Attracting bees and other insects

Attracting bees - Digitalis ferruginea
Bees on Digitalis ferruginea

There is something very ‘back to nature’ about the idea of planting your windowbox, flowerbed, garden, grand estate, to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Creating in the mind’s eye visions of high summer and green spaces awash with the flicker of butterflies, zzzit of hoverflies and the satisfying hum of bees.

It is definitely important to encourage insects, some such as butterflies and bees are more welcome than others but many insects help to pollinate fruit and vegetable flowers as well as providing food for other creatures. Mammals such as bats, and birds rely on good sources of flying, scuttling and crawling insects including caterpillars and grubs.

Bumble bee on forget-me-not in spring

Bees – where would we be without them? Not all bees live in hives, solitary and other bumble bees are the first to emerge in early spring some from underground looking for nectar.

(There are links at the bottom of the page to detailed reference sites for more information about bees and their habits).

Moths often have a bad press, many people dislike them for their habit of clustering around lights at night and generally thrumming and bumping into things [although some are actually day fliers]. Many also appear rather boring and brown and look similar to the untrained eye and mind [but I can at least recognise a Clothes Moth in situ which is probably useful].

Of the 2400 recorded British moths rather a number are unfortunately garden pests. The Magpie a striking black and white moth apparently favours gooseberries and currants but is in decline and there are all those lovely tortrix moth larvae to contend with – so inviting some of them into your garden is possibly a mixed blessing.

Various flies, lacewings and hoverflies are pollinators and food [as well as aphid control]. I found flies particularly attracted to the unopened buds of Lilium leucanthum [an autumn flowering lily that looks like the earlier flowering L.regale]. Maybe the ‘carrion’ undertow in the lily’s scent was being given off by the bud?

Flies are also attracted to real ‘stinkers’ such as the Stinkhorn fungus and non natives such as the Dragon Arum [Dracunculus], the smell of rotting flesh again. Many umbellifer flowers also seem attractive to flies.

Flies generally being unwelcome Common Elder [Sambucus niger]was often planted near homes and used in the past to deter flies.

Gate Keeper on Oregano

There are 56 species of native butterfly in the UK and
some summer visitors. The most commonly seen are Tortoiseshells and the ‘Cabbage’ Whites. When planting for butterflies and bees think about the lifecycle. Overwintering species such as Tortoiseshells wake up with the first warmth in spring and need ready sources of nectar, as do solitary and other bees which you see bumbling about on the first warm days. Butterflies need plants to feed on and feed their caterpillars and those overwintering require some later sources of nectar in the autumn.

Plants to attract insects

Some butterfly and moth plants are not exactly ‘garden plants’, for example a number have nettle as a caterpillar food plant [Urtica doicus]. Of course nettles can be made into beer [or so I understand] and you could always go into the nettle weaving business [sort of hemp-like], but overall nettles are not the most exciting prospect for the less wild gardener. So some decisions have to be taken from the outset in your quest to attract beneficial insects – how wild do you want your garden?

Other choices will be dictated by the area you live in and the soil type – for example some good nectar and foodplants are in the Vaccinum or bilberry family which only grow on acid soils.

Large White Caterpillars on nasturtium
Large White Caterpillars on nasturtium

Most of us have been unwilling hosts to the green caterpillars of the Small White Butterfly or the yellow and grey offspring of the Large White Butterfly [normally lumped together as Cabbage Whites]. They soon make short, messy, smelly lacework of brassicas and nasturtiums. I have even seen the butterflies somehow squeeze themselves through netting to get at brassicas. Maybe realistically you only want to be a nectar and pollen garden rather than a foodplant supplier for all comers?


Orange Tip butterfly female
Orange Tip butterfly female on Queen Anne’s Lace / Anthriscus sylvestris

An important time to provide nectar and food sources for waking overwintering butterflies and bees. Usually the first butterfly about is the lemon yellow Brimstone. Bumble bees can be up and about very early on.

Aubretia – familiar perennial purple splotches of flowers that cascade from, and over walls. There are quite a few to choose from in varying shades of purple, bluey-purple to pinky – Kitte is one with huge flowers, quite striking if a little intimidating.

Wallflowers [Erysimum] – perennial,  although we mostly discard
the bedding varieties after flowering. Some seed companies supply single colours such as Blood Red, Miss Wilmott and Aurora if you don’t want a hectic display. Other ‘shrubbier’ types such as Bowles’ Mauve, Sprite [yellow] and John Codrington [cream/bronze] have a longer life and can be kept going from cuttings when the plants begin to look too woody. Bedding types can be started off from seed in May/June to flower the following year.

Cardamine pratensis | Milkmaidens near Marlborough

Cuckoo Flower [Cardamine pratensis] – This is a wild flower of damp pastures with pale lilac flowers in April. It is particularly attractive to the Orange Tip butterfly as a food plant. There are some selected forms available.

