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Lungwort, Pulmonaria or Soldiers and Sailors - call it what you like, bees love it.

Updated: Apr 23

Bees love lungwort's bright spring flowers. But not every bee has what it takes to get the good stuff. This post explains more about a cottage garden favourite and its pollinator visitors.


Lungwort (Pulmonaria species) with blue and pink flowers and silvery white spotted leaves - Harry's Honey Cheltenham
Lungwort (Pulmonaria species) with its distinctive silvery spotted leaves

HOW TO SPOT LUNGWORT

This early flowering perennial grows really well in my garden. It suits damp semi-shade. Every spring, I'm rewarded with more and more flowers plus attractively spotty leaves.


The silvery white spotted leaves are a distinctive feature. They give the plant its common name - lungwort. Early herbalists saw a similarity between the leaves and the patterns of a diseased lung. Sounds a bit grim but these healers took the lung-like leaf patterning as a sign - suggested by the Doctrine of Signatures - that the plant could be used to treat lung infections.


The lung theme continues with lungwort's Latin name Pulmonaria. There's a rare UK native species (Pulmonaria longifolia) but most gardens will have the introduced species Pulmonaria officinalis - which has been cultivated in Britain for centuries.


Lungwort is part of the Borage family and just like borage, its flowers change from red to blue as they age. This gives it one of its (many) old country names - Soldiers and Sailors. Think the scarlet jackets of the British army and then the blue of the navy.


WHICH BEES VISIT LUNGWORT

The answer lies in the shape of these flowers and the fact that bees aren't all built the same.


Some bee species have relatively long tongues whilst other have shorter tongues. The lungwort's flower tube (the corolla) is quite deep SO longer tongued bees can reach the nectar BUT shorter tongued bees can't.



The common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) is a winner. So too is the fantastically named hairy footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes). They're quite furry and easily mistaken for bumblebees - the difference is in their darting flight. For the bees that can reach it, lungwort is a good source of early nectar.



Hairy footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) - image courtesy of Gilles San Martin on Flickr - Harry's Honey Cheltenham
Hairy footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) - image courtesy of Gilles San Martin on Flickr

Honeybees have shorter tongues so they and short tongued bumblebees miss out on the nectar - although they can still reach the flowers pollen. Even if they can't reach the nectar, the pollen is useful at this time of year.


WHAT OTHER POLLINATOR VISITS LUNGWORT

Another striking visitor to Pulmonaria is the large bee fly (Bombylius major). They're furry and easily mistaken for a bee too. This fly has a monster tongue for gathering nectar from very deep flowers. Look out for the tongue and the fly's hovering flight to tell it apart from bees you might see around lungwort at the same time.

Large bee fly (Bombylius major) - image courtesy of Gilles San Martin on Flickr
Large bee fly (Bombylius major) - image courtesy of Gilles San Martin on Flickr

Though it looks like a bee (it is a bee mimic), the large bee fly is actually a parasite of some solitary bees (Andrena species).


Again, a bit grim but don't despair. It's all part of your garden ecosystem and of course - if you see a bee fly, it means you'll likely have solitary bees in your garden as well!


Remember too, that the tongue is for gathering nectar - although its tongue is huge, the bee fly doesn't sting or bite.


Follow this link to the Natural History Museum to learn more about bee flies (there are lots) and their fascinating if gruesome lifecycle.


CONCLUSION

So, take your pick of names - Lungwort aka Pulmonaria aka Soldiers and Sailors.


It is a great addition to a spring pollinator garden. Planted in a damp border, it is easy to grow and looks great with other spring flowers like primrose. With sun for part of the day, it will attract some fascinating bees plus other pollinators that might surprise you. I like it a lot.



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Sources for this post:

Images of the hairy footed flower bee and the large bee fly - courtesy of Gilles San Martin on Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence

Filed Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by S. Falk (2016) Bloomsbury

Plants for Bees: A Guide to the Plants that Benefit the Bees of the British Isles by W.D.J Kirk and F.N.Howes ( 2012) International. Bee Research Association

Wild Flowers by Sarah raven (2011) Bloomsbury




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