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Prepare for bees and butterflies with a pollinator garden

Spring is in the air, and the days are getting warmer and longer. In a few short weeks, bees and butterflies will be on the hunt for nectar to eat and pollen to spread. What better way to help them out than planting a pollinator garden?

A garden can be any size, from a window box or a couple of containers on an apartment patio to a full garden full of flowering plants. Some farmers are even including flowering native plants among their acres of crops to make sure the bees and butterflies that help grow our food have something to eat all year long.

An ideal pollinator garden will include a variety of plants that flower throughout the spring and summer, providing food for bees, butterflies, caterpillars and other insects, and possibly hummingbirds and bats.

Fortunately, planting a pollinator garden is simpler than it sounds. Read on for tips about what to plant and why.

Pick native plants

Choosing the rest of your plants will depend on where you live. That’s because different pollinators are native to different areas, and the best food sources for those pollinators are native plants.

“Native plants, which are adapted to local soils and climates, are usually the best sources of nectar and pollen for native pollinators,” the Xerces Society, a nonprofit focused on invertebrate conservation, writes in its pollinator plant guides. “Incorporating native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees into any landscape promotes local biological diversity by providing shelter and food for wildlife. Native plants are better adapted to regional climate cycles, do not need fertilizers, and are less likely to become weedy.”

For example, honeybees are not native to North America. They’re domesticated, and were brought to the U.S., Canada and Mexico by European settlers. However, North America is home to more than 4,000 native bee species, and those species have come to rely on different species of plants, depending on where they live.

North Carolina alone has native bees from more than 500 species, including squash bees, sweat bees and carpenter bees. Squash bees – as their name implies – are a big fan of plants like pumpkin, which are native to that region. Purple coneflower, bee balm and goldenrod are all native to North Carolina and favorites among bees.

Minnesota has about 400 native bee species – or did, the last time species in the state were thoroughly surveyed nearly 100 years ago. Mining bees, sweat bees and leaf-cutters in the northern prairies, from Canada to the upper U.S. Midwest, feed on native plants like American vetch, scarlet globemallow and Rocky Mountain beeplant – of course.

Other pollinators – butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, moths, some fly species and others – have also developed preferences.

The coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, from Oregon to British Columbia, are home to butterflies like the Oregon silverspot, Taylor’s checkerspot, Fender’s blue and Puget blue, according to the Xerces Society. In that region, bigleaf lupine is a host plant for blue butterflies, as well as a favorite snack spot for bees and hummingbirds. Douglas aster and meadow checkermallow are also attractive to pollinators in the Northwest.

In Florida, blue mistflower, east coast dune sunflower and white wild indigo make good choices. For those with room for shrubs and trees, eastern redbud and flatwoods plum can provide some early nourishment for pollinators each year. In California, redbud and McMinn manzanita are among the more permanent choices, with California poppy, California fuschia and common sunflowers also making good options.

The internet offers a ton of resources for finding native plants that will keep your local pollinators well-fed and happy. Aside from the Xerces Society guides, the United States Department of Agriculture keeps a database of pollinator plants, and many U.S. states and Canadian provinces have chapters of the North American Native Plant Society.

Native plant groups can be found in several places outside of North America, such as Australia and New Zealand.


Milkweed has two major benefits: First, despite the name, the wildflower is native to just about everywhere in the mainland United States and much of North America, meaning that it’s easy to find local species and there’s less risk of crowding out other native plants.

Second, milkweed is a vital food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars, which cannot eat anything else, and the butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed each year in the spring. The North American population of the stunning orange and black butterflies has been in decline for years for several reasons. One of those is that agricultural pesticides and development have played havoc on the traveling insects’ milkweed habitat along migration routes.

That makes milkweed an excellent choice for any pollinator garden – and not just for monarchs. Some bees and other butterfly species like it, too.

When choosing milkweed, it’s important to get the right kind. Try to get a milkweed plant native to your area, rather than the tropical variety available throughout the U.S. The tropical variety doesn’t die back in the winter, encouraging monarch butterflies to stay in areas that become chilly in the winter. It also sometimes hosts a parasite that can badly weaken the butterflies.

To order native milkweed seeds, try the seed finder database maintained by the Xerces Society. For other milkweed sources, check out Monarch Watch, which hosts a “Milkweed Market.”

Building your pollinator garden

The National Pollinator Garden Network launched its Million Pollinator Garden Challenge in 2016. The challenge will run until the network registers 1 million gardens or more, whether window boxes or full gardens.

Why not join in and be counted?

If you’re an experienced gardener, it’s as easy as adding some region-appropriate plants that provide pollen and nectar to your garden or yard.

But even inexperienced gardeners can get involved. If you have room for a couple of window boxes or containers, you can grow plants for pollinators.

A few tips:

  • Try to grow three or four different types of plants that flower at different times of the year. This is where the Xerces Society guides can come in handy – in addition to listing plants native to an area, they also list how large the plants get and what time of year they bloom.
  • Avoid hybrid flowers. They often have less pollen, nectar or scent that will attract pollinators.
  • If you have the space, try to provide a few host plants – plants that provide a place to lay eggs and food for caterpillars in addition to flowers for pollinators.
  • Try to avoid pesticides in favor of pest control methods like ladybugs, predatory mites, or other bugs that act as natural pest control. When pesticides are the only option, choose the least toxic ones that you can find that get the job done. Local nurseries, garden clubs or native plant societies are a good resource here.
  • Put out more than just flowers. Some pollinators also eat rotting fruit or vegetation. Tossing these items (sparingly) into your garden can provide an additional food source. Bees and butterflies also need water and salt to thrive. A bee bath is a great way to provide some much needed water in a pollinator garden. You can also use a drip system and a salt lick to help them get salt.

Now’s the time to start planning your pollinator garden if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. Start choosing plants now to help feed the bees, butterflies and other pollinators passing through your region.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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