Brimstone butterflies in the garden

Brimstone male butterfly

I turned my garden into a habitat for bees and butterflies. Albeit on a small scale, it is a wildlife garden. I work mostly with native plants with a few exceptions  such as Butterfly bush and Lavender.

Butterflies regularly visit the garden but I wanted to encourage them to breed. I knew that the Brimstone butterfly,  Gonepteryx rhamni,  is present in this part of our country so I decided to grow the only foodplants this species of butterfly uses: alder buckthorns and purging buckthorns.

Below: alder buckthorn ~Rhamnus frangula / Frangula alnus

Alder buckthorn rhamnus frangula

It was a sunny day in April a few days ago when all of a sudden I saw a female near the alder buckhorn bushes and I could see her laying eggs!  Interesting to see that she preferred alder buckthorns and not purging buckthorn which is the other foodplant the Brimstone butterfly uses for her caterpillars.

Below: purging buckthorn ~ Rhamnus cathartica

Rhamnus cathartica flower buds

By the way, both species of buckthorns are good plants for many pollinators. The flowers are rather small but rich in nectar.

Below: Female Brimstone laying eggs on young shoots of alder buckthorns

Gonepteryx rhamni

Gonepteryx rhamni b

Gonepteryx rhamni egg

Photo above: the tiny little thing on the right hand side is an egg, difficult to photograph though.

This really proves that if you create the right conditions, butterflies will breed in the garden.

Brimstone butterfly

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White Bryony – a valuable plant for the pollinator garden

Since a few years, I have been growing White Bryony, Bryonia dioica, in my garden. It is a perennial and poisonous plant. The flowers are dioecious  which means that individual flowers are either male or female. The male flowers are much larger compared to the female ones. It climbs to about 4 metres high and in my garden it climbs over an old Weigelia and Wild privet. It likes calcareous soils. It flowers from May until September which makes it a very valuable plant.

Brynoya dioica - White bryony

In my garden, it is one of the best plants for attracting pollinators: Tree bumblebees, Buff-tailed bumblebees, Early bumblebees, honeybees and many species of solitary bee like this leafcutter bee visit the flowers.

Leafcutter bee on White bryony

The male flowers are more eye catching and I like the greenish/ white flowers. Bees seem to be collecting both pollen and nectar. Below a photograph of a solitary bee species called Lasioglossum sexnotatum female busy collecting pollen.

Lasioglossum sexnotatum

Honeybee gathering pollen

bee feeding on white bryony

Bombus pratorum nectaring

Picture 1533

It is a fascinating plant. On a warm summer’s day, I sat nearby and watched the various species of bee foraging on this plant. In this way, I am doing my bit to reverse the declining bee population and it feels good!

Andrena florea is a specialist bee: It is a monolectic bee which means that when it comes to collecting pollen, the female is restricted to a single plant species for pollen: Bryonya alba. Without the plant, the bee cannot survive. The plant will also benefit because this bee will transfer pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers.

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Aster cordifolius hybr. ‘Little Carlow’ – a bee and butterfly magnet

For some years, I have wanted to add colour to the autumn garden and it goes without saying that in a biodiversity garden, the plant of my choice had to be good for wildlife. There are huge number of plants available and I studied the Aster family. Now, with Asters that flower in autumn it has to be said that some Asters are not very attractive to butterflies at all, so please do some checking. Bombus pascuorum on Aster little carlow

Based on the colour of flowers and being highly recommended, I purchased several Aster Little Carlow, which is a hybrid of A.cordifolius and A.novi-belgii and in my garden it is a true bee magnet. As soon as the sun is out, there are tens of honeybees on this plant as well as several butterfly species, Hoverflies and Bombus pascuorum workers, the only species of Bumblebee still around apart from the queen bumblebees such as this queen Bombus hypnorum, the rapidly spreading Tree bumblebee. She is fattening up for the winter so she needs all the nectar she can gets.

Bombus hypnorum

If you have a spot in your garden, I can really recommend this easy-going,  lovely plant. The plant produces masses of small violet-blue flowers from late summer to mid-autumn. Grow to about a metre in hight so they may need staking.

Below: Hoverfly, which are also important pollinators, feeding on Asters.

