Before spring arrives, plan a survival garden for our bee and butterfly pollinators to help their shrinking numbers grow.
Photo: Honeybees are our smallest commercial pollinators and conservationists.
It may be cold and windy now, but there’s plenty of time to make plans for planting a flowering garden to attract and feed pollinators. The garden doesn’t need to be large, and even if you only have space for a few pots on a patio, that’s enough to help them, because pollinators are in trouble.
We know pollinators are important, but sometimes we forget just how important bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, bats and other small mammals are to sustain our food, ecosystems and natural resources.
Our pollinators are mother nature’s smallest conservationists.
They travel from plant to plant, carrying pollen grains on their bodies from the anther of a flower to the stigma, fertilizing plants, while feeding on nectar or pollen. This is the first step in growing thousands of fruits, vegetables and nuts.
More than 100 crops grown in the United States rely on pollinators. Worldwide, more than 80% of the world’s flowering plants need honeybees to pollinate them so they can grow the foods we love to eat. Pollinator populations have declined so much, especially Western honeybees, they are at a critical crossroads.
Scientists estimate we take 1 out of 3 bites of food—fruits, vegetables, chocolate, coffee, nuts and spices—because pollinators did their jobs. Honeybees are North America’s primary commercial pollinators. Of the more than 4,000 types of bees in the United States, one in four species is now at risk for extinction.
Another pollinator whose numbers are truly declining is the monarch butterfly.
Known for their 3,000-mile multigenerational migration and distinctive orange and black colors, the number of monarchs has plummeted from one billion to only 34 million in the last 25 years.
It took years of constant study and many researchers to learn how habitat loss, diseases, parasites and environmental contaminants like pesticides greatly accelerated their loss and put these pollinators at risk.
It was in 2006 when scientists noted frightening yearly declines in honeybee colonies. The problem, Colony Collapse Disorder, has now been attributed to a wide range of stressors such as pests, diseases, pesticides, pollutants/toxins, nutritional deficits, habitat loss, reduced species/genetic diversity, and pollinator or crop management practices. By focusing on pollinator health, the situation has changed, and there have been no CCD incidents reported for several years.
The National Wildlife Federation has been restoring monarch habitat by engaging communities in states along the monarch migratory paths by encouraging people to grow native milkweed where they live and work.
Milkweed flowers attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators, but milkweed is the essential host plant in the lifespan of the monarch butterfly. As native milkweed plants disappeared, so did monarchs.
We know what pollinators can do for us, and we know farmers, ranchers and foresters are also working to increase pollinator populations.
If you’re wondering what the average person can do to help the bees and butterflies, the answer is simple. Plant a small garden, add plants for pollinators to an existing garden, or fill pots on a patio with pollinator favorites.
If one pollinator finds a plant attractive and delicious, chances are high another pollinator will also be drawn to the plant.
What to plant. Plants for bees are rich in pollen and nectar, and also favorites of butterflies. Consider planting coneflower, sweet alyssum, aster, sunflower, verbena, lavender, sage, borage, bachelor’s button, and for the monarchs, native milkweed.
Choose a good location. Flowering plants can grow in shade or sun, but butterflies and other pollinators love the sun, and some of their favorite wildflowers grow best in full-sun areas protected from wind.
Identify your soil type before choosing what to plant. If you’re creating a new area in a garden, determine if your soil is sandy and well drained, or heavier and not so well drained.
Select native plants. Online research can help find which varieties of milkweed and wildflowers are native to your area and can do well in your soil. Native plants are always the best for pollinators. They require less maintenance and tend to be heartier. Ask about them at your local nursery. Be sure to choose plants not treated with pesticides, insecticides or neonicotinoids.
Focus on perennials that come back year after year, especially native plants suited to your climate and soil, where they naturally grow and provide nectar, pollen and seeds that become food for butterflies, insects, birds and other animals.
Seeds or plants? Once you’ve decided which plants your pollinators will be attracted to, choose seeds or purchase seedling plants. Seedlings will grow faster. If you’re using seeds, you can start some by spreading on ground in fall or late winter before the growing season.
There are many online resources for pollinator garden planners, and there many rewards in providing food for pollinators that conserve our natural resources.
Locate native plant sources in your area through the National Wildlife Federation as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
– Resources: Monarch Watch, The Bee Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, United States Department of Agriculture.