Sunday, October 13, 2013

What's My Part? Edition #1 - Pollinator Benefitting at Home

Hello to new and old readers, I took the summer off of blogging to better manage my time, and I'd like to kick off the relaunch with a "What's my Part?" themed blog series focusing on what land owners of all walks of life can do in their yard or neighborhood to better their local environmental quality. I'll begin with homeowners but this series will touch on all different sectors of land ownership including industrial, commercial, schools, churches, parks....all while covering topics such as pollinator benefiting, habitat restoration, erosion control, chemical run-off reduction, storm water run-off reduction, carbon footprint reduction and more. Let's begin with the popular topic of pollinator support from a homeowner's perspective.

(Ratibida pinnata-Grey headed coneflower supporting a small short tongued pollinator)

When wanting to help out the incredibly complex world of ecology, to make the biggest contribution we must be vigilant in our research, observations, and implementation. Pollinators are insects, mammals, and birds that are searching for pollen, nectar, or even other insects to consume, and by natural design of the flower they pollinate inadvertently. Know that when planting for butterflies and/or bees, you will also be attracting all of the other native and non-native pollinators that are compatible with the flower types you plant, and they will openly compete for the resource you have provided them with. Flower quantity and diversity is important for this reason amongst others because when you have a high quantity and diverse selection of types of flowers blooming at once, the pollinators will choose what fits their bodies/tongues best. They will also choose which flowers allow them to compete best with other pollinators for resources. I'll give some examples of flower types and pecking orders/competition next using flowers that bloom within the same period in a season, it really becomes a battle ground in a native plant garden. This blog post will focus on herbaceous plants, meaning "forbs" or perennial flowers. Trees, shrubs, and vines for pollinators will be covered in a later post.

(Swamp Milkweed, Grey Headed Coneflower, Heliopsis,Wild Bergamot, and Wild Senna in bloom)

As pollinators compete for pollen/nectar, using their body shape, habitat preference, and other evolutionary adaptation like long tongues....plants compete for pollinators using their flower shape, habitat preference, and other evolutionary adaptation like bloom period timing. When you combine a diverse selection of wildflowers that bloom within the same period, you can see the competition dispersed amongst the various wildflowers.

This scene above, at the reservoir in Eden Park, the quick and strong bumble bee species pried open the legume flowers of Wild Senna which do not allow butterflies, beetles, smaller bees and other short tongued insects to pollinate it by purpose. This creates a good nectar/pollen source that is only accessible to bumble bees, leaving them only themselves to compete with. The only other species of plant pictured here that was able to compete with Wild Senna for bumble bee pollination was Swamp Milkweed, which is a favorite of a wide diversity of pollinators. Even though the Wild Senna can't be used by the milkweed beetles, honey bees, wasps, or butterflies because of it's flower shape, those insects greatly benefit from it's presence as all but a few of the numerous and fiercely competitive bumble bees are occupied by the Wild Senna. Wild Bergamot is another popular target for Bumble Bee species, but wild senna was too popular for it to compete, which left if all for the taking of the butterfly species like this one that seek out the mint family wildflower. In this competition of wildflowers, Grey Headed Coneflowers and Heliopsis were generally unfavored so they are left for whatever insects rather not compete in the battle of the more popular flowers. But, refer back to the grey headed coneflower pictured above, do you see the very small bee? Small bees, wasps, beetles and some others have short tongues and need the highly accessible flowers of Heliopsis, Grey headed coneflower, and Swamp Milkweed. So that small bee species is probably benefitting from the presence of the "popular" wildflowers, as it has now very little competition on the grey headed coneflowers that it is collecting pollen from. This demonstrates the importance of having multiple types of native plants blooming at once so that there are less losers in the competition for resources.

