By Henry Cauley
Pimmit Hills Pollinator Company
North America is home to more than 4000 native bee species, as well as countless other types of native pollinators including birds, butterflies, beetles, wasps, and moths. In Virginia, roughly 400 of these native bees can be found, including many specialist types that only visit specific groups of flowering plants. However, across North America native pollinators are in decline due to the effects of human-induced climate change and the rapid redevelopment of our local environments.
The decline of native pollinators, coupled with the decline of the non-native, but also important European honeybee, affects the health of our environment and the functionality of our food systems. Almost 75 percent of the flowering plants on earth rely on pollinators to help them set seed or fruit, and one in three bites of our food is a direct result of a pollinator visiting a plant.
Pollinators need help in finding the food and habitat they need to survive. Here are five simple but important actions that you can take in your yard to improve the habitat for pollinators to thrive.
INCORPORATE NATIVE PLANTS — When making additions or changes to your landscape, elect to use native plants. Not only are native pollinators better supported by native plants in the garden, these plants also do better in your yard because they are well-adapted to our specific climate and soil conditions.
To narrow down the great number of options, first assess your specific conditions for light, moisture, and space. There are native plants for every sunny, shady, moist, and dry site and condition. You will find a list of some favorites at the end of this article that are all excellent, simple, widely available options that provide sources of food, reproduction, support, and shelter for many different pollinators.
STRIVE FOR DIVERSITY — Use a combination of flowers, shrubs, grasses, and trees to better mimic our natural surroundings. A garden of all perennial flowers or all shrubs will lack the natural elements that a small understory tree or large shade tree provides to the landscape. The more varieties of plants you make available, the more variety of pollinators you will invite into your landscape. Bees forage mainly for pollen from a wide variety of plants, but butterflies and moths often require specific host plants for their larva to feed on. If you want to keep butterflies in your landscape, you need to plant these host plants, such as milkweed varieties for the Monarchs.
PLANT FOR YEAR-ROUND FOOD SOURCES – Plant your gardens so that the widest range of food sources are available to pollinators across the longest time period. Providing plants that flower in spring, summer, and fall provides food sources for different species, from when they first emerge in the spring, to when they are padding their nests in late fall.
Remember that many plants provide multiple rounds of food opportunities, often with the flowers of spring and summer yielding the fruits and seeds of fall and winter. Choosing plants that bloom at different times also provides you with greater color and interest in the garden throughout the growing season, making the space more attractive and inviting.
PROVIDE NESTING HABITAT — Elect to leave certain areas of your garden undisturbed throughout the year to create nesting habitats for native bees. While the European honeybee and certain bumblebees and wasps are social bees that build bigger nests, most of our native bees are solitary in nature and make their nests in the ground or in hollow plant debris.
AVOID PESTICIDES — Before spraying diseased or infested plants, know what you are dealing with. That caterpillar eating a few leaves will likely turn into a beautiful butterfly. Many insects on plants are actually beneficial and consume the pesty ones. Spraying lawns for mosquitoes is also killing the pollinators in your yard and your neighbors as the spray travels.
SOME FAVORITE NATIVES — This list is only a small example of the many native species of perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees (by bloom season) to help make your property a better ecosystem for the native pollinators in our area. An excellent resource for finding out more about native plants and where to source them is Plant NOVA Natives at Plantnovanatives.org
Spring: Eastern Red Columbine (perennial), Blue Wild Indigo (perennial), Foamflower (perennial), Moss Phlox (perennial), Wild Azalea (shrub), Maple-leaved Viburnum (shrub), Northern Spicebush (shrub), Eastern Redbud (tree), Canada Serviceberry (tree).
Summer: Giant Blue Lobelia (perennial), Scarlet Beebalm (perennial), Narrow-leaf Mountain Mint (perennial), Dense Blazing Star (perennial), Butterfly Weed (perennial milkweed), Strawberry-bush (shrub), Red Chokeberry (shrub), Buttonbush (shrub), American Hornbeam (tree), Sweetbay Magnolia (tree).
Fall: White Turtlehead (perennial), White Wood Aster (perennial), Narrow-leaved Sunflower (perennial), Goldenrod (perennial), Witch Hazel (shrub), Common Winterberry (shrub), American Beautyberry (shrub), White Oak (tree), Blackgum (tree).