Pollinator habitat supports and protects life. Like habitat for any living creatures, it provides food and water, safe nesting sites to raise young plus materials for building nests, and undisturbed areas for overwintering. Before heading to the local nursery for new plants, take stock of your landscape and figure out how you’ll apply a few basic principles.
Bigger is Better: At least eight patches (twenty is the gold standard) three feet across or wider of different species that bloom in succession over the longest possible time are needed. One large garden with eight patches is far more attractive to pollinators than a patch here, another patch over there.
Natives, naturally: Native plants co-evolved alongside native bees and other pollinators, so they should be your first choice. Purchase from a trusted source where you know the plants have been raised without pesticides, especially the systemic ones, that are toxic to bees and butterflies.
Diversity: Your selected plant species, whether eight or eighty, should be diverse, not just in bloom time but also in color, size and shape of flower and plant size. Butterflies and hummingbirds prefer red and orange flowers with longer tubular openings. Bees like blue, violet, yellow and white flowers–since red looks like black to them–and strongly prefer the Aster family such as Golden Alexander, Cone Flowers, Brown Eyed Susans, Sunflowers, Asters, Goldenrod and any of the hundreds of species in this largest of flower families.
Think Outside the (Perennial) Box: While a sunny meadow covered with wildflowers is a near-perfect pollinator playground, a wide mixed shrub border or bed is a close second. Over time the woody shrubs can become the biggest bang for your plant-buying bucks. A single deciduous holly, blueberry, fothergilla or clethra bush equates to one of your eight 3-foot wide patches. Some vines, ground covers, herbs and annuals also delight the bees.
Butterfly Babies: Bees make nests and provision them with food to raise their young. Butterflies and moths search out just the right host plant with foliage that will feed the newly hatched eggs. You probably know that Monarch babies (larva) must have leaves of Milkweed (asclepias) to make it to the pupa stage. But there are many butterflies with unique larval host needs.
Beware: The fancy cultivars of native plants such as the super short, double bloom Coneflowers do not function nearly as well in the pollinator garden as the original species. Stay as close to the species as possible, and when you try a cultivar, watch to see how it functions in the landscape. A special warning about sunflowers–many have been bred to be pollen-less, because as cut flowers, the pollen stains clothes and tablecloths. Be sure your sunflowers are the natural pollen-producing ones. In fact, consider planting the Lemon Queen variety and taking part in the largest citizen science effort: The Great Sunflower Project http://www.greatsunflower.org
Nests and Winter Retreats: As you plan the design of your flowering patches keep in mind that almost 3/4 of native bees nest in the ground. They need access to soil for tunneling. Bumble bees especially love hiding under clumps of bunch grass and these grasses can be lovely year round features in the landscape. Leave a fallen log or a stump to be developed, first by beetles and then the mason bees.
Leave the edge of your lawn long, or mow it high from late fall until you see the bees emerge after the weather warms. And that leaf or brush pile? Locate it in an out-of-sight corner of your yard and hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign to remind you it is supporting the lives of vitally important species.
Next we’ll get to the topic you’ve been waiting for: Pollinator Friendly Plants. Yes, you have your favorite foods, and so do bees!
Written by Diane Almond, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer