Pollinators Need Our Help!

By Barb Elliot

The earliest spring flowers will soon emerge.  In my garden I’ll admire the delicate white petals of Bloodroot, the first to bloom. Soon I’ll enjoy the blue bell-like flowers of Jacob’s Ladder, the bright yellow of Golden Ragwort, and striking red blooms of Wild Columbine.   The flowers are charming, but I will be more captivated by their insect visitors.  Small bees and flies will fly from blossom to blossom. Working intently, they will stop briefly to feed and gather nectar and pollen.  These will be the first pollinators of the year.

Skipper sipping nectar from Upland Ironweed.  @ Barb Elliot

Skipper sipping nectar from Upland Ironweed. @ Barb Elliot

As spring and summer progress, pollinators will visit the succession of blooms on my native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, and wasps will be at work.  I’ll watch each butterfly unfurl its straw-like proboscis to daintily probe flower heads and sip nectar.  Yellow pollen grains will dot the heads and bodies of bees and flies.  Female bees will sport saddlebag-like pollen baskets on their hind legs.  The undersides of leafcutter bees’ abdomens will be golden from pollen grains stored on special hairs.

Bumble Bee with pollen baskets.  Photo by Beatriz Moisset. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Bumble Bee with pollen baskets. Photo by Beatriz Moisset. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

I’ll notice the size, shape, and tongue lengths of pollinators – characteristics that enable some to better exploit different shaped flowers than others.  Iridescent green sweat bees will glisten in the sunlight as they feed on nectar.  The strikingly-marked Locust Borer Beetle will catch my attention as it methodically forages for pollen on my goldenrods.  I’ll marvel at how close I can get to colorful wasps as they busily collect nectar.  Hover flies will hang suspended in air as they take a break from feeding on nectar and pollen.  After dark, with my flashlight, I’ll find moths flying from flower to flower, performing nighttime pollination.

Locust Borer Beetle on goldenrod.  Wikimedia Creative Commons photo.

Locust Borer Beetle on goldenrod. Wikimedia Creative Commons photo.

My flowering plants put on their royal finery to entice these pollinators, not me.  Their showy colors and patterns advertise and guide the pollinators to the plants’ nectar and pollen.  The plants must rely on the pollinators to transport pollen among different flowers of the same species.  This cross-pollination enables plants to produce the seeds and fruit needed  for reproduction.  Well-pollinated plants bear more fruit, produce genetically diverse seed, and are healthier. For the pollinators the nectar provides carbohydrates for energy. The pollen supplies them and their offspring with protein, vitamins, minerals, fats, and starches.

Pollinators play essential roles in our ecosystems.  Seventy-five percent of the world’s plants require pollinators to produce seed or fruit.  One-third of our food supply comes from pollinator-reliant plants. Birds and other wildlife in my yard and the world over eat

Green Sweat Bee.  Photo by Beatriz Moisset on Wikimedia Creative Comoons.

Green Sweat Bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset on Wikimedia Creative Comoons.

the seeds and fruits produced by pollinator-dependent plants.  Pollinators themselves are food for birds and other animals, including insects.  A diverse population of pollinators is critical to the web of life.

Unfortunately, many pollinators are in decline.  Some are threatened with extinction.  Our most beloved pollinator, the Monarch butterfly, is in serious trouble.  The eastern U.S. population crashed in 2013, and the smallest number on record over-wintered in Mexico this year.  Not only Monarchs but other pollinator populations, including bees, our most prolific pollinators, are in trouble, too. The effects of Colony Collapse Disorder on non-native honeybee populations are well known. However, many of our 4,000 U.S. native bee species, key pollinators of both

Bumble bee with tongue extended on Mountain Mint. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

Bumble bee with tongue extended on Mountain Mint. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

native plants and crops, are also at risk.  Bumble bees seem particularly hard hit, with about half of our 47 U.S. species in decline.  Some are in danger of extinction. Less studied pollinators like beetles, wasps, and moths are likely declining as well.

Loss of good foraging and nesting habitat is the primary cause for pollinator declines.  Pesticides and introduced parasites add to the toll.  Many experts believe neonicotinoid insecticides pose a particular threat to bees and other pollinators.  Those that forage on treated plants become weak or die.  “Neonics” and other systemic pesticides are taken up through a plant’s roots and travel to all parts of the plant, including its nectar and pollen.  Last June, 50,000 bumble bees foraging on flowering trees at a single location in Oregon were killed after the trees were sprayed with a neonicotenoid.  Neonics are present in a variety of insecticide brands commonly sold to gardeners. They are also used in nurseries that raise plants.  In fact, some plants sold as bee-attractants contain neonicotenoids.

