect pests as opposed to artificial agents that linger on.
Lepidoptera is the scientific name given to one of five ‘mega-diverse’ insect orders; it is a grouping which contains one of the best loved of all insect species, butterflies and also the much admired moth families. Both butterflies and moths possess a coiled proboscis, a sort of drinking-straw tongue which they use to probe flowers to draw out nectar as their primary food source. So like bees which make up the hymenoptera order, they are a major pollinator, responsible for the continuation of successive generations of the planets flowering flora.
Of the bee species in Ireland , some only identified and recorded as recent as 2004, Approximately one fifth are categorized as social bees, that does not mean that they are on facebook but more that they form friendly networks called hives where the crowd congregates around a queen. Socials include the bumble and honeybees. The remaining 81 species are categorized as solitary bees, not so much loners but they favour individual nests, often close to one another, in areas of good foraging. All bees, social or solitary seek nectar and pollen from flowers to make honey to feed their young and themselves. In the process they transfer pollen from the male anther of a flowering plant that they have just visited to the female stigma of the next flower on the forage, thus triggering fertilization and the next generation of seed.
90% of human foodstuffs depend on pollination for future supplies. So the continued existence of bees and butterflies is linked to our own existence. Albert Einstein famously stated that in his scientific opinion “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live’. Many believe the bee is on the brink of extinction now. You may have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD on a recent news story or panel discussion. It is a global crisis. CCD is like something out of the twilight zone or x-files. Hives that one day are buzzing with life, the next are as still as the Mary Celeste and as empty. There are no bodies left behind, just the still walled up brood. Every adult bee missing. Some times it is not that dramatic or instantaneous but over several months the slow dwindling of the adult population, as more and more fail to return from the forage. There has always been the odd occurrence of a disappeared hive, since beekeeping began, but this decade and the last 3 years in particular has seen a near decimation in global bee colonies. Its cause has been under conjecture and continual scrutiny since 2006 with most researchers proposing that the answer lies within a combination of contributing factors.
Studies of how beekeepers manage their bees have not concluded culpability. At one point a lot was made about electromagnetic radiation, that mobile phone signals where somehow scrambling bee brains and they where getting lost on return from the forage. Environmental toxins as a cause was flirted with but not fully explored as there are too many possibilities for toxic exposure (industrial pollution, household chemicals, exhaust fumes, agricultural drift sprays etc) to be able to pinpoint a definitive cause. Likewise Climate Change was a potential. Erratic weather patterns leading to wet summer, freezing springs or unusually warm winters all affecting flowering plants in seasonality and population. You will know from your own garden that many plants are blossoming early, long before honeybees have emerged, and some are not producing flowers at all, thus limiting nectar and pollen supplies. Another consideration was lack of genetic diversity in bee populations with all commercial and hobbyist queen bees and thus all subsequent honeybees of each hive coming from a small pool of breeder queens. Such a limited genetic pool will naturally over time degrade the quality of queens used to start new hives and be more disposed to diseases and pests.
Whatever the suspected cause, the practice of Migratory Beekeeping was not helping the decline, with millions of bees disappearing since 2006. Because the financial rental of hives to farmers is more lucrative than honey production, hives are no longer static abodes. A ‘transportation stress’ incurred in the back of trucks or covered trailers, as hives are driven hundreds or even thousands of miles. Honeybees operate their existence around orientation to their hive so being relocated several times a year may be the cataclysmic trigger. Also the glaringly obvious – the transmission potential of diseases and pathogens that relocation brings as honeybees often from more than one owner intermingle in the field, orchard or greenhouse.
The big culprit was always suspected as being Parasites and Pathogens. Incidences of the parasitic varroa mites are always a problem because apart from direct damage they also transmit viruses. Further more just like the depletion one might feed after heavy antibiotics; the chemicals controls for varroa mites can compromise the honeybees’ health. This depletion can allow other pathogens or parasites to take a foothold and then complications spiral. Back at the beginning in 2006 as all the colony collapse was rapidly taking place, a new parasite – Nosema ceranae was identified. But nobody then, put two and two together. That has changed, as fresh as this year, evidence is arising of CCD in colonies with no external stress factor (no moving, no pylons, no pesticides etc) but for the presence of the Nosema ceranae infection. Nosema ceranae is a strain of microsporidia, a well known group of spore producing single-celled organisms which cause diseases in insects. Spanish scientists have treated bees from infected colonies in Spain with the antibiotic flumagillin, and reported a total recovery of hives. Fingers crossed, the answer is found.
