As with many children, my first interaction with wildlife was watching pollinators — butterflies, bees, moths, beetles and other insects — as they flitted from flower to flower. Brightly colored swallowtail butterflies and furiously buzzing bumblebees were some of my favorites.
But these insects are not just beautiful to watch. As they move from flower to flower, drinking nectar or eating pollen, they also collect pollen on their bodies, then transfer it from male flowers to female flowers in the case of single-sex or “imperfect” flowers (which most are), or from the male part to the female part in “perfect” flowers, which have the reproductive structures of both sexes. This act of moving pollen, or pollination, allows plants to create seeds and reproduce.
About 80% of all plants, including many of those we eat, require pollinators to reproduce; the remaining 20% are pollinated by wind and water. But it’s not just insects that do this important work. Some species of birds, bats and even small mammals are pollinators.
Pollinators service more than 180,000 plant species and more than 1,200 crops. One out of every three bites of food you eat is there because of pollinators.
Many pollinators are declining due to loss of feeding and nesting habitat. Pollution, misuse of chemicals, disease and changes in climate also contribute to shrinking pollinator populations. According to the Pollinator Partnership, there are at least 41 pollinators federally listed as either endangered or threatened — one fly species, three bats, five birds, eight bees and two dozen butterflies or moths.
What can you do? It’s pretty straightforward: Create a garden with native flowering plants that supply pollinators with nectar, pollen and homes. And the emphasis there should be on native plants, which are the foundation of healthy ecosystems, providing food and habitat for native wildlife that depend on them.
A pollinator garden doesn’t have to be large to be worthwhile; several square feet of native pollinator plants will attract butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects. And it can go just about anywhere — in a suburban yard, pasture or open field, schoolyard or commercial property. Even small city lots are opportunities to plant pollinator gardens.
The best garden in these terms is one that provides pollinators with a variety of food sources throughout the growing season. Here are a few excellent choices of native species — broken into prime flowering seasons so you can support pollinators in the Chesapeake Bay watershed throughout the year. Due to the growing popularity of pollinator gardens, many of these species can now be found at local nurseries.
Spring: eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis), wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) and golden ragwort, (Packera aurea).
Summer: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), joe-pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) and narrowleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).
Fall: white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata), gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), wrinkleleaf goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra).
This is just a sampling of plants native to the Northeast that support pollinators.
The Pollinator Partnership has more detailed native plant guides for all U.S regions. Go to pollinatorpartnership.org and under “Resources” choose “Planting Guides.” Depending on where you live in the Bay watershed, you’ll want to download one of these guides: Outer Coastal Plain Mixed Province, Southeastern Mixed Forest or Eastern Broadleaf Forest (Oceanic). Page 7 of each of those guides has a U.S. map showing the region’s boundaries. The guides also have information on where you can purchase plants native to your state.
The Bay Journal provides the public with independent reporting on environmental news and issues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.