bumblebee on coneflower
Bumblebee on coneflower via Shannon Finch

by Shannon Finch

According to the Pollinator Partnership, “roughly 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend.” This doesn’t include all of the other plants in the world that rely on pollination to produce viable seeds and fruits.

Pollinators are the unsung heroes in the world of plant propagation, and many are in decline due to pesticides, herbicides that kill off their food and nesting plants, and habitat loss.

I’ve learned that it doesn’t take much to help pollinators: some food, water, and resting and nesting places are all it takes to create a pollinator-friendly habitat, whether you have a large property or a small deck garden.

For food, we planted a variety of flowering native plants which provide nectar, a primary food source for pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. Native plants fare better and are more attractive to them. Bees like blue, violet, purple, white, and yellow flowers. Butterflies like these, too, plus red. The bees would like it even more if I planted in drifts rather than single plants, because they like to work over a large area of the same flower. I will address that next year.

Butterflies need food, but they also need a host plant for a female to lay her eggs on (and the resulting caterpillar to eat on). The iconic Monarch butterfly is in trouble mainly because milkweed, the only host plant the female will lay eggs on, has been decimated by herbicides and development. (If you want to help the Monarch, plant a milkweed variety that lives in your area. Check the Xerces Society for milkweed seed suppliers.)

Some field guides will tell you what host plants your local butterflies like. The Xerces Society has regional lists, as does the Pollinator Project. Your state department of wildlife or county extension office are other possible resources.

Bee bath using rock "islands"
Bee bath using rock “islands” via Shannon Finch

We also created water sources. Bees need shallow drinking places so they don’t drown, so I made bee baths. You can use any shallow container, like a pie tin or plant tray.

I used a ceramic salsa dish and an old blue pan that were just begging to be repurposed. Add rocks or marbles, or whatever else catches your fancy, to use as “islands” for the bees to land on. I put some seashells and smooth glass pieces in one, and small rocks in the other.

Add water, but don’t submerge the islands entirely. I put one in my vegetable garden by the sunflowers, and the other in the rain garden next to some great burnet, penstemmon and monarda, plants the bees are constantly working over.

You may have seen butterflies clustered around a mud puddle or on a sandy stream bank. Butterflies “puddle” to get water and minerals. To create a puddling area, I added wet sand to half of a bird bath, using some rocks and broken pottery as a dam so the birds would still have water. Butterflies also need flat places to rest, so I added some flat rocks in the rain garden.

Bird bath with "puddling" zone for butterflies
Bird bath with “puddling” zone for butterflies via Shannon Finch.

That’s all you need to do. But if you want your garden to be attractive to pollinators, you have to be okay with a landscape that is more messy than manicured. Leaving a little brush and tall grass for bees and beetles to nest in, and accepting that caterpillars are going to munch some of your plants is part of the deal.

Sometimes creating pollinator-friendly habitat results in unintended—and unpleasant—consequences.

After I made the birdbath more inviting for the butterflies, the yellowjackets moved in. Worse, a bee or wasp that I can’t identify had built an underground nest beneath the bird bath. They didn’t seem aggressive, but I was concerned about my clients who walk that path to my office, as well as my pets. I stewed about what to do. I didn’t want to use pesticides to kill them, and a beekeeper wouldn’t be interested, as they weren’t honey bees.

I decided to make it less hospitable for them. I put on long sleeves and jeans, got the hose and a rake, and roughed up the nest. Bees poured out of the hole. I ran.

When the bees didn’t fly after me, I crept back. They were agitated, but they didn’t try to sting me.  As soon as they stopped coming out of the hole, I soaked the ground with the hose, and filled the hole in with some dirt. The bees hung around for a few days and then started digging out new holes. In hindsight, I probably should have left the nest alone. I’m still learning.

The other night, just at dusk, I was buzzed by a creature who was too big for a bee and too small for a hummingbird. As she hovered over some fireweed blossoms, I saw she was a beautiful orange and brown moth, whom I later identified as a White-lined Sphinx. I’d not seen one here before.

She’s just one of the many creatures who have been doing their business in our yard since we made it more pollinator-friendly.