Spring! One of my favourite times of year, where the weather warms up, wild plants start to bloom and bud, and we begin to plan our gardens. Our gardens and what we choose to plant heavily influences wildlife surrounding our yards, whether in an urban or rural setting. Specifically, our gardens have the potential to assist pollinators in their mission to find nectar and fulfill their duty of dispersing pollen.
Insects that sting are often stereotyped for being a hindrance in our outdoor spaces, but these insects are incredibly important to the reproduction of plants, and their goal is never to inflict harm unless extremely disturbed and therefore will protect themselves in the form of defense. Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes and include bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, birds, and bats. Some are very specialized while others can pollinate a large range of plants.
In fact, 90% of all flowering plants required animal-mediated pollination, which includes much of the produce we consume. We rely on plants for a large part of our diet, along with many herbivores who keep the base of Earth’s ecosystems strong and healthy. If it weren’t for pollinators, plants would mostly rely on physical aspects alone, such as wind, which is not nearly as reliable or successful. This method is how most pollination would have occurred before the evolution of our modern day pollinators. As you can imagine, there would have never been the array of beautiful colours and plant varieties that we experience now, and flowers would not have put so much of their resources into being attractive with both smell and appearance.
To fully recognise how to help an array of pollinator species, it is important to understand their relationship with flowering plants and which plant species are particularly helpful or unhelpful. A pollinator, such as a bee, has mutual dependence on flowers. Both rely on each other for survival. The bee’s job is to enter the flower from the open end, collecting pollen before it can reach the nectar the flower provides for it. As the bee travels from flower to flower, it disperses the pollen (the plant’s sex cells) and helps the grounded plants to spread their genes further.
A pollinator’s tongue or beak also determines what flowers it can feed on, adapting them to certain types of flowers. Knowing which flowers certain pollinators like best can encourage them to stay around your yard. For example, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds seen throughout Canada are most attracted to tubular shaped flowers with lots of nectar. Instead of just hanging a hummingbird feeder in your yard, a great way to help both the hummingbirds and the flowers is to also plant tubular flowers in your yard, such as a Canada Lily variety.
Bees are among the most amazing of pollinators, with thousands of different species around the world. Despite the iconic honey bees who live in colonies, over 90% of all bee species are solitary, living and foraging on their own. These bee species rely on diverse patches of flowered areas, along with untouched natural spaces to nest.
The areas of natural habitat bees and other pollinators inhabit and forage in are rapidly decreasing. Urban spaces also lack the amount of flowering meadows seen more abundantly in rural areas. Our gardens on the other hand can provide extra flowering spaces with longer blooming periods for longer foraging times for pollinators. They also mimic the diverse patches of flowered areas bees are in search of all season long, traveling from yard to yard. We like our gardens to be full of colour for the whole season, and our gardens have the potential to help pollinators for a longer period of time than a natural area.
Considerations When Planning Your Garden
The way in which we plan our gardens can be so important to those who depend on it (pollinators). There are ways we can assist bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators and have a positive impact on them. When deciding what to plant in your garden, consider a few different things.
Consider the structure of the flower – Look for simple and open flower structures to attract a wide range of pollinators. In general, this makes the pollen and nectar more accessible, unlike pom-pom shaped flowers that look attractive but are more difficult to access because of the fluffy petal structure blocking the opening.
Plant a variety of flower types – Not all pollinators are attracted to the same things, which makes for the diversity of plants we see.
Mix native plants into your garden – Native plants are those that grow naturally in a specific area and therefore attract a range of pollinators who are also native to that same area. Half native hybrids are also accepted, however, exotic plants from a wide range of worldly areas are usually not attractive at all to pollinators like bees from an area the plants don’t grow naturally.
Growing in groups – Try to design your space so that you can grow plants in groups of at least 3 – 5 to better attract pollinators.
Making Your Yard a Pollinator Refuge
Besides the types of plants you may choose to grow in your garden, there are many other ways to encourage pollinators by making your yard “pollinator friendly” Essentially what this means is offering places of refuge for different species. You can do this by having unmanicured areas of your yard that may offer crevices for nesting. This is especially important with solitary bee species who require their own space to lay eggs. For Mason Bees, this means long tubular holes above ground. For Bumblebees, small pre-dug cavities in the ground, and for the Silvery Blue Butterfly it means shrub covered areas.
Try these three things in your yard:
Have a variety of nesting types – From old logs to stacks of sod, unmanicured spaces are helpful for pollinator nests. Other types of nesting locations could be in the form of bee hotels, clay bricks, holes drilled in logs, been boxes etc.
Pollinator-friendly watering dishes – These dishes are shallow plates with rocks and water, making sure the smallest of creatures don’t accidentally get caught in the water.
Host plant areas – Especially for butterflies, having an area of your yard that contains a larval host plant gives butterfly species an opportunity to lay eggs. The best way to figure out which plants these are, is to do a little research about the specific butterflies in your area. For the Silvery Blue Butterfly, the larva will eat alfalfa, clover, and lupines.
Plants to Grow
There are many kinds of plants you could work into your garden plans that will attract pollinators. Even if you have a small planting area like me, you can still make informed choices about what you plant. If you mostly have potted container spaces for your garden, consider planting a combination of tall, mid-height, and trailing plants in each container to make the most of your space. You can even consider mixing vegetable or herb producing plants with other flowers and grouping them as much as you can. Growing vertical gardens is always a great option too if you are short on space. Regardless of where you are or the space you have, you can help pollinators survive and thrive in their ecosystem, and by providing them with an array of flowering plants we will also have a beautiful garden full of colour all season.