Bees are not the only pollinators in trouble. Across the planet butterfly populations are falling. Mainly due to habitat loss but also to the impact of Genetically Modified Crops. GM maize pollen has been proven to be toxic to Monarch butterflies ((Danaus plexippus) and lacewing insects (Chrysoperla rufilabris). Modified crops produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin which in itself is destructive but interestingly research in Germany is ongoing to study a possible correlation between exposure to Bt pollen and compromised immunity in a range of insects to the fungus Nosema. The plants in this article will benefit both bees and butterflies by being a natural source of nectar, some of the more tropical plants in gardens produce nectar that is not so good for native bees or attract predators to butterflies. Going native will protect our native populations and make the garden more interesting.
There are 32 native butterflies, approximately 1350 moth species with 570 being macro-moth species and just over 100 species of bee that call the island of Ireland home, between them they frequent almost the full gamut of native Irish plants – of which there are hundreds of species. There is not enough room to go through all those plants and their associations in this article but I will give a top twenty as such; carefully selecting those that would transfer easily into a garden setting; both practically and aesthetically and also selecting those that are best at supplying nectar to the populations of bees, moths and butterflies.
You can incorporate natives easily into your garden, Traditionally it has been achieved either by creating a patch of meadow habitat or by removing some privet or griselinia to replant with a native hedgerow but it is just as refreshing and interesting to simply include some native varieties amongst your ornamental borders and existing planting schemes. Remember that most of the plants in garden centres are simply cousins of our natural bounty. Erica carnea ‘Springwood Pink’ is a beautiful heather but so too are our native Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) and cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix). Think native Armeria maritima for beautiful pink blooms rather than garden centre thrifts of a hybrid or cultivar nature. Thrift is far from thrifty, it actually contains an abundance of flowers, several hundred in a sq foot (30cm squared). So it makes a hot spot of foraging activity for visiting bees. Each individual bee will clock up flight miles equivalent to an 800km road trip in its short lifetime, carrying almost half its weight in pollen and nectar on the trip back to the hive.
Consider how beautiful the indigenous columbine (aquilegia vulgaris) is, its blue purple petals a beacon to bees. The swap does not have to be with cousins it can be something like native meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) in lieu of astilbe or gallium odorum in place of candytuft (Iberis spp). One good swap would be in the form of your boundaries, if they consist of the usual hedging stock. Hedges are attractive screens for any home, less sterile than a fence or wall, but beyond any aesthetic value hedges will support wildlife by offering cover to birds and small mammals, some even support bee and butterflies and other insects. More so if the plants that make the hedge are native species.
A single species like a hawthorn hedge or a hedgerow of mixed species will really benefit your gardens species count. For example the field maple (Acer campestre) was imported to Ireland by the Anglo-Normans, it supports around 50 species of insect which seems a lot until you consider that native Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna ) supports over 200 insect species and Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa ) supports 149 species of invertebrates. With all this natural food source for birds in the form of spiders and insects it is no wonder that two-thirds of Irish birds nest in Hedgerows! When it comes to wildlife gardening this is an important consideration as bees and birds mix but caterpillars and birds are joined in the food web, so the more birds in your garden, the less butterflies fluttering about later in the year.
That said Blackthorn bushes make great security hedges for your property and in doing so their spiny nature offers a haven to the larvae of the Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae) offering great defence against grub and caterpillar hungry birds and supplying edible foliage to store energy for transformation into adult butterflies. Clued in the Latin name these butterflies also like birch trees (Betula pendula and b. pubescences). Native hedgerows will attract the gorgeous Orange Tips (Anthocharis cardamines) and the attractive Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) butterflies.
Hawthorn hedges are a mass of flowers in May and make a bees life easy. A bee must find 1500 individual flowers to draw its nectar and pollen quota for single days forage before returning to the hive. Plants with profuse flowering save miles of flight time for beleaguered bees. Hawthorn also hosts the brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) and may moth species, its fruit will feed birds long after butterflies are on the wing and its berries and foliage have edible and medicinal properties for the human population. The brimstone was once known as ‘the butter coloured fly’ by early natural historians and it is perhaps the origin of the word butterfly. Hawthorn has another vernacular name of The Bread and Butter Tree, derived its edible leaves and flowers. The foliage is still collected as popular sandwich filler, perfect for a picnic amongst all the other butter flies.
