Buzz About Gardening for Bees and Butterflies

Native Bumble Bee on Native Cone Flower
Photo by Betsie Haynes Photography

Why garden for bugs? Truth be known, we can’t live without them. But can they continue to live with us? Loss of habitat and unforeseen consequences from insecticides and herbicides are contributing to increased colony collapse in bees and frightful population declines of butterflies and other beneficial insects. To stem this steep decline, we need to shift our thinking of insects as enemies to insects as allies. It may be up to all of us to provide plants, water, and shelter for the pollinators we depend on.

Insect pollination, bugs transferring pollen from one flower to another flower, is required for the production of over 1,000 varieties of food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines that are critical to the global population of humans alone. The Pollinator Partnership found that pollination from honey bees, native bees, and other insects produces $40 billion annually. The native plants that support these busy little pollinators support a wide variety of birds and animals with which they have coevolved.

Photo provided by ZDA, Inc.

Planting for Pollinators

Pollinator gardens must feature a diverse array of flowering perennials, trees, and shrubs to supply ongoing access to nectar and pollen. Regardless of plant type, an innate relationship exists between native plants and native insects because they evolved in partnership with one another. While nonnative plants can still be valuable food sources, it is important to be sure that horticultural modification has not removed essential flower parts that produce pollen or nectar. Unlike agricultural monoculture crops and urban streetscapes, pollinator gardens attract a range of pollinators that include butterflies, moths, bats, and small mammals, and are appealing because they bloom throughout the year.

Siting Pollinator Gardens

Pollinator gardens can be quite flexible in terms of size, but function best in locations that receive six hours of full sun each day. Remember to include access to water and bare ground, as these are also essential nutrients for pollinators. Watching the energetic life and vivid color display brought upon by pollinator gardens is entertaining and inspiring. Since we can’t always be outside, aim to site a pollinator garden in view of home windows, especially kitchen or living areas. Not only do these gardens attract pollinators, but also the fascinated gaze of children. In the schoolyard, pollinator gardens are an incredible tool in teaching lessons about pollination, ecology, horticulture, weather, color…the list goes on.

Photo provided by ZDA, Inc.

Gardening for Butterflies

Pollinator gardens can be designed to specifically attract butterflies. Butterflies are infatuated by dazzling flower color much to the delight of gardeners and passersby. Plants in these settings should be sweet smelling and nectar producing to attract adult butterflies. Many insects require specific native host plants that will provide nutrition for the larvae. For example, monarch butterflies will only eat milkweed as caterpillars. The life cycle of pollinators contributes to the life cycle of many other species, all of which rely on the flowering perennials, shrubs, and trees of a pollinator garden.

Photo provided by ZDA, Inc.

Caring for Your Garden

Chemical pesticides can be the demise of even the most successful pollinator garden. Pesticides do not discriminate and will kill welcomed, useful pollinators. As an alternative, try planting herbs, such as marigold or mint, that naturally repel pests and encourage ladybugs in your garden, as they prey on pest insects. Weeds, too, have their place in the garden as hosts for important insects.

Pollinator gardens facilitate natural behaviors and cycles, and should be maintained in a similarly natural manner. As Tom Eisner, professor of biology at Cornell, aptly states, “Bugs are not going to inherit the earth. They own it now. So we might as well make peace with the landlord.”

The critical need for pollinators cannot be understated. The National Pollinator Garden Network created the Million Pollinator Garden, aimed to encourage homeowners and other organizations to create pollinator gardens of any scale with the hope of reaching one million by the end of the year. Making a difference to help pollinators can also include conserving water, reducing waste, and planting native species. Bees don’t charge a service fee for pollination. Indeed, nature’s services to us are free and, thus, easily ignored. Pollinator gardens bring us closer to nature and give us an understanding of life’s reliance on the simple act of pollination.

Joan W. Ziegler is a horticulturist and garden designer and winner of the 2015 Perennial Plant Association Merit Award for Residential Landscape Design, and Lily Mank is an intern landscape architect for ZDA, Inc. Landscape Architecture, 4797 Capitol View Road, Middleton. Call (608) 831-5098 or visit .