Sometimes it can feel impossible to have an impact on the climate crisis. It’s so big and nebulous, but one area where we can have a huge impact is protecting local biodiversity. What you do in your house, garden, community has a real, immediate and direct impact on wildlife where we live, and depending on what you do that can be a good, or bad thing.
Unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation out there about how to help wildlife, some of which is actually harmful, like putting human hair out for birds to use in the nest. Over the past few years I’ve been compiling whatever information I can find on this subject, correcting as I go, and here it is for you now all in one place!
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Bees & Pollinators – In Ireland, we have 98 different types of bee: the honeybee, 20 different bumblebees and 77 different solitary bees but unfortunately one third of our wild bee species are threatened with extinction from the island and our common bumblebee species have experienced a 14.2% decline in abundance in the last five years, with some experts predicting the disappearance of bumblebees in just 30 years.
You may have heard community groups and organisations heralding the creation of honeybee hives in an effort help pollinators in Ireland. The creation of honeybee hives actually harms the survival by competing for food with our solitary bees. and as some solitary bees have been found to be better pollinators than honeybees hives may be actually counter productive. It’s like keeping chickens to help the wild bird population!
If you want to have a go at identifying bees in your garden here’s a very easy to read bee identification guide from Friends of the Earth in the UK
Butterflies have been around for at least 50 million years and probably evolved some 150 million years ago, but like bees butterfly numbers have slumped in recent years. In Ireland we have 32 resident and 3 common migrant butterfly species and BiodiveryIreland.ie have a great downloadable poster to help you identify them, plus a very information article on just how threatened insects are globally.
We often underplay the importance of urban setting for pollinators. In fact urban spaces can, in some instances, be better for bees and other pollinators than the countryside. Gardens and parks are home to a greater variety of flowering plants than in the wild, and for a longer season, too. What’s more, we’re less likely to use pesticides in them, enabling bees and other pollinators to feed more safely than they can on farmland. Indeed, a study published last summer in the journal Proceedings Of The Royal Society B found that bumblebee colonies in urban areas were actually stronger than those in the wild. (Source: The Guardian Newspaper)
Flowers for Pollinators – Here are some tips for designing a garden to attract and support pollinators in your garden;
You’d be forgiven for thinking that there is only a handful of nectar and pollen-rich plants in the world. That’s simply not true, most plants that’s aren’t overbred for showiness, like bedding plants, have something to offer insects. When it comes to plant selection there are a few points to bear in mind;
- Aim to plant for as long a flowering season as possible, from Jan right through to November if you can. Food is particularly scare in Spring and early Winter. See the list below and my Creating an Ornamental Garden articles for suggestions.
- The best plants for pollinators are a open, so not double flowers like pompom dahlias or peony style poppy flowers. Aim for a wide range of flower shapes to cater for as wide a range of insects as possible.
- Flowers aren’t the only way plants can supoort insects; old roses with floppy leaves are useful for the leaf-cutter bee and furry plants like lambs ear for the wool carder bee to harvest for it’s nest.
- Avoid bedding plants. They’ve very little pollen and therefore nutrition in them for insects. The same is true for daffodils and tulips. There are some exceptions to this rule and they include Bacopa, Bidens, Ageratum and Dianthus / Sweet William.
- In order to survive, pollinators need flowers that produce lots of nectar (for energy) and pollen (for protein). Most of us think of plants and shrubs when we think of planting for pollinators but hedges are far too often overlooked. If you have the space consider planting a mix variety hedge of native trees that will provide food all year long.
The list below is only some of the hundreds of plants mentioned in the draft version of a Pollinator Friendly Planting Code, which I heartily recommend if you’re building a garden from scratch. I decided to include what I consider to be the best know plants because I suspect that if you’re already a gardener you’re going to have a large portion of them.