 Though wildflowers are not created equal, they all serve some role, but in this case and in many cases that I have observed the daisy like flower of Heliopsis is nearly completely ignored. Heliopsis is native to open woods, disturbed woodlands, savannas, stream banks and wood edges. Perhaps the pollinators that once specialized in heliopsis pollination are rare or extinct because of habitat destruction, or perhaps heliopsis was never very popular. But Heliopsis does have it's redeeming qualities, the biggest one being its' bloom period. It begins blooming in early June before any of the above listed wildflowers do, and in ideal conditions it continues into August. So one can hypothesize that it possibly gets more pollinator traffic in the month of June before Wild Senna, Grey Headed Coneflower, Swamp Milkweed, Wild Bergamot and others have started their bloom period. Either way some wildflowers are much less utilized than others, so while diversity is important....limiting the dominance of a lightly or rarely utilized wildflowers like Heliopsis may benefit the pollinator community.

(This prairie seeding is along the Bike Trail at Miami White Water- Great Parks of Hamilton County)

In the Midwest region White Tail Deer are over populated in nearly all environments, Urban, Suburban, and Rural. A large majority of pollinators relied on the previously forested lands that supported a diverse array of wildflowers that bloomed from Late March into June, predominately. The combination of deforestation, invasive shrub invasion in forest understories, and White Tail Deer over grazing the remaining forest wildflowers; these native pollinators must find other viable sources of nectar and pollen early in the season. The majority of prairie wildflowers bloom from Late June through September, but a few bloom earlier and this picture above was taken mid May. The hard to see Downy Wood Mint (Blephilia ciliata) are numerously short-tubed shaped flowers from the mint family. This flower type excludes very short tongued insects like wasps and beetles, but the tubes aren't deep enough to exclude insects with moderately long tongues like honeybees, and small butterflies.  The gold daisy like flower is Lance Leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) and is highly accessible to pollinators. The petals present a large landing pad for insects and the nectar source is abundant enough to attract large Bumble Bees and butterflies. The white tubed shaped flowers are Foxglove Beardtongue, which exclude some pollinators by the shape. The abundant nectar is then only accessible by smaller bumble bees and other small bees, but takes significant energy for butterflies to retrieve it's resources.

Together this selection of just 3 different wildflowers was able to support small, medium and large sized butterflies, wasps and beetles, and bees of all sizes. The summer wildflowers have their own importance, but April and May native prairie bloomers that are unpalatable to deer would go a long way in helping pollinators throughout the midwest which has seen extensive damage done to their forest spring blooming wildflowers. For helping out pollinators in the Midwest and Eastern regions, I suggest favoring a strong April through May crop of diverse flower shapes. Here's some deer resistant choices. Before planting, talk to a local native plant supplier about to find out what will work on your property.

Note: Not all of these species are unpalatable to deer, and not all are prairie species.

(Switching gears, once again, diversity is the key, even for the non-native Honey Bees)

I'll dedicate this piece of the blog post to the Honey Bee enthusiasts. Let's look at the physical adaptations of the the honey bee first. It is small enough to squeeze into tubular flowers of the Southern Blue Flag Iris (Iris virginica shrevei), it has a long enough tongue to reach the nectar in a shallow tubed flower like Downy Wood Mint (Blephilia ciliata), and efficient enough to gather pollen from a flower as small as Black Eye Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Honeybees are excluded, by nature, from flowers with thin long tubes like that of Wild Bergamot and/or Obedient Plant, odd shaped flowers like Purple Coneflower which has spikes that require long tongues to navigate, and some legume flowers like Wild Senna. So honey bee lovers should just stay away from those, and plant a bunch of highly accessible flowers like Butterfly Milkweed and Mountain, wrong, very wrong in fact.

In all moderately diverse wildflower observations I made this season, Honey Bees foraged together, yet separate from their biggest competition, Bumble Bees. Bumble bees will choose the cream of the crop sources of nectar and pollen, like they chose Wild Senna over the other summer forbs, and how they chose Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) over the smaller Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in this following setting. In a field that featured strong populations of the previously listed Milkweeds, Bumble Bees dominated the Common Milkweed along with milkweed beetles, while honeybees steered clear focusing on the smaller Butterflyweed, which all but the smallest of Bumble Bees, passed over. The large Common Milkweed populations on the site, acted like Wild Senna in the first example, which allowed for Butterflies, smaller native bees, and Honey Bees to compete on Butterflyweed.

