Bees find a helping hand on my allotment

by Katy Malone, Bumblebee Conservation Trust Conservation Officer for Scotland

Being a fully paid-up member of the bumblebee fan club, no-one will be surprised to learn that when I finally got offered an allotment in my village three years ago, I set out to make it as bee-friendly as possible. After all, growing veg and attracting crop pollinators with nectar and pollen-rich flowers – well, it’s just a no-brainer.

Potager style allotment (Katy Malone)

That said, my fellow allotmenteers and I each have our own distinctive style of growing, which probably reflect our personalities. The gentleman with the plot next door to mine grows very traditionally in very neat, die-straight rows. Potatoes are earthed up in immaculate V-shaped furrows, all the same height and distance apart. He plots out carrots in a millimetre-accurate grid. Every scratch of ground is used for crops of some sort. One a sunny day in May, he spotted the packets of bulbs I brought for planting in the pre-prepared ground and was intrigued.

“Oh, what’s that you’ve got?”

“Gladioli blubs – a lovely mixture of…”

…but he had already turned away in pretend disgust. Of course, I was letting the side down! We joked about it, but I know he’d really prefer me to be grow swedes rather than ‘wasting’ the available space with flowers. He still borrows my rake when I’m not around though.

The plot opposite has lots of flowers as well as crops, in higgledy piggledy rows. She’s a child minder, and her young charges often come down to help her in the allotment.  She grows lovely sweet peas, lilies and cosmos, the veg and the flowers being mostly separate from each other.

My own plot is something of a potager style, with blocks of edible crops interspersed with colourful flowers which attract pollinating insects like bumblebees (of course!) as well as honeybees, wasps, and hoverflies. I get a great sense of satisfaction by growing from seed, and this year almost all my crops are grown this way (except potatoes from sets, and garlic which I grew from cloves saved from last year’s crop).

White tailed bumblebee on cornflower (Katy Malone)

Cornflowers, self-sown foxgloves and cosmos all attract a variety of beneficial insects. The cornflowers are part of my plan to grow flowers for cutting, but if an insect happens to be feeding on the freshly emerged flower, I leave it alone. I would feel so guilty for depriving any bee of its lunch! If a few crops start bolting, and I don’t need the space immediately, I’ll let them flower. The hoverflies are particularly keen on the towering blooms of Swiss chard, which bloom profusely before flopping over in the wind and need to be propped up or cut back.

Some ‘weeds’ are particularly beneficial and I let them grow amongst my veggies, as long as they don’t start to take over. Red dead-nettle is a favourite with long-tongued bumblebees, which in turn are brilliant pollinators of my runners and broad beans. The shorter-tongued honeybees and hoverflies can’t reach the nectar in these long-flowered crops, and so cannot pollinate them. Encouraging longer tongued species like garden bumblebee and common carder bumblebees by providing a greater diversity of long flowers is good for a quality crop set. I know there are modern F1 crop varieties which are self-setting, but I prefer to grow open-pollinated heritage varieties. For me, it goes against the grain to do anything else.

Common carder bee on red dead-nettle

It would be great to think that all this results in better pollination of my crops – and really, I have no first-hand evidence that supports that. However, a research paper1 published in Nature earlier this year revealed that allotment sites are very valuable spaces in an urban context. The researchers showed that residential gardens and allotments in four different cities across the UK were major hotspots for pollinators, highlighting the value of these places for supporting vital pollinator conservation. In his regular summary of recent science papers ‘Bombus Review’ (Bombus review – Spring 2019) my colleague Darryl Cox wrote of this paper:

“The authors end their report with some really useful and practical suggestions for maximising the pollinator potential of urban areas. They suggest that town planners try to add more allotments to towns and cities as even a small area increase could make a big impact on the robustness of plant-pollinator communities.”

Watching bees work those multi-coloured cornflowers, benefitting from the abundant nectar and pollen from the red dead-nettle and enjoying the late boost of forage from the gladioli and self-sown foxgloves gives me satisfaction beyond words. When I’m enjoying freshly-podded broad beans, lightly steamed with butter and parsley and a squeeze of lemon, I am even more glad to be supporting the bees in my little corner of paradise.

  1. A systems approach reveals urban pollinator hotspots and conservation opportunities. Baldock, KCR et al, Nature Ecology & Evolution volume 3, pages 363–373 (2019)

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