Planting for Pollinators

A bumblebee gathers nectar from beebalm, a great plant for pollinators.

A bumblebee gathers nectar from beebalm, a great plant for pollinators.

Some problems seem so big and complicated that you almost give up on doing anything about them. Please, don’t give up on pollinators — whether bees, Monarch butterflies or any of the hundreds of creatures that pollinate food and ornamental plants. Home gardeners can make a huge difference in how well these creatures survive and thrive simply by planting for pollinators.

At this past weekend’s Minnesota Home and Patio Show, Ramsey County Master Gardener Nilgun Tuna talked about planting the “pollinator friendly” garden, which also happens to be a beautiful, productive and relatively easy to maintain garden. In her talk, Nilgun explained the complex, synergistic relationship between plants and insects. Many plants are designed specifically to be pollinated by a specific insect. Some even use ultraviolet light to lure pollinators to them. Here’s a fascinating blog post with information on that.

The petals on ray flowers, like coneflowers, are a perfect landing pad for butterflies.

The petals on ray flowers, like coneflowers, are a perfect landing pad for butterflies.

Unfortunately, pollinators are struggling, due to a variety of factors such as mono-cropping (think nothing but corn as far as the eye can see), destruction of habitat for development, pesticides and climate change. Another factor is what she calls a lack of continuity of habitat. For instance, Monarchs used to be able to land just about anywhere in the United States and find a stand of milkweed — one of their essential plants. Now those habitats are fewer and farther between, making the Monarch journey from Mexico north each year much harder. This is where we gardeners come in. Home gardens with lots of plants for birds, insects and bees, as well as spots where they can nest or overwinter can help provide those habitats. Author Douglas Tallamy addresses this issue in his book Bringing Nature Home and in this article on the value of backyard biodiversity.

Here are a few of the highlights of Nilgun’s talk.

  • Plant a variety of nectar plants that bloom throughout the season. Crocus, flowering trees, even dandelions (actually, especially dandelions) are important nectar plants for native bees and other pollinating insects early in the season. Given our wild Minnesota springs, planting native plants that bloom early is a great help to  pollinators, but also plant those that bloom in May, June, July — all the way through to the last asters blooming in October.
  • Plant food for caterpillars, too, such as parsley.

    Plant food for caterpillars, too, such as parsley.

    Choose native plants. Plants that come from our area are best suited to the insects here. According to Nilgun, native plants are four times more attractive to pollinators than non-natives. Hybrids of native plants are “OK, but the species plants are betters,” she says.

  • Plant for caterpillars, too! If you love Monarchs, for example, plant milkweed, which is a necessary food for Monarch caterpillars. Parsley and dill are favorite foods of the caterpillar for the black swallowtail butterfly.
  • Plant herbs! These are favorite foods of many insects. Bees swarm to chive flowers, lavender, dill flowers, you name it. An herb garden is a bee and insect magnet.
  • Consider habitat. Many of our native bees are wood or ground dwellers. A brush pile or some leaf litter on the ground can be homes to valuable pollinators. For a project that will introduce children to pollinators, consider building a house for mason bees. It’s fun to see which bees move in and how they build their nests in the house. Remember, solitary bees are rarely aggressive. They are much more interested in flowers than you.

Which of your plants attract pollinators to your garden?