Wasp on Mountain Mint. @ Barb Elliot

Wasp on Mountain Mint. @ Barb Elliot

Despite all the threats, we gardeners can help sustain pollinator populations in our area.  (See table below.)  Some gardeners like to attract butterflies, but balk at inviting moths, bees, beetles, flies, and wasps.  However, these insects have important roles to play in the web of life and are generally harmless to gardeners.  Native bees are unaggressive and rarely sting. Even wasps are docile when foraging on flowers, although they may forcefully defend a nest.  By incorporating a variety of native plants in our yards, our most important conservation action, we will attract pollinators that are also predators and keep insect populations in check.  Various beetles, flies, and wasps prey on aphids and other insect pests.  By growing a diversity of native plants (see plant list below), we will encourage a healthy balance of insects in our gardens.

Hover Fly on Snakeroot.  @ Barb Elliot

Hover Fly on Snakeroot. @ Barb Elliot

I hope the plight of the Monarch butterfly will compel us to action. We must help not just the Monarchs* but the less charismatic butterfly, bee, fly, wasp, beetle, and moth pollinators as well.  For too long, we have ignored pollinators or treated them as pests to be destroyed.  We have gardened for aesthetics and our enjoyment without considering nature.  These beneficial creatures are crucial players in the web of life in our own gardens and beyond. We can make a difference for them.  We and our gardens will benefit.

 *Please note that we will be selling milkweed plants for Monarchs again this year!  Stay tuned for an upcoming post about Monarchs and details of the milkweed sale.

How to Help Pollinators
Provide Food 
  • Plant:
¨  A variety of nectar- and pollen-rich native plants. Strive for 8 or more species.
¨   Perennials in clusters, preferably 5 or more of a single species, so plants are easily found.
¨   For a succession of blooms from early spring through late fall.
¨   Natives with different flower shapes for pollinators or varied sizes, shapes, and tongue lengths.
¨   Host plants for butterflies and moths.
  • Buy plants at local native plant retailers or where sellers identify whether plants are pre-treated with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids.
  • Remove invasive plants so they crowd out natives
Provide nesting and overwintering sites
  • Leave:
¨  Areas of bare soil in sunny, well-drained spots.
¨   Stumps, logs on the ground, dead branches and trees.
¨   Leaf litter for over-wintering butterflies, moths, beetles and their larvae or pupae
¨   Stems of perennials standing from fall through late winter
Provide water
  • Add a shallow dish with sloped sides for easy entry and exit
  • Keep an area of soil moist or muddy for butterflies and other pollinators that forage for minerals and salts in soil
Prevent pesticide poisoning
  • Don’t use pesticides, but especially avoid neonicotinoids.  Click here for a list of common brands containing neonics.
  • Don’t apply herbicides or fungicides to lawn or beds with nest sites or pollinator plants
Other Ways to Help Pollinators
  • Make a commitment to protect pollinators by getting your yard certified as a pollinator habitat and posting a sign.  See The Xerces Society’s “Bring Back the Pollinators” campaign
  • Become a citizen scientist to help scientists track pollinator populations, such as by reporting sightings of bumble bees to Bumble Bee Watch or other species to Project NoahXerces Bring Back the Pollinators habitatsignfull (1)
Recommended Native Plants for Pollinators by Bloom Period

