As wild places dwindle between sprawling cities and pesticide-laden farmland, planting a garden specifically for butterflies and bees plays a significant role in sustainability — and exposes your children to the wonders of nature.
Why pollinator gardens?
An “insect pollinator” is a term referring to insects transporting pollen from plant to plant. This enables them to reproduce and grow fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Much of what is grown for our supermarkets relies heavily on insect pollinators. Some plants, like almonds, can only be pollinated by insects, primarily honey bees.
In 2006, commercial honey bees began disappearing in mass numbers. Whole colonies would just up and leave their hive, never to return again. The still-mysterious colony behavior has since been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder and is thought to be the result of a combination of stresses, such as pesticide exposure, parasitic mite infestation, and poor nutrition.
The commercial honey bee industry is still recovering.
Then, in 2014, the U.S. government was petitioned to grant endangered species protection for the monarch butterfly. Among the petitioners, the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., cited an 80% drop in the butterfly’s population since 1995. This crisis has been blamed primarily on habitat loss, both in their Mexican overwintering sites and in U.S. breeding grounds.
Overall, the monarch has lost 165 million acres of U.S. habitat in the last 20 years — roughly a Texas-sized portion of acreage. Historically huge swaths of wildflowers have been reduced to mere patches scattered across the Central U.S.
I recently spoke with Mace Vaughn, co-director of the Pollinator Program at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Ore. He said that it’s now apparent that the problem is not just a bee species here and a butterfly species there. Rather, habitat loss and pesticide exposure is widespread, affecting all insect pollinators.
He shared that at least 18%, or 140, of North American butterflies — and 25% of North American bumblebee species — are at risk of extinction by the time our children are having their own children.
That’s a shocking idea.
Already, where I live in the U.S. Midwest, seeing a butterfly flit by is a rare occurrence. How much rarer will it be when my 10, 9, and 5-year-old children are sharing the curiosity of the natural world with their own kids? I want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to not have to listen to me tell stories of “remember when” about bumblebees and butterflies, but to instead discover for themselves.
That’s why I plant pollinator gardens.
How do I do it?
I’m no expert: I’ve raised milkweeds — the sole food for monarch butterflies — for three years and have not once seen any caterpillar of any kind on the plants. But I’ve seen a lot of aphids!
I have also raised wild sunflowers, which attract bees, butterflies, and moths to no end.
Clearly, planting a successful pollinator garden is at least part sheer luck, but there is a lot of technique and know-how involved. Here are three tips to planting a pollinator garden that will not only attract butterflies and bees but also actually help boost their populations:
1. Choose Wildflowers
It’s amazing how all different kinds of flowers have all different kinds of shapes, colors, and sizes. There’s a reason: because their pollinators have adapted to specific types of flowers. So, if you want to attract insect pollinators, you have to plant flowers that they’re naturally adapted to. Since the beginning of insect history, these would be wildflowers.
Don’t worry, though. Just because you’ll be planting wildflowers doesn’t mean your pollinator garden will resemble a weedy ditch. Many wildflowers do quite well in manicured lawns.
Wildflowers native to your state or region are the most ideal to attracting native insect pollinators, but here are five of the many wildflowers that are famous for their magnetic ability on butterflies and bees:
- Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
- Ironweed (Vernonia altissima)
- Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta)
2. Pollinator Habitat is More Than Flowers
Butterflies and bees need flowers for their nectar — that’s their nutrition — but they can only thrive somewhere that offers a place to grow a family. Different species requires different plants for egg-laying or nesting. You’ll need to do some homework on the insect pollinator you want to help out and what specifics they need for their breeding habitat.
For example, the monarch butterfly caterpillar will only eat milkweeds, so a pollinator garden designed for monarchs offers both wildflowers for nectar and milkweeds on which adults lay their eggs.
With bees, its different. Some native bees prefer to nest in holes they dig into the ground. They may require a bare patch of earth, or native grass that grows in clumps where at the base they dig their home. Other bee species burrow into dead wood. You could offer a brush pile, though many wood-nesting bees do great with homemade bee homes.
Many of these bee homes are as decorative as any lawn ornament.
3. Stay Strictly Pesticide-Free
It’s incredibly important that however you configure your pollinator garden, that you don’t use pesticides of any kind! Pesticide is so called, because it kills pests — but most pesticides directed toward insects don’t just kill the pests but the good bugs, too. This includes pollinators.
Even herbicides and fungicides may be harmful to insects. Also, be careful with anything that says “organic.” Some organic pesticides are just as potent as conventional pesticides. “Organic” doesn’t mean it’s safe for your insect pollinators.
It’s best to just let pollinator gardens be natural. The more biodiversity — variety of species, both plant and animal, including insects — the fewer pest problems you’ll have. Biodiversity balances the entire habitat, capping pest numbers by allowing a healthy beneficial insect population.
That said, weeds can be a problem in a natural garden. The best weed control is removing by hand. I understand it’s inconvenient. The upside is that pulling weeds keeps you active, and teaches your kids about work ethic, perseverance, and overcoming challenges.