By Gary Jones
Bees, butterflies and other insects go about their quiet work with little appreciation. But without them, our gardens would be a lot less colorful and bear fewer fruits and vegetables.
To increase the presence of pollinators in our backyards and realize their benefits, plants that provide nectar and pollen need to be planted. Nectar is loaded with sugars and is the pollinators’ main source of energy, while pollen provides protein and fats.
Perennials and shrubs are the best sources of pollen and nectar.
Seasonal flowers (annuals) are generally not good sources. Hybridization has made most of them sterile or very low in pollen and nectar.
It is wise to have a wide variety of plants. This will provide a range of flowers (food) through the growing season. Native plants are among the best for attracting bees.
The French style of kitchen gardens with flowers interplanted among vegetables and herbs is a perfect way to attract pollinators and increase your edible harvests. This type of garden is gorgeous, too. If planned well, there is no reason to hide your vegetables. Just combine them with pollinating flowers and celebrate the abundance of color and edible abundance.
Many types of perennial flowers can be planted during spring that will be highly attractive to bees, butterflies and other insect pollinators. Lamb’s ears, salvia, Russian sage, lavender, coneflower, cerinthe, Aster x frikartii, Agastache, gloriosa daisy, bidens, Centaurea, sedum and ice plant are some of the most beautiful.
Many herbs are great for pollinators: basil (don’t remove the flowers), borage, oregano, spearmint, hyssop, lavender, rosemary and thyme. Heirloom varieties of herbs and vegetables are more likely to attract pollinating insects.
Flowering shrubs that butterflies and bees love include bluebeard (Caryopteris), Mexican orange (Choisya ternata), privet, orange jessamine and pride of Madeira. Citrus trees of all kinds attract pollinators.
Many California native plants are highly attractive to pollinating insects. Among the best are California wild lilac, wild buckwheat, California poppy, coyote mint, coffeeberry and native penstemons. Some research shows that native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers.
A few annuals do have abundant pollen and nectar including natives like clarkia and gilia, cosmos, common sunflower and sweet alyssum.
The following tips will help maximize your success in attracting butterflies, bees and other pollinators:
- If you must use pesticides, use the least toxic and follow the directions. Don’t use when temperatures are above 90 degrees. Nor should you use on plants that butterfly caterpillars feed on.
- Plant several colors of flowers. This helps pollinators find the flowers. Bees are especially attracted to blue, purple, violet, white and yellow flowers.
- Plant flowers in clumps of one species. This will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered around. Ideal clump is four feet in diameter.
- Include flowers of different shapes. There are 4,000 species of native bees in North America — of all sizes and with different tongue lengths. Various sizes and shapes of flowers will attract various pollinators.
- Have a diversity of plants and flowers during all seasons. Most pollinators are generalists and this will accommodate all types.
- Plant where pollinators will visit. Most prefer sunny spots with shelter from strong winds.
- Consider planting white Dutch clover in your lawn. This will attract dozens of pollinators (and fix nitrogen for your lawn).
- Plant larval host plants. For example, milkweed is vital to the larval stages of Monarch butterflies.
- Avoid hybrid varieties for reasons previously noted.
- Leave open patches of mud if possible. (Near fountains or faucets) Ground-nesting bees need these areas for homes or building materials.
- Provide a water source.
- Provide nesting sites. Collections of reeds or holes drilled in blocks of wood provide great nesting sites.
- Put a flower pot on every porch. The more plants that are available, the healthier our pollinators will be. This is especially important in densely populated, new housing areas.
—Gary Jones is the Chief Horticulturist at Armstrong Garden Centers, which has locations on Friars Road and Morena Boulevard. Email your drought and gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.