Hoverfly on Aster

Below: Honeybees feeding on Asters, mostly for nectar but on this warm autumn day, I saw them collecting pollen.

Honeybee feeding on Aster little carlow


Can you see the pollen basket? Wonderful creatures, the honeybees.

Honeybee gathering pollen


The plants I bought from a nursery that uses no pesticides, an important consideration when purchasing bee plants.


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Crab apples ~ Malus sylvestris ~ The wildlife garden

Malus sylvestris is a deciduous tree growing to 10 m and they are part of the Rosaceae family. They flower in April – May and provide nectar and pollen.  The flowers are popular with solitary bees such as Mining bees (Andrena sp), Halictus bees, Mason bees (Osmia)

Malus sylvestris

but also with  Honeybees and Bumblebees.

The fruits are eating by Thrushes and the leaves support a huge number of insects: bugs, aphids, sawflies, micro moths, macro moths, beetles. As is the case with so many native trees: insects have had thousands of years to evolve with the trees. A great tree for the wildlife garden and beautiful to look at. Malus sylvestris in flower

Archeobotanical findings revealed that this tree has been growing in the Netherlands some 8000 years b.C. Fruits and seeds were found dating back to the Mesolithic so we can say that this truly is a native species.

Unfortunately, the real Malus sylvestris is quite rare, fewer than 250 individual trees remain in the Benelux. There are a lot of hybrids though.

Malus sylvestris

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Solitary bees in the garden: Wool carder bees – Anthidium manicatum.

It’s July and the striking black and yellow coloured Wool carder bees are emerging. The males are between 10-16mm whereas the females are smaller: 10-13mm. Below a male resting on a leaf.

In the field, the difference between the sexes is clearly visible.wool carder bee male

They live in Europe, Northern Africa and Asia and are often seen in urban areas nowadays.

In my garden, the males patrol patches of Black horehound – Ballota nigra and Spiny restharrow – Ononis spinosa. If a female bee arrives, the males often tries to copulate with the female. I have seen this in my garden but the copulation lasts less than a minute so not long enough for me to grab the camera and take a picture.Wool carder bee female

Above: photograph of the female

The males are quite territorial, defending their territory against other males and even other bees such as bumblebees which are often attacked. The tip of the male’s abdomen has some spines with which he can harm other insects.

Anthidium manicatum male

They seem to prefer plants that belong to the Mint family (labiates such as Black horehound, Hedge woundwort, and Lamb’s ear, the latter is particularly useful as the female uses the hairs of this plant to line her nest but they also use Verbascum for that purpose). They are also frequently seen on plants of the Pea family (Spiny restharrow, Bird’s-foot Trefoil), mostly for pollen.

I have not seen one of their nests yet but it is said that the females nest in cavities such as beetle holes. This species is another one which has become more common in urban areas.

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Hairy -footed flower bees – Anthophora plumipes and Lungwort

Lungwort – Pulmonaria officinalis  family Boraginaceae

Now that the Winter aconites have gone and most of the Crocus are gone, it is time for Lungwort to emerge. Lungwort is a lovely garden plant and very popular with queen bumblebees such as Bombus pascuorum, Bombus hortorum and Bombus terrestris. It is one of the few plants in flower during this period.

It’s not just bumblebees that come to nectar at this plant; when you see a bee with a darting flight, it could well be the hairy-footed Flower-bee (Anthophora plumipes).  This solitary bee has a massive tongue length of 14mm and can forage up to several km from their nest site. They are particularly fond of Lungwort and other plants with a high nectar reward such as Comfrey. The males are brown and the females are black with yellow hairs on the hind legs to collect pollen.Picture 1553 In our area, the females are more ginger coloured. You can easily recognize them as only the females have pollen baskets.

Anthophora plumipes

The flower-tube of Lungwort is too deep for honeybees so you will not see any of those drinking nectar; they may collect pollen though which they can reach.

The plant flowers from March to May and is always popular with long-tongued bumblebees and the solitary bee mentioned above.Picture 1554

Its flowers are beautiful as you can see from the pictures. I grow this plant underneath trees and shrubs where it thrives.  There are many members in the Borage plant family that are good for pollinators: Forget-me-not, Viper’s bugloss, Alkanet, Comfrey. All well worth planting. 

