How To Plant For Pollinators -- And Why You Should
How To Plant For Pollinators -- And Why You Should
In many parts of the world, pollinators like monarch butterflies and bumblebees are in crisis, but there are simple steps you can take, right in your own backyard garden.
Early findings from the latest annual census of western monarch butterflies wintering along the California coast also offers some reason for optimism: thus far in its 2021 Thanksgiving count, which concludes December 5, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has recorded more than 100,000 sightings of western monarchs. It is a significant rebound from last year, when Xerces volunteers counted only about 2,000 of the butterflies in its 2020 census. Still, the number is cause for alarm, given that just a few decades ago western monarchs migrated by the millions.
Xerces notes that the monarch population is naturally “bouncy,” in that the numbers fluctuate year to year based on factors like temperature, rainfall, and food availability. There are many possible explanations for their higher numbers compared to 2020, including “good weather and good luck across their breeding habitat in the West,” they wrote. Scientists for Xerces noted that “while climate change-driven severe drought is associated with declines in butterfly abundance and diversity in the West overall, the effects are complex; warmer and drier summers — like 2021 — can be a temporary boon to some butterfly species.” They also noted that monarchs may have benefited from more typical fall weather conditions in 2021. (For a deeper dive into why this year’s numbers may be higher, go here.)
Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains, which migrate to winter grounds in Mexico each year, are in peril, too: their numbers have declined by 80 percent since the 1990s, with a 26 percent drop in the last year alone. However, those who monitor the eastern monarch’s migration patterns are reporting higher numbers this year compared to 2020 and 2019.
Why should you care about loss of habitat for pollinators?
Study after study has documented alarming declines in insect populations. One such study of data collected in German nature preserves warned that the world is “on course for ecological Armageddon,” because of the impact of insect population collapse on human society.
And while all insects are important to life on Earth, pollinator insects have a particularly crucial role to play: carrying pollen from the male part of a flower (the stamen) to the female part of the same or another flower (the stigma), fertilizing the plant so that it can produce fruits, seeds and young plants.
According to The National Park Service, pollinators’ efforts are responsible for one of every three bites of food a person eats. They also support food sources and habitats for (non-human) animals. More than 1,200 of the world’s food crops, and 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants, depend on pollinators. While pollinators are crucial to food security and biodiversity, they are also pillars of a healthy economy. In the United States alone, the economic benefit of native pollinators to food crops is estimated to be nearly $3 billion a year.
Because they are so iconic, and their decline is so easy to observe, the black-and-yellow monarch butterfly has become a “canary in a coal mine,” drawing attention to the plight of other pollinators — and by extension, the whole web of life on Earth.
What can you do to help the monarchs and other pollinators survive climate change?
Create habitat! Monarch butterflies really do depend on milkweed; it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars, and adult butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. To help them, plant milkweed species that are right for your region and leave wild milkweed habitats to thrive. Ditching the use of herbicides in favor of more environmentally friendly weed suppression methods will also help. (Xerces has excellent guides to regional milkweed species on its website, xerces.org.)
There are over 100 species of milkweed, all bearing the Latin “asclepias,” named for the Greek god of healing and medicine. This incredible plant makes a gorgeous ornamental and will invite hoards of beautiful monarchs to your garden, in flower beds, borders or the naturalized landscape. Plant milkweed in a sunny and sheltered location if possible.
Baker Creek offers several varieties that will thrive in many parts of the U.S. Asclepias tuberosa is a perennial type milkweed that is native throughout the eastern and southern regions of the country. It is durable and long lived, a perfect habitat for the eastern monarch. Asclepias incarnata, a perennial rosy-pink flowered milkweed, is the best choice for moist locations, as it is native to wet ground throughout much of North America. This species supports the monarch and other butterfly populations, as well as bees and hummingbirds. Asclepias speciosa is native to the western half of the U.S., and it will bloom from May to September, supporting monarchs as well as other pollinators such as the dogbane tiger moth, the clearwing moth and queen butterfly. It is best to choose a milkweed species that is native to your general region.
What else can you do to attract pollinators to your garden?
Create a landing pad. Plant varieties that have large, flat, disc-shaped blooms. Flowers such as zinnias create a comfortable perch for pollinators, where they can really get settled in and feed.
Give them directions. Many flowers have evolved markings on their petals that help pollinators find the nectar. Foxglove and Salpiglossis are examples of beautiful flowers that leave an easy trail for pollinators to follow.
Keep an open door. Choose simple, open-faced varieties with large centers, because they make it easier for pollinators to access the flower’s pollen. Cosmos, zinnias and asters with single petals and large yellow centers are ideal!
Aim for heirloom and native wildflowers. Always incorporate native wildflowers. Even by choosing a domesticated variety of a regionally native flower, such as Incredible Dwarf Mix coreopsis, you will still be doing pollinators a great service.
Be a little messy. Leaving plant debris in the garden offers shelter and habitat to pollinators. You should deadhead your flowers regularly to encourage blooming, but don’t be overly concerned with cleaning up spent flowers and foliage.
Choose diversity. An abundance of differently colored and shaped blooms with different bloom times will help to keep pollinators fed in the spring, summer, and fall.
Stay organic. Use organic solutions for pest control, weed suppression and fertilizing the soil. Starting and staying organic throughout your gardening and lawn care will help encourage and ensure the survival of these important species.
By encouraging pollinators to visit your garden, you’ll help them — and make your garden a place humming with activity!