Become a pollinator's pal
Spring is officially here, and as the world wakes around us, more and more people are also waking up to the reality that we have to assist the precious life of our planet. Since we’ve domesticated the landscape, it seems only fair we do our part to use our landscapes to promote the health and well-being of creatures essential in sustaining our way of life.
Pollinators visit flowers for a variety of reasons. Flowers provide food, shelter, nest-building materials and even mates. Besides the food they provide, flowering plants can attract pollinators with their shape, scent and color.
The pollinator gang
Bees are the most efficient, hardworking pollinators. In the United States alone, there are more than 4,000 native species of bees. As they follow their instincts, they provide irreplaceable services to our agricultural and natural ecosystems. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), honeybees do $11 to $15 billion worth of labor for farmers each year, a cost that would be absorbed by shoppers if bees became unable to help us. To help attract bees in your yard and garden, plant bright white, yellow and blue flowers that are shallow or tubular with some form of a landing platform.
Pollinators aren’t strictly insects—birds also do some of the work. The most common bird pollinator in our area is the hummingbird. Hummingbirds love red, orange and white tubular flowers with large, funnel-like cups and strong perch support.
Butterflies enjoy brightly colored flowers with a wide landing pad, as, unlike bees, they cannot fly while feeding. While butterflies may not be the most efficient pollinators, they are indicators of a healthy ecosystem. Not only do they offer aesthetic value, they also provide natural pest-control services. They also do a bit of housekeeping, as they are happy to eat the rotten fruit in your garden. To invite butterflies into your landscape, include larval host plants for caterpillars to eat. Monarch caterpillars in particular depend on native milkweed.
Beetles may not be the most appealing visitors, but they are useful pollinators. They prefer dull white and green flowers with large bowls to clumsily fly into, such as magnolias. Beetles often leave a mess behind as they eat, damaging plant parts and excreting waste as they go—but they’re doing the best they can.
Moths and bats are the more unknown nocturnal pollinators in charge of the night shift. Bats go for dull white, green and purple bowl-shaped flowers with a strong musty odor. These flowers may be closed during the day. Moths enjoy pale red, purple, pink and white tubular flowers with sweet scents.
Tips for creating an inviting landscape
When planting, strive to include as many native flowering plants as possible. Avoid hybrid flowers; as plant breeders are typically more focused on creating beautiful blossoms for us humans, the essential elements for pollinators—pollen, nectar and fragrance—are often sacrificed. Plant similar flowers together in groups to encourage pollinators to visit the same flowers again and again, thereby increasing pollination efficiency. This will prevent the pollinator from having to relearn how to enter blossoms and waste pollen on unreceptive flowers.
Plant a wide variety of wildflowers not only to support a diverse range of pollinators but also to ensure there will always be a flower in bloom, providing a consistent food supply available from early spring to late fall. Certain weeds are also good sources for food. For example, in early spring, before most flowers open, dandelions provide nectar for the first emerging pollinators.
Like all living things, pollinators need shelter. It’s helpful to them if you include different canopy layers by planting trees, shrubs and perennial plants of varying sizes. Lavender and daisies are particularly good perennials for pollinators. Resist the urge to have a perfectly manicured lawn, but leave some bare ground for ground-nesting bees. It is also helpful to leave dead trees, or at least a few dead limbs, to provide nesting sites for bees.
Implement a bee bath in your garden for bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinating pals. It doesn’t need to be fancy; you can make one easily with a shallow plate or lid. Place it at ground level and include a few stones that can act as landing pads. Change the water every few days to avoid mosquitoes.
This year, keep pollinators in mind as you choose the flowers for your yards and gardens. Help them help us sustain the beauty and wildlife of our area.