As this is Pollinator Week (June 19-25), let’s think about planting for pollinators. Gardening to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, which are drawn to nectar and pollen-rich flowers, adds activity, sound and beauty to our garden. But more importantly, it helps ensure their survival.
Most have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder, a worldwide die-off of honeybees, upon whom we depend for pollination of over 140 food crops such as blueberries, apples, cucumbers, squash, peaches, avocados and strawberries to name only a few.
Early research has linked this mysterious decline to the use of neonicotinoids, a nerve-agent class of pesticides. As a systemic pesticide, every part of the plant takes up the chemical, becoming toxic to anything that eats its leaves, roots, pollen or nectar. To make matters worse, it can persist for months or years in the environment, contaminating soil and ground water.
I’ve always gardened organically because I never wanted to expose myself or my family to unwanted chemicals, regardless of how ‘safe’ the label claimed them to be. If it kills a living thing, it couldn’t be good for me, my kids or my pets. I’ve found that plants are healthiest and tastiest when grown organically, better for me and the planet.
Unfortunately, when we buy plants from a nursery or chain-retailer, we seldom ask about their horticultural practices. How horrifying to think we are doing a good thing by planting a ‘bee-friendly’ plant, when it may be tainted with a toxin that will kill them after they visit! Perhaps it is time we started asking, and writing to large scale nurseries and retailers to let them know how we feel. Or vote with your money by buying from those farmers who pledge to use organic practices. Buy seed from them and raise your own plants, share cuttings and divisions from trusted fellow gardeners who follow similar practices.
If you live near soy or corn fields, chances are good that the seed they use is treated with neonicotonids. Drift from dust and groundwater could be reaching your land as well. These are tough issues to address, but done earnestly, I expect farmers are just as interested in protecting their families and land as well as we are.
So what plants do bees love that you can plant in your garden? Firstly, native bees love native plants, so those are always a good choice. But honeybees aren’t necessarily native and many native bees have adapted to non-native plants. Experience will show which are favorites. Following are what I’ve noticed in my garden.
Early spring is a critical time for emerging bees, so snow crocus, snowdrops (Galanthus) and early blossoming bulbs feed them when little else is available. Shrubs like Fothergilla, Spirea, Ninebark (Physocarpus), Quince (Chaenomeles) and Privet (Ligustrum) are magnets for bees.
I’ve found anything in the mint (Lamiaceae) family to be highly attractive– Salvia, Stachys, Mentha, herbs like Oregano (Origanum) and Thyme (Thymus). Aster (Asteraceae) family– Symphotrichum, Echinops, Eryngium. Boraginaceae family– Phacelia, Borago, Echium. Alliums–all. Poppies, particularly Papaver somniferum. If you have noted any others, please list them in the comments below to share with other readers.
Butterflies love many of the same flowers as hummingbirds (see below), however, choosing native plants to which they are naturally adapted provides food for both larvae and adults. Learn to identify the larvae of your favorite butterflies so that they are not mistaken for pests. Planting a garden with plants that are intended to be riddled with holes seems contrary, but if you want to successfully attract butterflies, provide for the entire life cycle.
Some plants, such as milkweed (Asclepias) and joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium), are used by both larvae and adults, while others provide nectar for the adult butterflies that we love to see flitting about our gardens. Coneflower (Echinacea), Gaillardia, Phlox, Goldenrod (Solidago), Liatris, New England aster (Symphotrichum), Sedum and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) are highly favored perennials. Trumpet vine (Campsis) and honeysuckle (Lonicera) are popular vines. Azalea, Lilac (Syringa) and Blueberry (Vaccinium) are good shrub choices. Zinnia, Lantana, Verbena and Impatiens are frequently visited annuals.
Situate larval food plants toward the back of your border or in a spot where their chewed leaves won’t bother you. Train yourself to cheer their tattered appearance! Refrain from using pesticides anywhere in your yard. Plan for a succession of bloom all season long to attract the maximum number of species. Click this website link for information and photos to help identify butterfly and moth species, their ideal habitat, favorite flowers and larval host plants.
In early May, I know hummingbirds have returned when they visit my quince bushes. Providing a sequence of favored blossoming plants all spring, summer and into autumn assures these visitors will find my yard a welcoming habitat. Hanging baskets of annuals like Fuchsia, Petunia, Thunbergia and Million-bells (Calibrachoa) in bright red, orange or pink are highly attractive. Tubular flowers like Agastache, Penstemon, Crocosmia, Monarda, Kniphofia, Salvia and Lobelia are magnets to hummingbirds.
Many people use hummingbird feeders to supplement flowers, however, sugar water not only attracts ants, hornets and flies, it lacks the vitamins and minerals found in flower nectar. If you do keep a feeder, clean it weekly to avoid potentially harmful mold and bacteria that can adversely affect hummingbirds.
Attracting winged creatures to your garden adds color, vitality and enjoyment while simultaneously ensuring the survival of these vital friends. I urge you to please do what you can in your garden, nationally and globally to help.