Females of the hairy-footed flower bee live between 5-7 weeks on average. The females prepare 3-8 nests and each nest takes about 4 hours to complete. The females leave behind a scent after they have visited each flower so that they know which one to visit. This is efficient as the bee cannot afford to lose time visiting flowers that offer no nectar. They breed in soft walls and studies have revealed that some nesting places have existed for over 50 years (O’Toole and Raw, 1991)

Hairy footed flower bee tongue

A fascinating species indeed.

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Enhancing Wildlife and Biodiversity in the garden

Biodiversity in the back garden

A possible definition of Biodiversity could be: the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”

“Bio” means life and “diversity” means variety within the living world. Everything is interconnected: A pair of Great tits feeding their young need caterpillars during the breeding season. Those caterpillars can only live if certain food plants are available and in order to have enough caterpillars, we must have enough moths or butterflies that are able to produce caterpillars. These butterflies and moths in their turn need flowers, which in their turn need pollinators to survive and to reproduce.

Far too often people think of what they cannot do: that very rare butterfly that can only survive because of a Gentian will probably not come into your garden but there is so much you can do to improve the conditions for wildlife, plants, and the living world. With this blog, I show you my modest approach to increasing the biodiversity in my own back garden.


Even the smallest garden can have a mini pond. My pond does not contain any fish: fish and amphibians do not go well together as most fish prey on young amphibians. I gave the fish to a friend of mine who has a pond with fish and she was delighted. Everybody happy! After the long and cold winter it is so exciting to see the first newts in the pond, sometimes even as early as February. Frog spawn is usually around March/ April in huge numbers and some people were worried that I would end up with thousands of little frogs but rest assured: tadpoles and frog spawn is on the menu of many predators: newts love frog spawn and tadpoles and dragon fly larvae are also ferocious predators of tadpoles.  Below is a picture of a very young smooth newt that left the pond seeking a place to hide on land.

Young smooth newtfrog spawn

Frogs, toads and newts spend a short period of their lives in the water so if you have these beautiful and fascinating animals in your garden,  please make sure you provide a habitat for them during the time they are out of the water so that they can have enough to eat and find a place to hide. In my garden, there is enough vegetation, a compost heap and lots of dead wood.smooth newt laying her eggs

Dead wood in the garden

Dead wood is very important for biodiversity. It is estimated that a third of forest-dwelling species rely on dead or dying trees, logs, and branches for their survival. Many fungi can only thrive on dead wood. Underneath the wood, it is teeming with life: centipedes, millipedes, woodlice, mites, all of which play a role in the ecosystem and they are a possible food source for wildlife.

Dead wood shelter for amphibians

Plant litter

Litter fall is often being cleaned up after winter and in spring we all rush to the garden centre to buy products to improve our garden soil. There is no need to do that as we can leave dead leaves in a sheltered area of the area and in two years we have leaf mould which improves the structure of the soil. The plant debris is composed of fallen leaves, twigs, pieces of bark, old fruits, etc. Bacteria, fungi and all sorts of insects convert the leaf litter into humus and nutrients are being recycled. Humus is valuable for our soil for it enable plants to absorb minerals and water better. Some leaves take a long time to decompose: needles of pine trees, beech and oak leaves take longer to compose compared to hazel, lime, Ash, Elm.

leaf litter natural protection for invertebrates


Flowers and plants

Flowers use colours, shapes, scent to advertise themselves. Flowers take on the crucial role of reproduction and they do this by making sure pollen is tranferred from one plant to another plant. Fact is that the plant is immobile so it needs a carrier to do this work. In our part of the world they use insects. Nectar and sometimes pollen is the reward that plants pay to insects for carrying pollen to another flower. It is a mutualism between two kingdoms of organisms: the plant gains reproductive success and the animal a food reward as it visits the plant.

There are numerous flowers and not all of them are equally valuable for wildlife. Bedding plants we often see in garden centres have often no value for pollinating insects: the flowers are often sterile, producing no pollen and nor do they produce nectar and in the rare occurence that they do produce small amounts of nectar, the insects cannot reach it. There are better options available.

In my garden, I have several plant families. The Labiates such as Lavender, Thyme, Marjoram, Dead Nettles are valuable for many bees: honeybees, solitary bees and bumblebees love these plants. Below the Spotted dead nettle. Labiates are an important food source for solitary bees that belong to the bee genus Anthophora.

