Nourishing Native Pollinators

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Planting For Bees, Bugs, Butterflies, Bats, Birds…

I’ve recently been asked to help design a garden that will nurture and support native bees and other native pollinators. The request was made with determination but some sorrow as well, as the couple seemed to think that the only way to do this is to replace all our non-native plants with huckleberries and salal. They also worried about attracting honeybees, which might crowd out natives. The idea that native pollinators are only able to feed on native plants is a common misconception. It’s true that some native pollinators are indeed specialists that really do feed mainly on certain plants; think about Monarch butterflies and milkweeds, for example, or squash bees. However, many native pollinators are generalists that happily harvest nectar and pollen from a wide palette of plants.

It’s easy to get confused about how to be helpful, since while there’s plentiful information available about non-native honeybee preferences, there’s far less for native pollinators, which were largely ignored by the general public until colony collapse started making headlines. Until a few years ago, nobody really knew how to nurture native pollinators in our gardens. However, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology challenged quite a bit of “standard wisdom.” A group of researchers decided to test the question of whether gardeners who want to enhance gardens in support of pollinators should plant native or exotic species. Three test plots designed like garden beds held native, near-native, or exotic mixtures of plants. Over a four year period, the beds with the most flowers at any given time got the most pollinator visits. The beds with the native and near-native mixes were the most popular with the greatest number and variety of pollinators overall. However, as the flowering season wore on, pollinator attention shifted as the exotic plants extended the floral display longer than the others.

Variety Wins!!

The final recommendation was to plant mixtures of native, near-native, and exotic plants with an eye to having bloom for as long as possible. Now, that’s exactly my kind of garden! The study (which took place in England), defined natives as plants that arrived in England without human intervention and were attractive enough to be garden worthy. Near-natives were chosen from plants native to the Northern Hemisphere that were ecologically similar to a native plant (like using Japanese maples in place of vine maples). Exotics had Southern Hemisphere origins and were able to fill a similar ecological slot to a native plant.

Though no precisely similar study has been done in the maritime Northwest, the researchers suggest that their results are likely to be replicable elsewhere. Some of our most useful guidelines can be found on the website of the Xerces society (see below), which has been promoting pollinator protection and support for nearly 50 years. We can also become researchers in our own gardens, watching and recording which plants get the most visits through the season. For instance, herbs are always popular in my gardens, along with almost any open-faced blossom that’s single rather than double (double flowers are harder to access).

Who’s Who In Pollinator Circles

I’ve always been fascinated by bees and other pollinators and enjoy trying to identify that many tiny critters that inhabit the garden. Like many people, I started with bees. Yikes! North America is home to over 4,000 bee species, many of which admittedly look pretty similar. Others, however, are quite distinctive and it’s well worth spending some time with an insect guide to learn to recognize our tiny neighbors. Good resources include and the USDA/Forest Service online guide called Bee Basics. If anyone wants to develop a good handbook to help identify native insects, I think you’d find a ready market!

As with so many things, the more we learn about our companion pollinators, the more we want to nurture and support them. Happily, simply offering a broad palette of pesticide-free plants will take us a long way toward that goal. While European honeybees are social creatures that share a hive, most of our natives are solitary bees that nest in the ground, in fallen logs and old stumps, or even in clumps of wild grasses. Like organic farmers, we can establish untended ‘bug bank’ areas where beneficial insect nests won’t be disturbed. Another excellent reason to practice benign neglect!

Nurturing Natives

Sturdy little Mason bees are among the best known of our natives, largely because they’re champion pollinators and easy to raise at home. (European honeybees actually aren’t all that efficient.) Since about 75% of backyard food crops are bee pollinated, providing food and shelter for natives can pay off in big garden dividends. Naturally enough, native flowering plants will be the biggest draw for native bees (who will often go on to visit the imports). You’ll find some attractive and garden worthy plant choices among the Oregon grape family, from low growing Mahonia nervosa to shapely, mannerly forms of shrubby M. aquifolium such as Smaragd and Apollo. I always add insect favorites like Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), and native roses to my own gardens if they aren’t there already, mainly because I love them too. Flowering currant and native honeysuckles are also rewarding, as are evergreen and deciduous huckleberries, thimbleberry, salmonberry, salal, ninebark, kinnikinnick and redtwig dogwoods.

Not too surprisingly, many native bee favorites are also appreciated by native butterflies. Indeed, when we amplify our garden palette with choice natives, our beds will come alive with a delightful range of beautiful critters, from helpful insects to lovely birds. Certain native perennials may appear without our help, including bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), red columbines (Aquilegia), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and avens (Geum macrophyllum). If they don’t pick the right place for themselves, gently reposition them now where they can flourish over time. I often group such volunteers between tall shrubs at the back of deep beds where they have room but don’t swamp proper border beauties.

Natives & Allies

Both honeybees and native pollinators are fond of Sidalceas and Lavateras in both native and non-native forms. Many species of violets, milkweeds (Asclepias), sweetpeas, dogwoods, and spireas are similarly popular, whether native or exotic. Fruit crops will benefit from Mason bees, while veggie beds will attract native bees that appreciate tomatoes and peppers as well as squash and beans. Ornamental thistles please bees, butterflies and birds (especially goldfinches), while hops can gladden the heart of man (in liquid form, anyway) as well as butterflies and the smaller bees.

Nectar is not the only attraction in a well stocked garden, so don’t get bugged by bugs. Having a haze of insects hovering over your beds will just about guarantee you a host of birds (even hummers need protein as well as sweet desserts) as well as butterflies. Housing helps too; many grasses (especially stipas) are butterfly friendly host plants, while roses offer building material to leaf cutter bees along with their pollen and nectar. That’s a large part of why I tidy the garden in late winter and early spring rather than in autumn; putting off the work protect and supports native pollinators and when I finally get around to it, there’s a lot less to do, since so much as self-composted in place.

Here are links to lots of accurate regional information:

Pollinator Conservation Resources – Pacific Northwest Region



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