Not all wildlife is supersized. Small animals, including insects and hummingbirds, are responsible for the processes that bring us everything from cotton for clothes to the strawberries in the supermarket. According to the American Honeybee Federation, honeybees alone are responsible for up to 90 percent of the pollination of certain crops, and contribute more than a $14 billion value to the U.S. agricultural industry. With the recent declines in honeybee and monarch butterfly populations, you can make an important impact on your local pollinators by creating a habitat for them in your yard. Whether you want just a few plants in a pot of a whole backyard prairie there are plenty of options available, so get ready to get your pollinator garden growing.
Feed the Needs
Like any animal, a bee or butterfly has basic needs to survive in their environment. If you provide for all these needs in close proximity, you’re much more likely to attract pollinators and keep them around longer. Four basic needs to cover are food, shelter, water and space. Plant some flowering plants to provide nectar for food, grasses and shrubs to provide shelter and protection from predators, consider installing a small water feature like a birdbath, and leave some open space for the pollinators to move around in. If you want an artificial feeding spot to fill in between flowering seasons, place a shallow dish of room-temperature sugar water near plants for pollinators to drink. Make sure the solution is fairly dilute – think 1:10 sugar to water ratio, and try not to use tap water. Diluted sports drinks and overripe fruit can also be excellent attractants, but don’t use honey. The recrystallization process can be harmful to feeding pollinators.
If you want local fauna, you likely need local flora. Native flowering plants like bergamot, butterfly milkweed, and coneflower can help bring in the bird and bees without sacrificing color. Especially if you don’t like pulling weeds, native plants are an awesome choice. Many are perennials that require little maintenance year to year, and their varied growth will both shade out and hide any weeds that persist. (get a listing of native plants by growth type from the Iowa DOT). The list also shows each plant’s preferred environment, flower color and a whole lot more. Asters, goldenrods, golden alexander and milkweeds are great for attracting butterflies, and closed flowering plants like bottle gentian attract bumblebees, which literally bumble their way into the flower. This can be highly entertaining to watch as the bees may stumble or fall off of the flower while trying to get inside.
Fit Your Family
As much as you may want butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to visit your yard, you want to be able to use it yourself too. Consider characteristics you want out of your plantings like smell, color, height, shape or resilience to being stepped on, and do some research to find what best fits your needs. Especially if you have pets or young children, look for non-toxic plants like phlox, coneflowers, roses and catnip.
Change It Up
No matter what you want to plant, variation is a good thing. By choosing assorted plants that flower at different times, you’ll get visual variation in your garden and provide food for pollinators all season. Plant things like grasses and flowery shrubs next to each other for maximum effect, and avoid pesticides and other chemical treatments whenever possible.
Spread the Love
While it doesn’t take too much to get pollinators into your yard, it will be even easier if they like the whole neighborhood. Talk to your neighbors about your garden and see if they’re interested in starting their own. Some plants, like milkweed, grow seed pods that easily facilitate seed-sharing, and other perennial plants can be split when they go dormant for the year. Alternatively, get somebody started with a potted flower or grass as a gift.
More for Monarchs
Unfortunately, the well-known monarch butterfly is experiencing a drastic population decline, and has been for the last decade. Help track the ones that come through your yard by tagging them with tags from Monarch Watch. The numbers on the tag can then be tracked, and you can see if your monarchs make the entire migration. Butterfly-rearing kits are also available and a great hands-on option for kids. They can watch the monarch caterpillar grow, feed it milkweed leaves, and eventually emerge from its chrysalis as a mature butterfly. Locally, The Blank Park Zoo is hosting a program called Plant. Grow. Fly. to encourage more people to learn about and invest in pollinator gardens.
While you might worry about simultaneously hosting bugs and birds, remember that many pollinator species have their own defenses against predation. Another reason to create a bird-friendly habitat is that they eat other insects that compete with pollinators. Birds generally need more water and more substantial cover than insects, so consider installing a birdbath or other water feature and planting large shelter plants like trees and shrubs. Remember to keep the water fresh, and attract birds into your yard with a feeder or two.
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