Pollinators and Our Gardens

Butterflies and Bees on flowers

I have mentioned before, that I plan to register my yard as a monarch waystation. I personally don’t remember a time that Monarchs weren’t in trouble. Even when I was a kid, my mother told us to leave the milkweed alone because of how important they are to the monarchs. That was 25-30 years ago. Yet, I still come across people that, even with all the information out there, don’t know, don’t care, or don’t understand how it affects them. During my research on how to create a habitat for Monarchs, I realized that there are a lot of similarities between gardening for butterflies, bees, or wildlife. All include providing food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young. At the forefront of the pollinator movement are the bees and butterflies followed closely by the birds. But did you know that moths, flies and beetles are pollinators too? Because all aspects of nature are so intricately entwined together, by providing larval hosts and food sources for butterflies and moths, we also provide a food source(the larvae)for birds.

So, let’s talk about how to make your yard a pollinator/wildlife habitat.

Bee on a Helenium Flower Clouded Sulpher Butterfly on Sunray Coreopsis

Invite pollinators into to your yard by planting plants with a succession of bloom season, making sure to have something flowering from spring until fall. Plant masses of varieties rather than individual plants throughout.

A Butterfly Garden at Olbrich Botanical Garden Allium

Chose plants with different flower shapes to attract different pollinators. Composite flowers such as rudbeckia or echinacea give butterflies a place to perch and tubular flowers like penstemon and hosta are attractive to hummingbirds. Bumblebees seem to like every flower in the greenhouse but are built to pollinate the more complex flowers such as baptisia and chelone.

Monarchs on Echinacea Bumblebee on Delphinium

Keep in mind that pollinator plants do not have to be annuals or perennials. Many trees and shrubs are the earliest nectar and pollen sources. According to the U of MN, Hawthorns and pussy willows are a great early source of food. Apple and plum trees are other good trees to have for early spring bloom. Trees and shrubs also have great value as larval host plants. The trees in my yard, I have a couple Ash and a few Lindens, are larval hosts for over 100 species of butterflies and moths. Both kinds of trees are hosts for the Eastern Swallowtail butterfly as well as many different sphinx moths.

Eastern Swallowtail on Liatris Moth on Coreopsis

If you are going to have a nectar source for the adults, also plant a larval source for the young. For example, going back to the Monarch, plant milkweed for the larvae and zinnias and asters for the adults.


Monarch Caterpillar Monarch Chrysilis

Bare ground in your flower bed helps to provide nesting places for ground nesting bees such as bumblebees. When creating a habitat, think about the entire life cycle of what you are trying to help. Monarchs are the only migrating butterfly in our area and we all know that they go to Mexico in the winter. How do the others pollinators survive? Some overwinter in their cocoon, some as eggs, some as caterpillars. What good does it do to provide spring and summer food and attract them to your yard if you don’t provide a place for the winter? How, you ask? Hold off on your fall cleanup. I know we are taught to keep our yards neat and tidy but perhaps it doesn’t have to be pristine.

Bumblebee on Aster Meadow Fritillary on Swamp Milkweed

Of course, you should to clean up any areas that had any disease such as powdery mildew. But, leave some leaf litter under your trees or gather it and put it somewhere that doesn’t bother you.
The Polyphemus and Cecropia moths overwinter under their larval host trees in cocoons. Many bumblebees overwinter in underground nests. Mason bees overwinter in hollow plant stems. You can provide man-made bee houses if you are going to maintain them and keep them clean. If you don’t maintain them, they can, in a way, become death traps for the bees by carrying disease and pests from year to year. Alan switches our bee houses out every year and after the current year has hatched, cleans and sanitizes the boxes. Jay made his bee houses so that he can use paper tubes and remove them during the winter, keep the bees in a cool place and clean the boxes.

Bee house bee house

Even if you only have room for a few containers of annuals, you can help by providing food for the important insects that help provide food for us.

Butterflies and Bees on flowers

Here are some links that have great information.
The Native Plant Finder is focused on native plants and the butterflies and moths they support. It is based on the research of Dr. Doug Tallamy, the author of ‘Bringing Nature Home’. The website is still in Beta but if you are interested finding out what kind of life your yard supports, check it out.

Here is an infographic on the different kinds of bees there are. When most of us think of bees, we think of bumblebees and honeybees. Did you know that bumblebee only make up 1.4% of the bees in the US?

The U of MN Bee Lab has a ton of information on their website and as does the MN DNR website.

Books I recommend reading, if you want to learn more, include ‘Bringing Nature Home’ by Doug Tallamy, ‘Pollinators of Native Plants’ by Heather Holm, and ‘Attracting Native Pollinators’ by The Xerces Society.

Written by

Cathy Maxson is Sargent's Gardens Perennial Growing manager. In addition to making sure Sargent's grown plants thrive, she enjoys growing in her own garden, canning fruits and vegetables, traveling, and walking her dogs.