- Spring – Snowdrops, Grape Hyacinth, Hellebores, Heather, Crocus, primroses, Aubretia, Cherry (tree), Vibernum (shrub),
- Early Summer – Campanula, wallflowers, Pulmonaria / lungwort, Myosotis / Forget-me-not, Ceanothus (shrub), Aquilega, Delphinium, Berberis (shrub), Forsythia (shrub), Mahonia (shrub), Aconites / Monks Hood, Honesty, Euphorbias, Pieris, Skimmia, Astrantia, Aliums, Coreopsis, Peonies (open flowers), Cornus (shrub), Bowles’s mauve (shrub)
- Mid Summer – Borage, Cranesbill Geranium (herbaceous), Foxgloves, Cirsium Rivulare / Brook or River thistle, Chamomile, Limnanthes / Poached Egg Flower, Sage (ornamental and edible), Alyssium, Cosmos, Scabious, Monarda / Bee Balm, Lavender, Cat Mint / Nepeta, oregano, Thyme, Rosemary, Achillia, Veronicastrum, Honeysuckle, Verbeba Borariensis, Agastache / Hyssop, Stachys byzantina / Lamb’s ears, Scabious, Echinops / Glob Thistle, Poppy, Rock Rose (shrub), Hebe (shrub), Laburnum (shrub), Tube clematis, Knapweed, Antirrhinum / Snapdragons, Marigolds, Echiums / Viper Bugloss, Cornflowers, Cerinthe, Nigella / Love in the Mist, Nasturtiums, Hollyhocks, Eryngiums, Rose Campion, Evening Primrose, Fleabane, Geums, Ox-eye Daisies, Knautia, Loosestrife, Phlox, Jacob’s Ladder, Pontentilla, Climbing Hydrangea,
- Late Summer – Buddleia (shrub), Heleniums, Dahlias, Sedum / stonecrop, Asters, Echniacea / cone flower, Dahlias, Chrysanthemum (simple flowers), Penstemon, Japanese / Chinese Anenome, Rudbekia, Crocosmia,
- Autumn – Asters, Ivy (see note below)
Some of the plants listed above under late summer will continue to flower on into Autumn but i didn’t want to list them twice. The ones that should continue to the first frost include;
- Heleniums, Dahlias, Sedum / stonecrop, Echniacea / cone flower, Dahlias, Chrysanthemum (simple flowers), Japanese / Chinese Anenome, Ivy, Verbeba Borariensis,
If you do want to add more plants to your garden either ask neighbours and family for some of their plants or buy organic or chemical free. Unfortunately most of the plants in garden centres are coated in bee-killing pesticides but thankfully the organic plant nursery Caherhurley Nursery, sells very reasonably-priced plants around the country at ISNA plant fairs.
Wildflower Meadows / Beds – If you want to grow wildflowers you can’t just throw some seed out on the grass. Grass is too vigorous and will out compete the wildflowers so the best thing to do is to clear a patch of all grass, leave for a few months and hand-weed out all the weeds that germinate and then next spring follow the following instructions;
- Fork over soil without bending over and putting pressure on your back.
- Rake the surface even careful not putting piles at the edges.
- Tread the surface to remove pockets of air (gardeners shuffle).
- Rake again to make it even
- Sow seeds either in rows or for wildflowers plant half in one direction and half in the other.
- Rake over gently to cover seeds and protect from birds.
(Source: Aoife Munn)
Or if you’d prefer to watch a video on how’s a video on how to sow a mini wildflower meadow from Gardeners World.
I have seen Monty Don on Gardeners World try another method. He cut the grass really short then scratched the surface heavily to disturb the soil, then scattered some seed on it.
You will find wildflowers on sale in lots of places in Ireland but most of them aren’t native to Ireland. It’s not essential for the flowers in an urban garden to be Irish but if you life in the country you might want to buy native Irish wildflower seeds. Otherwise the flowers in your garden might interfering with the genetic line of wildflowers in fields nearby. Here are some sources of native Irish wildflower seeds;
- Irish Seed Savers (small quantities)
- Wildflowers.ie (large quantities)
- The Garden Shop (large and small quantities)
- Blooming Native (medium quantities)
I’ve also come across wildflower seeded paper roll and wildflower turf but when I asked if the seeds used were native to Ireland I was met with silence.
I’ve also been told by a horticulturist that seed bombs are a complete waste of time because it’s impossible for the plant to establish itself in the soil if it’s embedded in a tightly packed ball of soil. Have any of you found otherwise?
You might assume that once planted there’s nothing else to do in a wildflower patch but you’d be wrong. You will need to weed out any plants you don’t want in it, including grass, and if you don’t have any perennial plants in your original seed mix then add some in. Perennials also tend to be a better source of pollen for pollinators.
