"The most common way gardeners attempt to connect with insects is by planting for butterflies. It is a noble idea... Sadly, the execution of this enterprise is so often directed by misinformation that we end up having fewer butterflies than we started with."
-Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home
At our plant sale this past May I had a conversation with a young couple shopping for perennials, and I was expounding on the virtues of St. John's Wort and how "the bugs just love it!". They very quickly protested their dislike of bugs. I amended my word choice to "pollinators" and they were back on board. Disaster avoided!
My mind was blown.
Everyone loves birds and butterflies. But other kinds of wildlife are important and need habitat too ...even wildlife that might scare us
Cicada Killer with prey
Baldfaced Hornets nest. These natives may pack a mean punch, but they also play an important role in the ecosystem
Mud Dauber Wasp
Then this August I was talking with our Junior Garden Interns about how flies are pollinators (and then we started talking about poo, but I'll spare you that lively conversation!) as well as many other animals that don't spring as readily to mind as a butterfly or a bumblebee.
Their minds were blown.
And now maybe I'm about to blow your minds, too.
I'ma 'bout to explain this "nectarine" thing in a bit.
When you think of pollinators the first thing that probably comes to mind is the honeybee. An exotic insect important to big agriculture, yes, and what is essentially livestock that are bred in a controlled environment and more easily replaced than, say, a solitary ground bee. And it's a nice teaching tool to appreciate where our food comes from. But that's just the gateway into a broader and more complicated web of plants, insects, herbivores, microorganisms, soil health, water filtration, the oxygen we breathe, and how we all depend on all the other parts to remain a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. New to gardening and want an easily digestible first garden? Sure, pick a theme. But understand that it's more than just providing nectar from Lantana or Zinnias. It's not just about the pollinators, but the nectarines. Insects have a mutualistic relationship with their native flora counterparts. Native plants (which contain nectar in a gland called nectaries, aka nectarines) are needed to nourish the pollinators, and the native fauna are needed to ensure the future generations of our native plants.
Where all this marketing and trendy packaging misleads us is that when we say pollinator gardens are important, it's not to save the exotic honeybee, but our native pollinators. And our native plants. Our ecosystem.
Ants, wasps, hornets, bumblebees, beetles, hover flies, bats. Depending upon what part of the world you live in, honey possums, lizards, lorikeets, lemurs, and genets (a carnivorous cat in South Africa) are also pollinators!
Hoverflies are great mimics of bees, which provides protection even though they don't have stingers.
And they are suuuuper tiny!
Not a bee: Hoverfly on Knautia
Still not a bee
Definitely still a Hoverfly
Ants as pollinators, who knew?!
The word "pollinator", like the word "organic", has a lot of confusion due to marketing, and miscommunication between what a person means when they say it, and what someone else parses when they hear it. Someone once asked me if my mulch was organic, and I said yes, of course it is: it's made from trees, which is organic matter. I've attended professional seminars excited to learn more about our native insects and their relationship with the urban landscape, only to learn solely about honeybees. Ugh!!
Milkweed Beetle, not to be confused with Milkweed Bug, cooexists peacably with Monarchs and their young.
However, the Milkweed Bug destroys the seeds of Milkweed plants, which reduces future habitat
All kinds of beetles are pollinators
If you look past the flashy colors of butterflies and moths, you'll find a plethora of miniscule beetles doing the same good work!
I must now confess to what I realize now is an ill-placed snobbery towards the trendy marketing, packaging, and buzzwords of plants and garden types. Pollinator garden. Butterfly garden. Hummingbird garden. Songbird garden. Wildflower garden. To me all I heard was Native Garden and Wildlife Habitat. Plant the latter and you've got all the others. I didn't realize that it was a non-threatening, not-scary introduction into gardening for wildlife. But it's only a baby step. It's getting your feet wet. Once you're more comfortable, it'll be time to wade deeper.
Ruby Throated Hummingbird (female)
Sphinx Moth, aka Clearwing Moth, aka Hummingbird Moth. The Abbott's Sphinx Moth has some cool adaptations: the larvae scream when threatened, and the adults make a buzzing sound like a bee to warn off predators
Carpenter Bee on Bee Balm
So, we have an officially designated Pollinator Garden by the Stackhouse Education Center, but in fact the entire arboretum is a pollinator, butterfly, hummingbird, and songbird garden as well as a native wildlife habitat.
I put the name in quotations because I'm passive-aggressive like that.
Pro Tip: birdfeeders and emerging butterfly larvae are not a good mix!
Momma Monarch laying her eggs
Black-Capped Chickadee feeding zer chicks.
True pollinator gardens aren't just about providing nectar (which feeds only the adults), but providing food for the larvae. They should provide habitat: mature trees, undisturbed leaves, rotting logs. Pollinator gardens should be messy (a good milkweed plant is a chewed up hot mess. That's how my mom and I knew the Monarchs were doing well!). They should have fresh water that is safely accessible.
With increasing urbanization and loss of native habitat over the years, decades, and centuries, we have to realize that our yards and parks and landscapes need to be managed very differently to provide a network of habitat. Wildlife roams and wanders and migrates, and they need safe passage and waystations, and our yards are that. What environmental benefit does an acre of lawn and a hedge of boxwood provide? Oxygen, I guess.
So this winter as you're planning next year's garden, think beyond nectar and honeybees, think wildlife habitat. There's a riot of information out that, more than can be contained in a single blog post (more like a college degree!). And it can be intimidating. And town ordinances make it tough, as well as "keeping up with the Joneses", and deer pressure makes us think our plant palette is limited.
So whether your yard is this big:
or this tiny:
you can do your part to connect your home to the ecosystem we are all a part of, even if it's just a balcony garden.