These following observations are in reference to the above picture. In a second field example, Bumble Bees, which favor Mountain Mint species in many forb associations, were dispersed among the Prairie Blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya) and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Honey Bees have adapted to the Liatris genus, but chose to concentrate on the Mountain mint, which had the least competition. Rattlesnake master was also present, and hosted small butterflies, and various small native bees. I wouldn't place too much emphasis on the specific plants, one key concept to take away is diversity of flower types blooming in the same period. The other key concept is providing the Bumble Bees, which are the honeybees biggest competition, with plants that Bumble Bees specialize in to keep them from directly competing with honeybees on the same flora. Here's a list of plants that Bumble Bees tend to flock to over most other native plants while in bloom.

(Occupying Bumble Bee populations throughout the season will allow honeybees forage competitively)

(Here's a list of flowers that honey bees foraged on in mass while Bumble Bees were occupied)

(Many butterflies are generalists feeding from various types of nectar bearing flowers)

Butterflies capture our heart from a young age, and draw our interest throughout our adulthood. Unlike Bees, Beetles, Wasps and other pollinators, they require certain plants to be present to lay their eggs upon and reproduce with. The most mainstream example at the moment is the Monarch Butterfly relying on Milkweed species (Asclepias sp.) to lay their eggs on. While many butterflies may be generalists as adults, most are specialists in their caterpillar larvae stage requiring specific native plants to consume. Doug Tallamy's (Activist/Entomologist) book "Bringing Nature Home" conveniently lists what trees and shrubs support the most Lepidoptera (Moths/Butterflies) larvae. Native wildflowers, sedges, and grasses support their fair share also, but each plant species supports different Lepidotera. By downloading this compilation of data by Doug Tallamy, you can choose to favor genera that support the most to get the biggest bang per square foot out of your landscape. Butterflies like many other insects and organisms, have suffered from habitat destruction/ecosystem displacement. As they navigate our foreign and cultivated plant studded metropolitans, and our agriculturally developed rural lands, everyone could make their live much easier by just planting their property with a diverse selection of native plants.

As for supporting their drinking habit, well there's a few ways we can do that for them. Once again, Bumble Bees are the top dog competitor in our region, so refer to the plants I listed above that Bumble Bees specialize in and will flock to. To complement the Bumble Bee "occupiers", stick with concept of diverse flower types throughout the whole season. Butterflies and even skippers have very long tongues or "proboscises" which allow them to access nectar in some of the deepest tubed flowers when need be. But many of the Butterfly favorites such as Milkweeds, Echinacea species, and Eupatoriums have moderately to highly accessible nectar sources, so it isn't definitely necessary to favor plants with deeply tubed flowers such as Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). I cannot emphasize enough, diversity and bloom periods. With at least 3 different native flowering plants blooming from May through September, complemented by some Bumble Bee "occupiers" resident and migrating butterflies will set up camp on your property throughout the season. Here's a list of butterfly favorites, but remember that without good diversity and quantity the competition will be so tight that Butterflies may seek out less competitive sources leaving your plants for non-targeted pollinators.

(Bumble Bees pollinate these too but can be distracted by planting simultaneously blooming occupiers)

Here is one last way to attract Butterflies that is less flashy, but perhaps easier and still highly beneficial to the species. Butterflies suck nutrients out of saturated sandy, gravel, or silty areas to balance their diet. It is necessary for their survival, and often they flock to wet areas that seep out water throughout the season. One can artificially make one of these "puddling areas" by getting creative and following some online resources. I personally cannot say that I have tried this creation before, but every season without fail, I find multiple butterflies taking advantage of wet spots of soil and sand so I am sure they would utilize yours if designed properly.

To recap I am going to reinforce the key terms and concepts relevant to all pollinators, and elaborate upon what a generous offering of yard to pollinators could be.