Skimmia – these shrubs are attractive to bees, flowering from late March – May.  They are well scented which is an added bonus. Cultivars include non-berrying males such as Kew Green and Rubella and ladies such as Kew White.

Also consider: Honesty [Lunaria], arabis, pulmonaria, rosemary , hellebores and some of the earlier flowering bulbs – Anenome blanda is suggested as a good early pollen and nectar source.


Common Blue on Rudbeckia laciniata
Common Blue on Rudbeckia laciniata

Nectar sources are in much greater abundance through late spring into summer: Consider the ‘labiates’ which are attractive to many insects, these include, nepeta, Six Hills Giant, a vigorous cultivar which flowers for a long time; agastache, hyssop, mints, thyme, origanum, salvia, lavender and marjoram.

Borage is a good bet as are others in the family which include echium and alkanet.

Fritillary on Buddleja

Buddleja – the classic butterfly bush. One thing I hadn’t appreciated until I planted a number of buddleja’s for butterflies was the requirement for sheltered conditions which allows the butterflies to stick around longer. Clive Farrell is one of the last to flower so a useful later nectar  source.






Knautias and scabious are another family group to look out for especially as a number are later summer flowering. Thuggish teasels are also wonderful for insects and later birds especially goldfinches  but are aggressive self seeders, best left to a wild, wild area.

Umbellifers seem to be more attractive to flies and hoverflies and are an acquired taste for some, they include angelica, Sweet Cicely [Myrrhis odorata], eryngiums and astrantia.

Thistles are popular with some insects, there are a few that have made it into the garden including Cirsium rivulare Atropurpureum and Galactites tomentosa. Other pricklies include acanthus – bees heave their way noisily in and out of the heavy flowers, and echinops.

Red Tailed Bumble Bee on Allium flavum
Red Tailed Bumble Bee on Allium flavum

Brambles are noted as popular nectar plants for many moths and butterflies, whether this applies to the more ornamental rubus I don’t know.

Foxgloves – also very popular with bees. There are many different types to choose from ranging from the native biennial Digitalis purpurea, to the more perennial yellow D grandiflora and brown and cream D ferruginea.

Cerinthe purpurascens

Also consider – annuals such as Cerinthe and Poached Egg Plant [Limnanthes] which are easily grown from seed and single marigolds [Tagetes].  Verbena bonariensis is a plant flowering from summer well into the autumn, they have the advantage of putting bugs at nose height for closer observation too!

Leguminous plants i.e. pea flowered – vetches, beans and trees such as Genista aetnensis flowering in June/July.

Other useful shrubs and climbers include escallonia, various honeysuckles, hebes and I hate to mention it, privet, which is also a good attracter although not exactly a personal favourite.


Red Admiral butterflies on Aster White Climax
Red Admiral butterflies on Aster White Climax

For the autumn as food sources start to decrease it is a good idea to choose flowering plants to attract bees and later emerging butterflies.

Sedum Matrona | Butterfly plant

Sedum – often known as the ‘Butterfly Plants’ are classic for late summer. The flowers range from white to deep pinky reds, some have lax growth, others are more upright. Foliage comes in plain soft green, variegated and various purples, Matrona is a taller growing cultivar with slightly purpled foliage (it seems more popular with bees than sedum like Red Cauli which has smaller individual flowers). Purple Emperor has the deepest purple-black foliage. I have found some are difficult to establish well. Sedum can be grown from seed, division or rooted cuttings.

Asters – many are available the simpler singles with clouds of small daisy flowers are best for insects.  Aster turbinellus has tall purple stems and sprays of lilac flowers and is one of the latest to flower with me. White Climax is another very later flowerer. Calliope is mid season and grows very tall with attractive purpled foliage and large single lilac flowers.

Solidago – Golden Rod, not exactly a favourite flower of mine but there are some more delicate selections around if the blaring yellow is a bit overpowering.

Also consider: echinacea, heleniums, eupatorium, lythrum, sunflowers [helianthus] and shrubs such as caryopteris.

Native and wild food plants for caterpillars

This is a random rather than exhaustive selection of some of the moths and butterflies found in the UK [OK so I chose the moths for their names].

Quite a few moths have trees as their main caterpiller foodplant and some of the butterflies stake out their territories in trees but don’t feed on them i.e. Speckled Wood. Others feed on grasses and weeds such as dock, dandelion and bindweed [hooray!].

Some have plants they resort to if the main one is in short supply. The Cinnabar Moth with its satin black, red spotted wings favours ragwort and groundsel but I have seen its black and yellow banded caterpillars on the silver ornamental senecios too.

Links to detailed reference web sites are given below the list.