Common Name

Botanical Name

Flower Color

Bloom Period^

Height

Soil

Exposure

Notes

Perennials

Bloodroot
Sanguinaria canadensis
White
April
6-8”
Dry to moist
Part shade to shade
Golden Ragwort
Packera aurea
Yellow
April-May
1-2’
Moist to wet
Part shade to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
Jacob’s Ladder
Polemonium reptans
Blue
April-May
8-15”
Moist
Part  shade to shade
Deer resistant
Wild Geraniium
Geranium maculatum
Pink – purple
April-May
1-3’
Moist to dry
Part sun to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
False Solomon’s Seal
Maianthemum racemosum
White-cream
May
12-24”
Moist to dry
Part shade to shade
Smooth Solomon’s Seal
Polygonatum biflorum
White -light yellow
May-June
2-4’
Moist to dry
Part sun
Deer resistant
Wild Columbine
Aquilegia canadensis
Red
May-June
1-3’
Moist to average
Part sun to shade
Deer resistant
Beardtongue
Penstemon digitalis
White
June-July
2-3’
Dry to moist
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
Bee Balm
Monarda didyma
Red
June-August
3-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
Butterfly Milkweed
Asclepia tuberosa
Orange
June-August
1-2’
Dry to moist
Sun
Host plant for Monarch, others.  Deer resistant
Nodding Onion
Allium cernuum
Pale -dark pink
July
1-2’
Dry to moist
Sun
Deer resistant
Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
Purplish pink
July
3-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Swamp Milkweed
Asclepias incarnata
Light – dark pink
July
3-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part sun
Host plant – Monarch butterfly; deer resistant
Blazing Star
Liatris spicata
Purple
July-August
2-4’
Moist
Sun
Culver’s Root
Veronicastrum virginicum
White
July-August
3-5’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Joe Pye Weed
Eutrochium maculatum; E. fistulosum
Pink
July-August
4-7’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
Short-toothed Mountain Mint
Pycnanthemum mutucum
White
July-August
2-3’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
White Turtlehead
Chelone glabra
White
July-August
2-4’
Moist to wet
Sun to part sun
Wild Bergamot
Monarda fistulosa
Pink
July-August
2-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Host plant. Deer resistant
Common Boneset
Eupatorium perfoliatum
White
July-September
2-4’
Moist to wet
Sun
Host plant
Cup Plant
Silphium perfoliatum
Yellow
July- September
4-8’
Moist to wet
Sun
Host plant
Fragrant Hyssop
Agastache foeniculum
Blue-violet
July-September
3-5’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Deer resistant
False Sunflower
Heliopsis helianthoides
Yellow
July-September
3-5’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Garden Phlox
Phlox paniculata
Pink/white/
lavender
July-September
2-6’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Goldenrod -Stiff
Solidago rigida
Yellow
July-Sept
3-5’
Dry to moist
Sun to part sun
Host plant. Deer resistant
Great Blue Lobelia
Lobelia siphilitica
Blue
August
1-3’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Cutleaf/ Green-headed Coneflower
Rudbeckia laciniata
Yellow
August-September
3-6’
Moist
Sun to part sun
New England Aster
Symphotrichum novae-angliae
Pink -purple
August-September
2-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Host plant
Goldenrod – Zigzag
Solidago flexicaulis
Yellow
August-October
1-3’
Dry to moist
Part shade to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
New York Ironweed
Vernonia noveboracensis
Magenta
August-October
3-6’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Obedient Plant
Physostegia virginiana
Pink
August-October
2-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Mistflower or Hardy Ageratum
Conoclinum coelestinum
Blue
September-October
1-3’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant

Vines

Virgin’s Bower (a magnet for daytime species & moths at night)
Clematis virginiana
White
August-September
To 10’
Moist
Sun to part shade
May spread. Deer resistant

Trees and Shrubs

Pussy Willow
Salix discolor
Silvery gray
March
20-35’
Sun
Wet to moist
Serviceberry
Amelanchier canadensis;  A. laevis
White
April
6-20’
Sun to part shade
Dry to moist
Highbush Blueberry
Vaccinium corymbosum
White – pink
April-May
6-12’
Sun to shade
Wet to dry, acid
Redbud
Cercis canadensis
Pink – lavender
April-May
20-30’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Black Cherry
Prunus serotina
White
May-June
50-75’
Sun to part shade
Moist
Sweetbay Magnolia
Magnolia virginiana
Creamy white
May-June
10-20’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Black Gum
Nyssa sylvatica
Green
June
30-50’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Tulip Tree
Liriodendron tulipifera
Yellow-green  & orange
June
75-100’
Sun to part shade
Moist to average
Basswood
Tilia americana
Pale yellowish
Late June-early July
75-100’
Full sun to light shade
Moist
Buttonbush
Cephalanthus occidentalis
Creamy white
July-August
6-12’
Sun
Wet to moist

1 thought on “Pollinators Need Our Help!

  1. Joan Leiby on March 26, 2014 at 12:50 pm commented:
    Barb, thank you for your thoroughly comprehensive overview of pollinators and our role in supporting them. That pollinators such as monarchs and bees are in serious decline is discouraging, You and Edie will be offering milkweed plants again this year, thank you! It’s so important that we not give up.

    Reply
    Barb
    on March 26, 2014 at 10:30 PM said:
    Thanks, Joan. Yes, it is very important that we not give up on the Monarchs or other pollinators. The smaller the number of Monarchs that return, the more milkweed we need to provide — so they can find it more easily. As I know you know very well, planting more native plants is the most important single thing we can do to help sustain bee and other pollinator populations.

    Barb

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