Plants for pollinators

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By now it’s fairly common knowledge that bees and pollinators are in trouble. The media has spread the word of Colony Collapse Disorder and the vanishing bees far and wide; it’s been in the news, in magazines, all over social media, there are several movies, and there are spokespeople who give talks to educate the population. We know now that CCD is not some mysterious disease that suddenly wipes out hives, but a combination of ailments creating a perfect storm weakening hives to the point of collapse.

Conservation efforts are underway─the USDA has granted several million dollars to Universities for research of the issues, non-profit organizations work tirelessly to educate and promote bee-friendly attitudes, and a number of pollinator programs have been created by the NRCS to improve habitat. In some regards the movement is gaining traction, but a love of insects is a hard sell; people have an innate fear of stinging insects especially, and saving the honeybee and its fellow pollinators still has a long way to go.

I’ve written quite a lot about pollinators; to read more about the issues plaguing them and what you can do to help check out my articles and posts by clicking here.

plants for pollinatorsOne thing in particular we can do to promote healthy populations of local pollinators is to grow plants for pollinators. Bees and other pollinating insects collect the nectar and pollen of flowers to feed themselves; for some this is their only food source. Some insects like butterflies, moths and wasps drink the nectar, while others like honeybees turn the nectar into honey and eat the sticky sweet substance in addition to the protein-rich pollen.

If you’re thinking about adding more plants for pollinators to your yard or garden, I recommend first taking stock of what’s already available in and around your yard. Consider first all of the native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers growing around you throughout the season. Pollinators need both nectar and pollen, and they need it all season long, but especially so in the early spring. Check out this list of native plants that offer good food sources for pollinators; it’s not all inclusive, and you may have differing species if you’re not from the northeast like me, but this will give you an idea of some of the types of plants to look for.

Native trees & shrubs:

  • Maple
  • Willow
  • Alders
  • Basswood
  • Dogwood
  • Amalanchier
  • Apples/crabapples
  • Locust

Native wildflowers:

  • Dandelions
  • Clover
  • Wild raspberries/blackberries
  • Yarrow
  • Lupines
  • Goldenrod
  • Asters
  • Japanese knotweed

Once you know what you have you can look at the availability of existing pollinator forage to determine if there are any gaps or low-availability of nectar and pollen throughout the season. I recommend beginning by filling in those gaps first, and then moving on to adding to that existing base. See the list below for some favorite flowers and herbs of pollinators.

Great perennials:

  • Coreopsis
  • Echinacea
  • Bergamot
  • Yarrow
  • Lupine
  • Yarrow
  • Salvia
  • Mint-family herbs: lemonbalm, spearmint, hyssop, catnip, etc.
  • Butterfly weed
  • Great blue lobeila

Favorite annuals:

  • Sunflowers
  • Borage
  • Cosmos
  • Tithonia
  • Zinnias
  • Herbs
  • Asters
  • Calendula
  • Cornflower
  • Ageratum
  • Heliotropium

By no means is this an all-inclusive list. Plant recommendations will vary depending upon your region and I urge anyone considering adding pollinator plants to their garden or yard to first do their homework and research which perennials are native to their location, which offer the best sources of nectar and/or pollen for pollinators, and which ones will be best suited to their specific growing conditions. See the list of recommended resources at the bottom of this article for further reading.

When choosing plants for pollinators be sure you’re selecting varieties that have not been bred to be horticultural flowers that contain no pollen. Many flower-growers want pollenless varieties, and in a pollinator garden this defeats the purpose. Also avoid hybrid flowers with “double blossoms”; these are flowers that have been bred with extra petals for visual appeal, which typically block access to the flowers’ nectaries, and so is of little use to pollinators.

With some careful selection you can establish a beneficial and beautiful resource to encourage the pollinator populations around your home. You’ll know you’re doing your part to save these keystone species, and you’ll inspire others to follow suit. #beesrock!

Recommended Resources

Pollinator-Friendly Plant Lists – detaled resources divided into regions, provided by the Xerces Society.
Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides – free pdf downloads of planting guides according to region; offered by the Pollinator Partnership.
Pollinator Friendly Plants to Choose – a free resource put out by the Center for Food Safety.
Pollinators; What you can do to help – Extensive list of resources and information here from the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Nectar & Pollen Plants for Native Wild Pollinators – A downloadable pdf-ebook from beefriend.org.
Pollinator Conservation – Resources and lists from Wildflower.org.

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!