Trees and shrubs

  • Salix spp [Willow] – Poplar Hawk Moth, Dingy Mocha, Lunar Hornet Moth, Scallop Shell, Purple Emperor, Comma
  • Blackthorn [Prunus spinosa] – The Lackey, The Lappett, Brown Hairstreak
  • Brambles [Rubus] – Peach Blossom, Fox Moth, The Emperor Moth
  • Buckthorn – Brimstone
  • Aspen/Poplar – Poplar Hawk Moth, Puss Moth
  • Birch – Peacock Moth, Yellow Horned, Satin Lutestring
  • Oak – Blotched Emerald, Maiden’s Blush, Purple Hairstreak
  • Holly – Holly Blue
  • Bilberry [Vaccinium] – Northern Spinach, Scallop Shell [also noted in the US as a butterfly plant]


Chalk Downland with Bedstraw and Restharrow

It’s interesting to note that butterfly activity in a meadow near where this picture was taken, dramatically dropped off when the sun went in, Marbled Whites and most Meadow Browns just disappeared until the sun came out again.

  • Galium [Bedstraw] – Humming Bird Hawk Moth [not native], Elephant Hawk Moth, Devon Carpet
  • Calystegia/Convolvulus [Bindweed] – White Plume Moth, Convolvulus Hawk Moth
  • Nettle [Urtica dioica] – Mother of Pearl, The Spectacle, Peacock, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma
  • Toadflax [Linaria] and snapdragons – Toadflax Pug [many moths have the foodplant as part of their name which is a big clue!]
  • Crucifers – Large White, Small White, Bath White, Orange Tip [e.g. Hedge Mustard and Cardamine pratensis]
  • Wild Mignonette [Reseda] –  Small White, Bath White
  • Clover – Bath White, Clouded Yellow
  • Birdsfoot Trefoil [Lotus corniculatus] – Clouded Yellow, Silver Studded Blue, Common Blue, Dingy Skipper
  • Sorrels & Docks [Rumex] – Blood Vein, Small Copper
  • Kidney Vetch [Anthyllis vulneraria] – Small Blue
  • Ivy [Hedera helix] – Holly Blue [also the flowers make ivy a good late season nectar plant]
  • Rock Rose [Helianthemum nummularium] – Silver Studded Blue, Brown Argus
  • Heather [Calluna/Erica] – Fox Moth, Silver Studded Blue
  • Crane’s Bills [Geranium] – Brown Argus
  • Horseshoe Vetch [Hippocrepis comosa] – Chalkhill Blue
  • Restharrow [Ononis repens] – Common Blue
  • Honeysuckle [Lonicera] – White Emperor
  • Hop [Humulus lupulus] – Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma
  • Thistles – Thistle Ermine, Painted Lady
  • Violets – Silver Washed Fritillary
  • Devil’s Bit Scabious [Succisa pratensis – acid soil] – Marsh Fritillary
  • Fescue [a fine type of grass] – Marbled White, Small Heath
  • Other grasses – Ringlet, Large Heath, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Small Skipper

Night fliers

Some of the night flying moths are attracted to the flowers that start to pump out their perfume as evening falls, these include Honeysuckles such as Lonicera peryclimenum [Woodbine] and L. caprifolium; tender plants such as Tobacco plants – Nicotiana alata and N sylvestris; Mirabilis jalapa,  also Evening Primrose [Oenothera speciosa] and early summer flowering Dame’s Violet [Hesperis matronalis].

Pyracantha in flower also seem to come alive with moths just around sunset. Apparently some Yucca turn their flowers upward at night to aid pollination by Yucca moths in the US.

Grasshoppers and crickets


Not strictly pollinators but a summer garden wouldn’t be the same without the scratching of these insects. They lay eggs in soil in shorter grass which overwinter and start to hatch in May. And yes they eat grass I have watched them devour blades.

Beetles and weevils

What is it with Beetles and weevils? Some are beneficial it’s true – but others are not at all welcome – you don’t want Lily Beetles, cheerful whistling orange beetles which lay orange eggs on the undersides of lily leaves and other plants in the lily family like fritillaries. The grubs cover themselves in excrement, heartily munch away at the host plant and then hibernate in the soil to emerge all glossy and triumphant on warm days in May and June. If seen, cup your hand under the leaf [they drop to the ground very fast if you miss] tap gently and Squash! Asparagus Beetles are also cheerful sparkly looking little beetles with a similar habit – be warned.

Vine weevils really are beyond the pale and are particularly a problem with potted plants – they chomp away at roots all winter often killing the plant, emerging in summer in June and July rather a boring dull dark grey matte in colour to chomp indents into the sides of leaves and start the process all over again……

I have been reminded by a correspondent to warn people that bees sting ……. treat them with respect!



Butterfly Conservation Society [UK]

Moths [UK]

Butterflies and Moths [Europe]

Butterfly Plants [selected US]

Natural History Museum Worldwide Host Plant Database