Gardening for Pollinators
June 13 2022 – Elliot Gregory
Pollinator insects need your help!
Pollinator populations continue to decline due to the increased use of agricultural pesticides, and supporting pollinators is one of the easiest and best ways to improve the health of your local ecosystem, increase biodiversity, and support food production. Unlike yellowjackets and wasps, which can be grumpy and aggressive, pollinator insects such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are generally even tempered and mild mannered.
In addition to pollinator friendly plants, it is important to have a water source, whether a small pond, a shallow saucer, or a rock as a platform in your birdbath. Hummingbirds will dance in your sprinkler in the summer. Another important point: insecticides are not very discriminating, they will kill your pest insects, but are also lethal to pollinators and other beneficial insects. In general, good healthy plants can withstand a light infestation, and if you can wait it out, beneficial insects that prey on your pest will show up and get things under control.
We all are aware of honeybees, but there are many other bee pollinators: mason bees, bumble bees, and lots of native bee species. A great number of the native bee species nest underground or in solitary tunnels in sand or undisturbed areas, some live under bark in dead trees. Many of these types of bees will use bee blocks or bug hotels if available.
Bees are strongly attracted to blue flowers, but they will visit any color flower as long as the plant has either pollen or nectar and the flower is a shape that they can access. For example, bumble bees are heavy enough to push open a scotch broom flower, but most other bees are not. Plants that are particularly attractive to bees include the blue flowered shrub Caryopteris (covered with a happy, humming dome of bees in mid-summer), lavender, rosemary and other members of the mint family, such as Agastache, monarda (also known as bee balm), almost any daisy type flower (sunflowers, asters, African daisies, Echinacea, Black-eyed Susan and so forth), most members of the rose family (which includes many fruit trees) and members of the carrot family. The carrot or umbel flowers are frequently white, with hundreds of tiny flowers gathered in a domed head. Included in this family are the roadside weed and garden plant Queen Anne’s lace, dill, fennel and parsley. Another greatly enjoyed family includes the onions, including ornamental Allium, and garlic.
These lovely insects particularly like plants with flowers that offer a good landing area. Examples would be any member of the carrot family, such as dill, fennel, and Queen Anne’s lace, daisies, phlox, lilacs and of course, butterfly bush. Butterflies feed on nectar but it is important to remember that butterfly larvae (caterpillars) eat plant foliage, sometimes of plants different from what the adults are feeding on, and it is important to have some host plants and to not kill those caterpillars that are munching on them. Good host plants for butterfly larvae include butterfly weed (Asclepias), dill, fennel, parsley and dogwoods.
Other ways to keep butterflies happy: a flat rock in a sunny area to bask and warm up and an area of bare moist, even slightly muddy soil, where they can sip a bit of water and extract minerals.
Not traditionally thought of as pollinators but they often carry a bit of pollen away after a nectar hunting visit. These charming little birds are especially attracted to red flowers but will visit almost any flower that has nectar. Summer favorites include fuchsia, Phygelius, Penstemon, Agastache, columbines and California fuchsia (Zauschneria) and in your dry garden, Yucca is a great choice. For late fall into winter, Yuletide camellia is a wonderful plant for you and for your hummer friends. It has a red, wide-open flower, and blooms from around Thanksgiving into February. Another favorite is Oregon grape, both the native species and horticultural varieties such as “Charity”.
Don’t worry too much if you don’t see as many visits to your hummingbird feeder on warmer spring days — they are getting a protein rich meal of spiders and insects that become available when temperatures rise.
As pollinator populations continue to be decimated year after year, we encourage you to be a part of the solution by introducing pollinator friendly plants to your garden. Pollinators get a source of food, water and shelter to thrive, and you get an array of beautiful blooming plants. What’s not to like?