Spotted Deadnettle  -Lamium maculatum

Plants that belong to the Pea family or Fabaceae or Leguminosae, such as Vetches, Vetchlings (Lathyrus), Clovers are quite important as providers of pollen for bumblebees. They are of great importance as a source of nectar and extremely important and favoured as a source of pollen: A study into the main plant families visited by bumblebees showed that 61.6% of the visits done by bumblebees for pollen were on plants that belong to the Fabaceae family; in only 2.5% Lamiaceae were used as a pollen source. Below a picture of Bird’s-foot trefoil. They are also favoured as a nectar source so members of the plant family are great additions to the wildlife garden.

Bird's foot trefoil

However, Red clover has flowers where nectar is hidden so deep that honeybees cannot reach it; this plant is mainly pollinated by bumblebees with long tongues.

Below a photograph of a solitary bee called Anthophora furcata, a bee with a very long tongue which enables the bee to drink nectar from flowers that have long flower tubes such as Wood sage as in the picture. Here she is collecting pollen for her young.

Picture 551

Plants that belong to the Daisy family or Asteraceae or Compositae offer nectar to bees with a relatively short tongue: Often you will see smaller solitary bees on these flowers. Plants that belong to this family are Common knapweed, Cornflower, Dandelion, Chicory and of course Asters. They are important as a pollen source for many solitary bees, beetles, etc.

Common knapweed

Some plants like Verbascum do not produce nectar; the reward pollinating insects receive is pollen of excellent quality. Dark mullein is a beautiful plant and combines well with plants that provide mostly nectar such as Geranium species.

Bumblebee on Verbascum nigrum

Pollen contains up to 40% protein and protein is needed to bring up young bees in the case of solitary bees, honeybees and bumblebees. Pollen contains amino acids (protein) but there is no single plant that produces pollen which contains all amino acids. The greater the variety, the better it is for the bee. Some plants lack a certain amino acid that is available in other plants. In this way, bees do receive all amino acids. Again, the plant family that produce pollen with a high protein percentage and of good quality, at least for bumblebees, are the Fabaceae.

Trees and shrubs

If you have the space you should consider planting an Oak. The Quercus robur or English oak supports more insects than any other tree except for the Willow. It is estimated that more than 400 species of insects and mites use the English oak as a food source whereas the American oak no more than 12. Now you know why birds are often found in Oak trees: they are like a restaurant for birds and offer plenty of food. In my garden I have planted the following trees/shrubs:

Common hawthorn: supports many insects, provides both pollen and nectar, berries are a good food source for birds.

Alder buckthorns: despit its inconspicuous flowers, this is a very important nectar and pollen source for bees, beetles, flies. Together with its close relative the Purging buckthorn, the only food plant for the caterpillars of the Brimstone butterfly. Birds love the berries. Flowers from May until September!

Alder buckthorn flowers

Purging buckthorn: Produces flowers in abundance during May-June.

Spindle: Small flowers, nectar easily accessible, beautiful poisonous berries in autumn.

Holly: Food plant for the Holly blue, provides both nectar and pollen.

Male Holly in flower

Hazel: Many moth caterpillars feed on its leaves, soil improver.

Fruit trees: Apples and Cherries provide both lots of pollen and nectar, leaves are eaten by several moth caterpillars and you can harvest your own fruit in autumn!

Cherry tree blossom

Goat willow: One of the first available sources of nectar or pollen for emerging queen bumblebees: its leaves are eaten by many moth caterpillars. Male plants provide pollen and secrete some nectar, female only nectar. Below a female tree in flower.


Barberry: This spiny shrub offers both pollen and nectar and is covered in berries in autumn.

Barberry - zuurbes berberis vulgaris

Suggestion: Some species are either female or male such as Holly. Please make sure you have a male Holly tree nearby if you want to have berries in autumn on the female tree.

There is no doubt i forgot to mention something but that will be for next time. Hope you enjoyed this blog and learned something new. Nature is amazing!!.

Posted in amphibians, Bees, Biodiversity, Biology, butterflies, Ecology, Fruit, Gardening, Gardening for wildlife, Nature, organic, pollination, wild flowers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments