Do bees and butterflies like onions?

9 August 2013

There are quite a few ornamental plants in the onion family which attract bees and butterflies, usually called alliums. These come mainly in shades of pink, purple and white, and with a range of flower head sizes. The attraction for insects is that there are a large number of flowers all together in one flower head, meaning they don’t have to travel far to find the next sip of nectar.

The one I’ve got out at the moment – it’s going over, but still attracting the bees – is one known by several common names, including round-headed leek, round-headed garlic, and ball-head onion, but it’s Latin name is allium sphaerocephalon. It is  useful for being later flowering than most, and is cheap to buy and easy to grow. I’ve seen a Peacock butterfly on it a few times recently, but it is mainly drawing the bees.

Bees on allium sphaerocephalon.

Bees on allium sphaerocephalon.

I think the pair on the left are white-tailed bumblebees. There are two different bees on the allium in the right-hand photo; the one at the top look like a red-tailed bumblebee; the other one is something else! Either a honey bee or a solitary bee, I guess – do send me a comment if you can identify it.

Most alliums are out a bit early in the year for there to be a large number of butterflies around, but back in 2009 we had a large influx of Painted Ladies in May.

Painted Ladies on alliums

Painted Ladies on alliums

The one on the left is on allium christophii (I think!) – they have huge flower heads, especially in relation to their height, which is only around 12″ (30cm); actually, I think they are a bit out of proportion and I won’t plant any more, but they do make very impressive seedheads. The butterfly wasn’t complaining, anyway: it spent ages working its way across and round this head of flowers. The Painted Lady on the right is on an allium you might well have in the garden: allium schoenoprasum, better known as chives. If you look at the two photos, the only real difference between the flowers is how many there are on the head and how open the petals are, other than that, you can easily see they are related.

So my answer to the question in the title of this post: “Do bees and butterflies like onions?” seems to be yes! But one question for the bee keepers among you: does nectaring on alliums produce onion-flavoured honey? Don’t think I’d fancy that on my toast.

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