During the height of summer and into autumn, meadows are filled with a diversity of butterflies, from Wall Browns (Pararge megera) and Speckled Woods (Pararge aegeria) laying eggs in the grasses to the Small Heath (coenonympha pamphilus) basking in sun, resting with its wings closed atop meadow flowers like the bee friendly Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and nectar rich field scabious (Knautia arvensis) while the fiercely territorial Small Copper (lycaena phlaeas) busies itself harassing every other little butterfly that passes by. Consider the beauty of a ragged robin (lychnis flos cuculi) that lets you know the cuckoos’ song will soon be heard. The Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is a must for meadows, those big eyes first dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of women, later transferred to Mary Magdalene renamed Maudlin Daisy but far from being maudlin it brightens up a sward of grass and is perpetually visited by bees and resting butterflies.
If a meadow is not to taste or not appropriate to scale, how about a slightly less manicured lawn, skip the weed and feeds and let the common daisy (bellis perennis) and clover return. When it comes to a bit of clover, it is clearly a bee magnet, its sweet nectar a favourite, But it is also a larval food plant for the Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) butterfly which flies to Ireland from Southern Europe in spring but raises a summer brood here. Both the Gatekeeper (Maniola tithonu) and Grayling (hipparchia semele) butterflies lay their eggs on wild grasses and frequent clover. As do the Large Heath (coenonypha tullia) and Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina). When it comes to daisy it feeds both the hymenoptera and the Lepidoptera orders and yet for other insects a repellent can be made from an infusion of the leaves
When it comes to beds borders and planting schemes It may seem like a nightmare to include native plants, but that is only because very often native is confused with wild and the perception is of a weedy little plant along a road side ditch. Far from it. They is a whole canon of spectacular flowers and shrubs of native origin that would grace your garden and not look out of place beside their ornamental cousins. For starters Imagine a prairie garden with natives like Ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), black knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and Devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) intermixed with the usual suspects of Eryngium and Rudbeckia etc. Spectacular!
Primroses (Primula vulgaris) are lovely flowers but they are fascinating plants, their seeds are dispersed by ants and rodents. Although pollination is mainly by bumblebees and other bees, other long-tongued pollinators including syrphids, bee-flies and even butterflies will attend, So primroses yield an interesting guest list at their banquet. Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) makes a wonderful foil to primroses and yields wonderful edible fruits that are known to improve the eyesight of the human population but it is also a plant that provides essential nutrition at the larval stage to the offspring of the Green Hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys rubi). Many of the plants mentioned here double on feeding both bees and butterflies. Souble bang for your buck if you go with Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), wood sage (Teucrium scorodonia) and Devil’s bit scabious. (Succisa pratensis). Some pollinators have favourite plants like Ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) or knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and that’s the world I want you to discover for yourself.
How about ditching the bulky Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) for the delicate and fragrant irish version (hyachinthoides non scripta) or diching the imported tree cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum) for wild garlic (allium ursinum) which is fully edible and as medicinal as garlic proper (Allium sativum). Spanish bluebells are now considered an invasive species in Ireland and other European member states, freely hybridizing with the native populations and causing severe biodiversity loss.
Bird’s foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus) makes a great ground cover and edging plant to match store bought campanualas and aubretia. But best of all birds foot is a great nectar source for bees and butterflies whom throng about its yellow abundance. It also feeds the larva of Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages), Wood Whites (leptidia sinapis) and the Common Blue (polyommatus icarus) butterflies. Very often when it comes to wildlife gardening it is all about getting a visual of a visitor, laying a table for guests be they feathered or otherwise but is it not more rewarding to have you garden not as a buffet for the passerby but as a home and haven to successive generations. Trees for nesting, host plants for egg laying Lepidoptera and food plants for their young to be reared in your garden.
Gorse,/furze. (Ulex europaeus) smells delicious, kind of coconut and it lures the bees in droves. It also and supplies nectar to one of Irelands most beautiful butterflies the Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi) and the Painted lady (Cynthia cardui). Being in the Leguminosae (fabaceae) it contains a good protein rich pollen/nectar supply that is essential to building bee immunity. Being Leguminosae it will fix atmospheric nitrogen from the ambient air through its foliage down to its roots and into the soil supplying easily absorbed nitrogen to its neighbouring plants. Nitrogen is a growth hormone to plants. There is an old Irish saying ‘gold under furze’, also an excellent book by Daithi Ó hOgain, which alludes to this aspect. Gorse could easily replace Berberis, Forsythia, or Kerria in a garden context.
