While we humans are savouring the prospects of fresh herbs plucked from our own potager garden (homemade pizza with fresh basil, potato salad with chopped chives, cucumbers tossed with dill, mmmmmmm) there are plenty of friendly flying critters, from bumblebees to lacewings, butterflies to hummingbirds, probably going through their own mental list of nom-nom-noms right about now. So why not treat everyone to good eats this year? Here’s a partial list of easy to grow herbs attractive to beneficial insects and some that even repel the bad varieties. Be sure to let some of your herbs bolt so that everyone can join in the feast.
Chives are cold-hardy herbs that can survive a late frost. In fact, chives can be found growing wild in fields and open areas in Ontario. They are the same as the chives you buy in pots at the nursery (Allium schoenoprasum). The USDA plant database lists wild chives as both natural and introduced to our area though the Ontario wildflowers database maintains that the wild ones are non-native, having simply “escaped from cultivation” to run amok unsupervised. Either way, chives are also enjoyed by both pollinator insects and insects that dine on garden pests.
After all risk of frost, start planting these tasty herbs:
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) blossoms attract bees and butterflies in my garden but this summer I’m going to put to the test the idea that the plant supposedly repels flies as well. I’ll position a few potted plants around our outdoor dining table or maybe make a potted centrepiece and see what happens.
Cilantro/coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is often referred to as a cool season plant but, in Southern Ontario, you still have to plant it after the last frost. It bolts into flower in the heat of summer–perfect for bees to have a go. Swallowtail butterflies love to nibble on their leaves.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a very popular herb in the insect world, attracting a variety of pollinators, including bees and both predatory and parasitic wasps. Those latter two types of bugs might not sound like the nicest of garden guests but they’re actually invaluable as a natural enemy of garden pests and as pollinators. And they aren’t interested in tussling with humans. Dill is also a food source for the larva of Ontario’s Black Swallowtail butterfly.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a great herb for keeping bees, parasitic wasps, hoverflies and butterflies happy in late summer when other herbs may be flagging. Leave some of your fennel plants to grow tall, bloom and die at the end of the season. The plant can provide a good home for the Small Carpenter bee, a solitary pollinator, who overwinters in the stem.
Marjoram (Origanum majorana) was dubbed a good “all-rounder” herb after a U.K. study noted the herb was very popular with bees, attracting honeybees and bumblebees as well as other kinds of bees, hover flies, butterflies and moths.
Mint, (various species) like thyme, is another plant with a multitude of small flowers much appreciated by a variety of beneficial insects that can drown in the abundance of nectar offered by plants with large blooms. Mint’s mid-summer blooms are an excellent source of food for hover flies, lacewings, lady beetles and parasitic wasps.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) attracts bees and hummingbirds while mite- and aphid-eating lacewings like to lay their eggs on the plant.
Thyme’s many small flowers are much more attractive than big, single flowers to beneficial insects like lady beetles, hover flies, lacewings, bees and parasitic wasps. As an early bloomer, this plant (Thymus vulgaris) can be particularly helpful to bugs at the beginning of the season.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) has spires of purple flowers that attract bees, including solitary wool carder bees in Southern Ontario.
Summer Savory, (Satureja hortensis), is another late summer bloomer, attracting bees. You’ll love it as an oregano substitute that’s less pungent than Winter Savory.