Some people believe it’s best to only plant wildflowers in wildflower beds, while others believe it’s better to extend the season for pollinatorss with non-wildflower plants, like the aliums in the photo above.
If you’ve a large area of wildflowers and grass is encroaching then plant the seeds of the yellow rattle plant just beside the clumps of grass. When it germinates it’ll send out shoots in search of the grass, on which it feeds, reducing it’s vigour. But don’t just chuck this seed onto your wildflower beds, it need grass roots to survive so be sure to plant it next to the patch of grass you’re trying to suppress.
Even if you can’t create a wildflower meadow you can still help pollinators. A study found that people who mow their lawns once every two weeks have more pollinating bees than people who mow their lawns every week. The dandelions, clover, birds trefoil, daisies and buttercups, aka lawn flowers, are a great source of nectar and pollen for pollinators. Plus they look much prettier than plain green! Like I said above if you can’t bear to let this happen all over the lawn then do it in the centre or along the edges.
Pests and Weeds – Butterfly caterpillars largely feed on native weeds so if you want more butterflies you’re going to have tolerate more weeds. Unfortunately the nitrogen spread on agriculture land is leading to the death of many caterpillars so having a patch of weeds in your garden offer a huge life-line to these mini beasties. If you can’t bear the idea of looking at a patch of weeds out your kitchen window locate it out of the sight or plant a large attractive shrub to block your view of it. Here’s a list of host plants that butterfly caterpillars like to feed on.
It’s worth noting that ticks like to live in long grass, particularly if you live near wild deer. So if you’ve pets or young children it may be best to provide them with play area with short grass and discourage them from playing in long grass.
In a similar vein if you want ladybirds and blue tits in your garden you’re going to have to tolerate aphids. If you keep getting rid of them, using natural methods or not, you’re getting rid of a valuable source of food for wildlife. It can be nerve racking to play a waiting game till the predators to arrive, but they will in time. I left the netting off my fruit bushes last year and I had very little damage from the gooseberry sawfly, whereas the year before the plant was decimated when I had the net on to protect the fruit from birds. It’s also worth remembering that wasps are predators to a lot crop eating insects so don’t be afraid of them if you see them in your garden. In fact a lot of wasps are stingless or very unlikely to attack.
Feeding Wild Birds
When it comes to putting out food for birds you need to be in it for the long haul. Birds try to conserve energy by only visiting places that they know will have food. If you’re going to put food out it has be something that you’re able to commit to doing on a regular basis.
In the past I’ve struggled to bring birds to feed from a feeding station in my garden, but with being around more in 2020 I was able to dedicate enough time to be consistent about putting food out at set times and it really paid off. Although it did take about 8 weeks for them to find the feeding station initially, 5 months on we now have a pair of robins, 5 blue tits, 3 great tits, a wren, a thrush, a pair of blackbirds, a pair of chaffinches, pigeons and some magpies.
In my experience the best food to buy are peanuts, sunflower hearts and dried mealworms. Nothing else seems to be of interest to the birds. I chose sunflower hearts over sunflower seeds in their shells because I heard that the shells are oleic, i.e. prevent plant growth, and will damage your grass if they fall on them.
You have to be careful to make sure that your peanuts and sunflower hearts don’t go rancid in the bird feeder. If you don’t have your bird feeding station under cover so that it’s kept dry you’ll find the food will go off. I avoid this by only putting out enough food for the day where I can, with a back up supply of peanuts in a mesh finder which I change out after we’ve had a few days of rain.
I’ve noticed that the tits in our garden prefer to grab a peanut and fly off rather than eating from the mesh peanut holder. So I put a handful of peanuts in a fly-through ceramic bird feeder every morning, but because we’ve a very acrobatic squirrel that raids it regularly I have a back up squirrel-proof mesh peanut feeder that I put some peanuts in too. I don’t put very many peanuts in this because we don’t get enough birds to justify it and the nuts would just go off. If I didn’t have a squirrel I’d probably do away with the mesh peanut feeder completely.
