Landscape designs that welcome pollinators to the garden
Story and Photography by Yvonne Lelong Bordelon
Attracting pollinators to the garden is an endeavor that every gardener should pursue. In addition to European honeybees and the multitude of native bees, many butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, moths, solitary wasps, and flies visit flowers to transfer pollen from the male stamens to the female pistil, enabling 75 percent of the world’s flowering plants to reproduce.
Planting a diverse habitat that contains a variety of different plants that bloom during every season will provide nectar and pollen for an assortment of pollinators. By including large groups of tubular, nectar-filled flowering perennials in our gardens, we can ensure that hummingbirds and long-tongued pollinators have available food. The habitat should also contain larval host plants for butterflies and moths. Areas where native bees and hummingbirds can raise their young and sheltered places for insects to overwinter are also needed. Water is a very important aspect of a successful pollinator garden. Adding shallow pools or wet sand for bees to drink and butterflies to puddle will increase the number of pollinators.
Where to Begin
You don’t have to completely redo your yard to make it attractive to pollinators; it can be a gradual process. Begin by evaluating your landscape, noting any pollinator plants that you are already growing. As you remove unwanted or unhealthy plants, replace them with pollinator-friendly plants.
Changing how you tend your garden is another key to success. One of the most important practices is to stop (or at least greatly reduce) the use of pesticides (especially neonicotinoids) and herbicides. Some insect damage is natural and doesn’t usually weaken plants. If you do have a severe infestation of harmful insects, use the least toxic remedy – such as insecticidal soap for general use and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or hand-picking harmful caterpillars. Be careful not to overspray because the soap kills good bugs too and Bt will kill all butterfly and moth larvae.
The landscape should include islands containing large groups (four or more) of nectar and pollen-rich flowering plants, shrubs, and trees. Native plants, garden herbs, and old-fashioned introduced plants are preferred by most pollinators due to their high nectar and pollen content.
Using more native plants in the landscape does not mean that your yard will appear wild and unkempt. Thoughtful placement and following basic landscape design principles – and remembering “right plant, right place” – applies no matter what type of plants you choose. Avoid planting invasive varieties of any kind, even if they are excellent pollinator plants.
Consider some of these native alternatives
• American boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
• Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis)
• Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
• Ironweed (Vernonia arkansana)
• Lead plant (Amorpha canescens)
• Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
• Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
• Wild senna (S. marilandica)
Larval host plants are an essential link in the life cycle of pollinators. Recently, concerns have been raised about the continued use of tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), a popular butterfly host plant. It may be throwing off monarch migration in warm coastal states. It also harbors the protozoan Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a debilitating parasite of monarchs. When asked about A. curassavica, Dr. Orley Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, stated, “The larger issue is the loss of habitat. If we do not deal with an annual loss of habitat on the scale of a million acres a year, the population will continue to go down and it won’t matter how much curassavica we plant.”
European honeybees and native bees such as Bombus, mason bees (Osmia), and leaf-cutter bees (Megachilidae) are the primary pollinators of most of our fruits and vegetables. Some native bees are “specialists” who only pollinate and use certain native species of plants. Others, such as mason bees and leaf-cutter bees, pollinate members of the rose family (Rosaceae), which includes plum, cherry, peach, and pear, more effectively and with 60 percent fewer bees than honeybees.
Sunny open areas are needed so the countless species of ground dwelling native bees can dig tunnels and nests in which to raise their young. One such bee, the squash bee, plays a key role in the production of Cucurbita such as pumpkins, gourds, and summer and winter squash.
The other 30 percent of native bees nest in natural places, such as reeds, bamboo, dead tree bark, straw, twigs, as well as in manmade structures. Readymade bee nesting houses are widely available. DIY houses and “5-star bee hotels” can be artistically constructed from a variety of found materials including untreated wood, straw, bamboo, clay pots, bricks, hollow stems, twigs, etc.
Monoculture lawns can be transformed into “bee lawns” by including flowering plants such as native self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens). Clover adds nitrogen to the soil, which fertilizes the grass and also provides food for 12 species of bees and 10 other pollinators. These two plants can survive and flower despite being mowed regularly (no shorter than 3½ inches).
Dandelion (Taraxacum), an edible and beneficial pollinator plant (which has been labeled as a lawn weed by monoculture grass enthusiasts and herbicide companies), provides food for 20 species of bees and five other pollinators. Useful “weeds” that are nectar and pollen sources or larval host plants can be used in the wild spaces and unused parts of your property.
I purposefully broadcast dandelion and white, red, and crimson clover seeds hoping they will grow in the grass throughout our property. Now, every day thousands of honeybees, native bees, and butterflies forage in our bee lawn and bordering areas filled with “useful weeds,” such as chickweed (Stellaria media), chicory (Cichorium intybus), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), and Florida betony (Stachys floridana).