If you looking for shady ground cover, maybe beneath some trees then think of Bugle (Ajuga reptans) it is so bee friendly and feeds the Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) too, or perhaps Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) which is manna to the Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria tircis). For a rockery or sunny cover try Wild thyme (Thymus praecox) or wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare) for bees aplenty. Or if you are looking for climbers Lonicera periclymenum is a native honey suckle favoured by local bees, birds and butterflies while the ubiquitous Ivy (Hedera helix) is the best source of late nectar for
butterflies and bees. There are many honey connoisseurs the favour late honey produced from Ivy. Ivy is a larval food plant for butterflies and moths and some even take their camouflage from the leaf form.
Native shrubs do best in the Irish climate and should be a fouil to your garden anyway, but those that feed bees would include the pink flowering spindle ( Euonymus europeans), the deep red-berry bearing holly (ilex aquifolium), the plant that could be sunshine itself , hypericum perforatum or H. canadens. There are so many. Could you find a place for the opulent guilder rose (viburnum opulus) or the graceful and natural looking dog rose (rosa Canina) and of course Hazel (corylus avellana) which provides vital early protein for freshly emerging workers. Our native not only provide nectar at the right time but they provide nectar rich in the minerals/vitamins that our native pollinators require. So switching to native plants is so much better for encouraging the health of wildlife rather than just encouraging wildlife to come and visit.
Ok so to the big question. Am I going to be stung, with all these plants for bees et al that I am planting? Well, only if you work hard it. You have heard of the saying ‘busy as a bee’. That’s the answer, they have no time to fool around stinging you, bees are workers to their core. They have no interest in stinging you unless they think you are trying to kill them first. Flapping around like a big bear at the sight of a tiny bee like a cartoon elephant and a mouse, might trigger something in bees equivalent to flight or fright, so calmly go about your business as you would visiting a park or garden centre that would be as full of bees as your garden, and nothing will occur. If you do get stung however, you have less than 1hr to change your will. That’s if you are the bee that is, who dies after stinging – another incentive not to bother you.
If you do get stung, you will only experience pain for a minute to two at the most. Redness and swelling will be visible within a short time after the sting. Because the sting is left in the skin and continues to pump venom it is best to remove it quickly. Humans naturally have antibodies to deal with the bee venom, people allergic to bee stings are allergic as a result of their body’s production of histamine. If you know you are prone to anaphylaxis or you if you suffer on receipt of a sting any difficulty in breathing, dizziness, nausea, headaches, cramps or vomiting call for help immediately. Normal reactions to stings are localised pain and swelling which can be easily remedied. Place a slice of raw onion on the wound to draw out the venom. Applying apple cider vinegar, baking soda or rubbing wet aspirin on the sting will lessen the inflammation and the stinging sensation.
Fear not the weeds either. Even those that sting. It is well and long known that Nettle tops in spring make great soup, but did you know that in autumn the foliage of nettles will help you compost heap heat up. During summer nettles keep the larva of many butterflies full. Small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) and the equally beautiful Peacocks (Inachis io) all munch on nettles without so much as a sting. But the spectacular Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is one of the most handsome visitors to nettles. My favourite the Ringlet (aphantopus hyperantus) is almost black in appearance it frequents verges of unkempt grass and loves bramble as a nectar source.
A good excuse for having Bramble (Rubus spp) which nowadays nearly everyone considers a weed is that its flowers are serious bee bait, its fruits are great for jam and the nectar it supplies is jamfull of goodness for many butterflies including the Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae) and the Purple Hairstreak (Quercusia quercus) whom as the latin name indicates lays its eggs on Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur). While the Dark Green Fritillary – argynnis aglaja often confined to the coastal areas of Ireland favours the flavour of nectar from wild Thistles but lays its eggs Dog Violet (Viola riviniana) which makes a wonderful flora addition to any garden. The Silver Washed Fritillary (argynnis paphia) is Irelands largest butterfly. A sun lover it frequents bramble flowers for nectar but will lay its eggs on the bark of trees that grow near Dog Violets as they are its larval food plant.
Even the addition of a native trees this upcoming autumn will be bee beneficial. Alder (Alnus glutinosa), wild cherry (Prunus avium), bird cherry (Prunus padus), goat willow (Salix caprea), rowan (Sorbus aucupari), wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris), and Killarney strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) will all feed voracious bees. And when you look at our planting of trees in parks, commonly field maple (Acer campestre), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) it is worth noting that each support less than 50 species, While native willow (salix pentandr, fragilis and alba) and Irish oaks (Quercus robur and q. petraea) are capable of supporting over 400 different insects each. It is sad to report that today Ireland has the lowest native woodland cover in all of Europe.”