I also put up a Niger seed dispenser to attract chaffinches. I’m delighted to say that after 4 months of waiting we finally got chaffinches but they complete ignore the Niger seeds and just eat the sunflower heats on the ground, from a dish. Actually along with the chaffinches, I’ve found that quite a few birds prefer to eat from the ground instead of a free-standing bird station including the wren, robins, thrush, and blackbirds. Because of this I scatter dried meal worms directly on the ground and put the sunflower hearts into a dish under a bush. Robins in particularly seem to hate perching on swaying feeders and prefer to eat on the ground or on tables.
When selecting where to put your food it’s crucial to locate it close to safe landing spots, like a wall, tree or shrub for birds. That way birds can check the coast is clear before heading to the feeding station. It also allows birds to wait their turn safely near by the feeding station. If you can it may be worth putting up a few feeding stations instead of just one. This will help to keep birds further apart from one another, helping to avoid disease spreading around them easily.
I’ve also heard that it’s good to locate your feeding station either well away from windows or within 1 metre of them. That way the birds are less likely to mistake the reflection of the bird feeder in the window for the real thing and accidently fly into it. Rather than take a risk we’ve put stickers on the window close to our bird feeding station, so that it’s easier for the birds to see.
Since we’ve had an active bird feeding station I’ve also realised the benefit of evergreens. I have a lovely Aubelia, which doesn’t shed it’s leaves in the winter and it’s been a god send for ground feeding birds. Going forward I’m going to make a point of growing more evergreen shrubs near the bird feeder.
Another way to feed wild birds without a feeding station is to provide over-wintering habitats for insects around your garden. This is easily done by leaving leaves on your beds and not cutting back branches until the average daily temp is above 10degrees Celsius. I’ve cheated a bit with this and cut some leaves back where I have to but setting them to one side in a pile.
Another way to feed birds without a feeding station is to grow plants in your garden that provide them with food as and when they need it, like teasels, holly, ivy, hawthorn, rowan trees, cotoneaster, viburnum, shrub roses, honeysuckle. Here’s another good article on feeding wild birds
Some people are worried that feeding birds will make them less resilient but research has shown that feeding birds doesn’t make birds dependent on hand outs.
All life needs water so you can do a lot by providing it for wildlife in your garden, whether it’s a bird bath or a pond. Whatever water you provide make sure there are landing spots for insects and birds so that they can drink from the water. This could be as simple as a stone that sits just above the water line or a water lilly pad. If you do have a pond make sure to provide a ramp in and out of it so that hedgehogs can drink from it or climb out if they accidentally fall in.
Providing water in winter is just as important for birds so if you’re in a position to reliable feed birds in cold weather then make sure to include some un-frozen water along with it.
Bees need clean water too but contrary to what you may have heard don’t leave sugared water out for bees. A drop of sugar water to revive an exhausted bees on a cool spring day but it doesn’t contain the nutrients of nectar or pollen and is like junk-food for bees.
If you want to attract frogs to your pond make sure that you shade any stones that might surround the pond. Froglets can get stuck on these on hot days.
Just a note about standing water; it can be a breeding ground for mosquitos so unless you have fish to eat mosquito larvae or a fountain or pump to move the water around then you should change the water every 7 days when temperatures are above 10 degrees Celsius.
Bees – On my sustainable gardening course I learned that bee hotels are really a load of nonsense as most of our native bees are solitary and won’t want to share their living quarters with any other insects. Some bees will live beside other bees, like leaf cutter bees, but this isn’t natural behaviour for them and grouping them all together makes them a bigger target for predators and disease. Also unless they’re cleaned regularly mites and mould can build up in them cause more harm that good to the poor little bees. Here are some more natural ways to provide living quarters for bees
- Carve out a few crevices in an existing wall
- Scrape back the vegetation on a south or east facing bank or patch of soil for mining bees.
- Leave long grass around walls and hedges for bumble bee nests
- Leave some stems uncut when flowers go over. Some bees like to nest in old raspberry canes.
- Don’t rake up leaves in Autumn, some bubble bees might use them to hibernate under.
- Drill south or east facing holes in wooden fencing for solitary bees to nest in. These holes should be 10cm deep and range from 4-8mm in diameter. Add them at a height of at least 1.5-2m
15 of our wild bees may use small bee hotels but if you do use/ make one make sure it’s from removable breathable materials like card bee nesting tubes or hollow stems in natural timber – no bamboo – and remember to clean it out every spring after larvae have left.
