Top tips on choosing plants to help insects thrive

by Nicky Roeber, Online Horticultural Expert at Wyevale Garden Centres

With almost half of global insect species in decline, it’s clear that we could all be doing something to improve and encourage biodiversity. In this article, Nicky Roeber, Online Horticultural Expert at Wyevale Garden Centres shares his top tips for choosing plants that will help insects thrive in your garden.

Insects are incredibly important to both food production and more widely, our ecosystem. But, with a recent review from ScienceDirect showing that the number of insects globally is declining 2.5% every year, with a third of insect species now endangered, it’s important that we begin taking measures to help our garden insects thrive.

Without these steps, we risk losing many types of insect life, as well as sacrificing many of our crops which wouldn’t be able to grow without pollinators. To help you, I will be sharing my top tips for choosing plants for your garden which will help insects thrive.

Why do we need insects?

The variety of insects and animals in this world is truly amazing, but aside from this adding diversity to our ecosystem, they actually play an important role in the production of our food. According to Countryside, as much as 75% of all our crop plants need pollination to grow. As insects like bees feed on flowers, the pollen sticks to their bodies which then transfers when they move onto the next plant, leading to fertilisation. For us, this means that we get greater yields of crops than we would if this was all done through manual farming and gardening, so it’s no surprise that many UK farmers focus on creating large areas for bees to thrive.

Apart from the important role of food production, insects are also great for getting rid of anything unwanted in our ecosystem. For example, dead animals and plants would accumulate in the environment without insects breaking down and disposing of this waste. The same insects are also food sources themselves for other wildlife including birds and mammals, which can help to protect our drinking water and spread seeds to encourage plant growth.

How do you choose the right plants?

A main part of creating a garden that will benefit both you and the insects living in it will be to follow a permaculture design. This involves connecting with nature to develop an ecologically beneficial and harmonious space that can be used by anyone or anything. And, one way of doing this is to choose plants which have uses to both humans and insects — it’s preferable if these have at least three garden functions.

For example, mulberry trees are much more than just a food source for you and the animals. The trees are strong and have wide leaves that will make a great habitat for wildlife such as birds. As these leaves are dense, they will also make a great addition to any mulch you plan to add to the soil to encourage plant and flower growth. This in turn will provide more opportunity for insects to thrive and pollinate. Similarly, lupin plants are known as nitrogen fixers so can help to efficiently fertilise groups of trees. The flowers that grow from lupin will also provide bees with nectar which is crucial for pollination. 
When picking the right plants for your garden, you need to ensure that these will not only benefit you, but also the insect population, too. Food sources for these will help to tackle the growing problem of insect decline and keep our ecosystem and the crop industry healthy and thriving.

Which insects thrive on which plants?

Before you begin planning your garden’s permaculture design, you’ll need to consider what insects will marry up with what plants. Ensuring that these are compatible will encourage your little garden helpers to thrive and contribute to the whole ecosystem.

Your garden can easily provide a haven for some species so make sure that you incorporate a variety of flowers and plants to support insect diversity. To do this effectively, you need to think about insect mouthparts as these differ significantly in shape and size which determines which type of flowers and plants that they can feed off. For example, butterflies have a large, thin feeding tube which means they can eat from small tubular flowers that other insects can’t reach, such as hemp-agrimony and wild marjoram.

Similar to butterflies, bees have mouthparts that consist of a hollow tube, referred to as their tongue. As the tongue sizes for different bee species can differ in size, it’s important that you provide a range of flowers to cater for their needs. For example, honeybees are able to eat from deeper flowers such as tulips and lavender. For flies, their feeding tubes are significantly shorter so you’ll need to provide some small, flat flowers, including daisies and other members of the aster family, that they can easily get to.

Protecting insects is important for many reasons, so if you’re looking for a way to preserve and encourage growth in the insect species, follow my top tips. From taking the time to understand why plants are so crucial to our ecosystem, to picking the right plants and flowers to attract them to your garden, you can make a difference to this global issue.