It's hard to imagine a Minnesota summer without sweet strawberries, juicy melons and tangy apples. But that's what we'd be missing if it weren't for the insects that pollinate those plants and many others. In fact, every third bite of the food we eat is courtesy of bees and other pollinators. They're also responsible for assisting 80 percent of the world's flowering plants.
While alarming reports of bee colony collapse have highlighted the plight of pollinators in commercial agriculture, home gardeners should be concerned, as well. We need pollinators to help us produce those coveted back-yard tomatoes and walkway wildflowers.
While bees are the most efficient pollinators, hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, ants, beetles and even mosquitoes also transfer pollen from a flower's male anther to another's female stigma as they search for pollen protein and/or nectar.
Because they perform this essential task for us, the least we can do is garden with them in mind.
Draw them in
It's important to plant a wide variety of flowering plants to attract the widest array of pollinators. Because of their unique physical characteristics, pollinators need flowers that have a certain color or shape.
Many bees have short tongues, so they prefer flowers with spiky stems and lots of little florets, such as lavender, salvia and blazing star, which offer easy-to-reach pollen and nectar. Bumblebees, butterflies and hummingbirds have long tongues that can probe deeper into tubular blossoms such as snapdragon and penstemon.
Ants and beetles are attracted to certain colors, specifically the duller reds and browns found in the blooms of wild ginger.
Over time, flowers have developed evolutionary strategies to lure pollinators. That's why native pollinators are more likely to recognize -- and prefer -- native plants, which adapted along with them.
Planting so that something is in bloom from early spring until later in fall also will help pollinators. Masses of one pollinator-friendly variety will draw more species than a garden full of single blooms. And, to lure moths, consider planting a few night-bloomers, as well. Avoid double flowers since the breeding that produces the extra petals often eliminates the pollen and nectar.
Because wildlife-friendly gardens are growing in popularity, more plant labels and catalog descriptions now indicate if a flower attracts butterflies, hummingbirds, and, more recently, bees.
Better for butterflies
Butterflies are probably the best looking of the pollinators. If you want to attract them to your garden, you'll need to consider more than just sources of nectar. Butterflies also need places to lay eggs and feed hatching larvae.
Trees and shrubs such as willow, elm, sumac and chokeberry can support large numbers of butterfly larvae. Unfortunately, the next generation of butterflies also are nourished by undesirable plants, such as wild violets, thistles and stinging nettles.
The queen of the butterflies, the monarch, relies solely on milkweed plants for larval food. Adding swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) to your yard is one way to help those winged beauties make their arduous yearly migrations.
No matter what kind of pollinator you're trying to attract, avoid using pesticides. If you have to spray, don't do it in the mornings, when bees and other insects are most active.
A tidy yard is not a pollinator-friendly environment. That doesn't mean you need to let your garden go to weed. Instead, create a shelterbelt by designating a small area that can be left more natural.
A few damp spots around the garden can help ground-nesting bees and wasps that need mud for their nest building. Bees and butterflies also use this mud to siphon salt and minerals needed for healthy reproduction.
In summer, allow a few dead branches and leaf litter to give pollinators hiding places, shelter from the storms and nesting sites. In winter, leave clumps of ornamental grasses and perennials standing to give bees and other insects a place to hibernate.
Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer. She blogs at www.thegardenbuzz.com.
Consider these plants when creating a pollinator-friendly garden:
TREES, SHRUBS AND VINES
FOR MORE INFO
• www.extension.umn. edu/distribution/horticulture/DG6711.html