You may have to clean bit by bit if the hotel is populated by different species that emerge from their cocoons at different time. In spring time check the tubes regularly, remove any tubes that are empty. If the tubes are reusable, give them a good scrub, leave them out to dry and then place in a new bee hotel. Do this for all the tubes. If any of the tubes haven’t emptied by mid summer just remove and place somewhere out of the way for nature to take it’s course. Clean out the entire bee hotel housing, scrub with water and leave to dry in the sun. Leave for filling up next spring.
Having read this guide to cleaning your bee hotel you’ve probably realised that a lot of bee hotels on the market aren’t designed to be cleaned out completely – like the one I bought 2 years ago! – so only buy one that can or better still repurpose something around the house for your bee hotel. Just make sure it can be cleaned out, keeps the nesting tubes dry, isn’t backless, or can be placed up against a solid structure (Source: wildlife gardening by Kate Bradbury).
Instead of reusable tubes you can get replaceable tubes, linked to above. I don’t often recommend single-use items but these help avoid the build up of mites and in the grand scheme of things are better in my view than bamboo rods.
I recently cam across very stylish bee blocks made from waste from the Cornish China industry and harvested rainwater by UK based B Corp Green & Blue. It wouldn’t really make environmental sense to ship these over to Ireland but for anyone in the UK they are a more sustainable option than bamboo ones shipped from China.
Birds – Bird Boxes need to be fitted in the right location for each species and be designed specifically for each species. You will find directions on how to make and place a nest box on the RSPB website and on British Trust for Ornithology. If, like me, you don’t want to make your own nest box you can get ones according to RSPB guidelines from Irish company Nestbox Ireland.
If you want something that’s contemporary in design check out the products by UK based B Corp Green & Blue. Their china bird boxes and feeders are made from clay in their Cornish factory, which rusn on green energy. Their products are shipped in locally-made boxes made with FSC certified paper, packed with locally sourced recycled materials and sealed with paper packing tape. The company uses recycled office supplies and a local carbon-neutral printer for their wraps and promotional literature. They will also supply replacement parts for their products.
Whatever bird box you buy or make, it is also essential that bird boxes are cleaned out once a year to prevent the build up of mites etc that could kill the young birds.
Nesting boxes aren’t the only way to provide habitats for birds. I would argue that it’s much easier to facilitate natural nesting spots for birds with planting. You mind may automatically go to trees when I say that but a lot of birds will also nest in hedges, shrubs or densely grown climbers. If you have these in your garden well done, just be mindful not to prune them after the 1st of March or you risk disturbing nests.
I’ve seen suggestions on social media to put hair out for birds to use in their nests. DON’T. The hair gets wrapped around appendages of the baby birds and can cut off the blood supply.
Here’s a good article from someone that has successfully attracted nesting birds to his Irish garden.
Other ways you can help wildlife include;
- Change your mindset. If you want wildlife rich garden you have to get comfortable with all wildlife. You can’t invite ladybirds and not have their food source, aphids, you can’t invite frogs and not have frog spawn, you can’t have butterflies and not have caterpillars. You can invite leaf cutter bees and grumble about holes in your roses. And stop killing ants! They’re the tidy-uppers of the garden. Learn to love them.
- Stop using ALL chemicals in your garden, even homemade ones. Sprays that are designed to kill aphids are going to kill the beneficial insects that prey on them too and studies have shown how these chemicals are causing birds to lose weight.
- Ban leafblowers, which are armageddon for insects
- Butterflies will benefit from a heated stone in your garden so if you can locate a piece of stone or slate in the sunniest part of your garden for them to rest on.
- Turn off any outdoor lights you have. Outdoor lights are a huge contributor to insect mortality, by luring moths to their deaths, spotlighting insects to predators, obscuring mating signals and leading some insects to lay their eggs in the wrong place. If you must have a light then aim for a yellow toned LED, early research suggests that it has the least impact on insects.
- To encourage wildlife to come into your garden in the first place you need to provide them with save areas to explore. So aim to have lots of coverage for amphibians and birds to allow them to avoid the clutches of cats and birds of prey.
- There are some useful and beautiful guides on the UK Wild About Gardens website
PS – If you like this article you might like to read my other gardening articles.