Diversity and Bloom Period

These concepts go hand in hand, because one can have a wide diversity of flowers/flower types, but if only 1-2 are in bloom throughout the season, much of the value of the diversity is lost in reference to balancing competition of pollinators. 1-2 Bumble Bee"occupiers" blooming throughout the year will help ease the concentration of competition, then adding at least 2 other native plants blooming simultaneously of different flower types gives you a recipe for success.

By August butterflies are beginning to migrate, so planting butterfly favorites that bloom from August through October, may attract them as they migrate south. Also, August is a time of heat and drought and is an important month in between the Aster/Goldenrod parade of September-October and the mid summer blooms of July to supply sustenance to your pollinators. When sited correctly, these August bloomers above will suffice. But don't forget the first list referenced in this blog post pertaining to April-May flowering plants, that is too, an opportunity for you to help, by offsetting the lost of our forest wildflower diversity being destroyed as previously stated.

How much is enough?

The urban, suburban, and rural environments host such fragmented unnatural environments, yet pollinators find a way to survive. My advice is to give as much as you can afford to maintain. A properly designed/sited wildflower or prairie seeding in replace of some of your lawn is the most effective and low maintenance way of utilizing your square footage. If approaching this from a more formal perennial bed style of gardening, the bigger the better, but again the key is limiting the square footage to what you can maintain or pay to have maintained. We can't give enough back, to replace the ecosystems we have displaced and erased. People such as myself, who live on more than an acre, have a grand opportunity to give much of their land back to nature in an ornamentally enriching way through an intricate prairie format designed by a professional. But it is always amazing to see, when an urban or suburban landowner, decides to "go native" with their landscape, the concentration of pollinators competing within their 500 sq.ft. foundation bed. So however much you can give, keep it native, well maintained, uncultivated, and have it well designed to support your target pollinators throughout the season. There's also typically local native plant community groups such as Wild Ones in which you can expand your resource base and help the movements that support pollinator benefitting. If you can't give much of your yard away, you can still benefit pollinators through stewardship projects groups like Wild Ones host. 

Pollinator Recap

Bumble Bees- can be supported with providing them the native plants they specialize in pollinating from April through October.

Honey Bees- benefit from the luxury of lessened direct competition by providing Bumble Bees with their favorites, and letting Honey Bees forage upon their most preferred. Sometimes like in the case of Prairie Dock, both species overlap and will have to compete directly, but as long as you retain a diversity of multiple native plants in bloom each part of the season, the Honey Bees will benefit greatly.

Butterflies- require plant host species to "stick around". Without a good diversity of host plants, you can't expect Butterflies to do much more than fuel up and take off in search for suitable breeding grounds. Planting butterfly magnets heavier in the months of August through October will also improve your probability of helping migrating species. And, consider puddling.

All others- rely on the same principles. Multiple types of flowers blooming simultaneously and nectar/pollen sources from April through October. They also have their habitat requirements, but if their  in your neighborhood, most likely those requirements have been met in one way or another.

Hummingbirds-will have their own blog post dedicated to them.

Related Resource Books

Attracting Native Pollinators 

Bringing Nature Home

Native Plants for Honeybees


  1. Great article Solomon. Trying to bridge that late summer blooming gap in my urban plot. This was very informative and helpful.

    1. Thanks Gary, a good deep watering can extend some of the July bloomers into August like Wild Senna. But the above list will help you bridge that tough August month.

  2. I've been trying to figure out what to put in my yard so I no longer need to mow, but instead encourage the insects and birds. Thank you for a great list of plants to try!

    1. Consultation with your supplier, and patients will do you well Cara!

  3. Great info Solomon. And so timely for me. A few of us from the Wild Ones Oak Openings Region chapter are headed to the Ann Arbor Michigan Wild Ones session this Monday night on "the ecology of native bees". Your words give me much to think about. I'll post a link to your blog in our Wild Ones Oak Openings Region chapter newsletter and on our Facebook page Cheers - Hal Mann

    1. Thanks a ton, I love all of the Wild Ones groups, such a good thing bringing people together for beauty and ecology.