A Place for Pollinators

This week is National Pollinator Week, a week to celebrate and appreciate the vital role that pollinators play in healthy ecosystems.  Pollinator Week is sponsored by Pollinator Partnership whose mission it is to support pollinators through research, conservation efforts and education.

Syrphid fly

Nurturing environmental conditions conducive for pollinators, and allowing for pollinators to be–to exist, to procreate, to pollinate, are worthy gardener goals in establishing and maintaining biodiversity in urban and suburban areas.

Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus)

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

There are many reasons for the deeply concerning and potentially catastrophic decline of pollinators.  The average person doesn’t have much sway over the varied and complicated issues involved with this decline.  But gardeners, whether in their own personal space or at a school or community garden, can certainly contribute to the creation and implementation of lovely and living pollinator and wildlife habitats and with that, affect their local environmental paradigm by gardening for pollinators.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Mosquito? Fly?

What does it mean to plant or garden for pollinators? Several practices are key to a successful pollinator gardening.

Even if you’re new to the gardening world, you’ve probably heard it:  limit chemical use.  Insecticides and “gardening” chemicals don’t produce balanced systems where wildlife flourishes, and pollinators are especially impacted by home and agricultural chemical use. In fact, the use (and over use) of chemicals typically causes more problems than it solves.  Additionally, if you plant native and well adapted annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees, most, if not all, chemical use is unnecessary.

Honeybee and Syrphid Fly

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)

Accept that nature is sometimes messy!  Have a few holes in your leaves?  Don’t grab the bottle of insecticide and spray, willy-nilly, everything in sight.  Instead, observe who’s munching.  It’s probably a moth or butterfly–in childhood form (caterpillars!)–munching away contentedly before building strong exoskeletons, wings, and antennae, on their way to morphing to responsible, pollinating adults.  When you’re invested in butterfly gardening, you must be willing to tolerate some foliage damage in the garden.  Yes, adults butterflies and moths sip nectar and therefore pollinate, but their offspring–the very hungry caterpillars eat the leaves of host plants; if you want a butterfly garden, you’ll must plant for their larvae.  Clearly, spraying insecticide does not produce a good outcome for butterflies and moths, or any other beneficial insects.

Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina sp.)

To encourage all wildlife–pollinators included–minimal or no chemical interference is a a given.  Avoiding chemicals is also less expensive than constantly purchasing on the chemical treadmill.

Commit to ridding your property of at least some of the sterile, water-guzzling turf.  Americans’ love-of-the-lawn is a direct contributor to declining insect populations, especially pollinators. Carving out areas for wildflowers, shrubs, and perennials will allow habitat for all sorts of wildlife, including pollinators.

If you plant them, they will come.  The them are flowering plants:  native plants are always best because they’re easier to grow and have fewer disease problems.  The they are the pollinators: butterflies, honeybees, native bees, flies of an astonishing variety, moths, and hummingbirds.  Truthfully, planting perennial gardens is less work than a lawn.  I’ve experiencd both and my full-on urban wildlife/pollinator garden is less trouble, less work, and more interesting than a swath of grass.

Honeybee

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)

There are a few simple practices that every gardener can employ to help our beleaguered bees, both native and honey. The easiest is to simply leave some untended spots in your property.  Maybe it’s where you keep your gardening shed or garbage bins, or perhaps, where you store firewood.  Allow bare soil–no mulch, no plants, no cement–just a solid plot of open dirt left untouched for ground nesting bees. Unless you’re very lucky, you probably won’t even know they’re there, raising their little pollinators to help the Earth–and your garden.   One reason that the American Bumblebee is declining is that they nest in the ground and there’s little uncultivated ground left. The sterile, neat yard is not a normal, healthy yard.

Set out some older wood in a protected spot for wood nesting bees.  Their babies will thank you and it’s fun to watch the adults drill into the wood. The downside? You might have to sweep after they’ve drilled baby drilled.

Build an insect hotel–there are many easy DIY plans available–and see who moves in.  For excellent information on building and maintaining insect hotels, please read this article from The Entomologist Lounge.   Insect hotels have become a cool garden thing to do, but they require effort to safeguard the insects who utilize them.   My own insect hotels are small and easy to keep and clean.  Thanks Bee Daddy!  (aka, The Hub)

As well, you can go all-out, bee-crazy and get into honeybee keeping.  It’s fun!  It’s fascinating!  It’s also work, especially at the beginning.  The learning curve is steep and everyone you know will think you’re weird, but will want some of your honey. That said, our beekeeping efforts have been rewarding, especially with the best honey (according to everyone who’s ever tried it) and we congratulate ourselves as gardening do-gooders with our backyard beehives.

I adore the honeys, but for what it’s worth–native bees are actually better pollinators (in general) than honeybees. The suggestions I’ve mentioned are easy ways to develop the right environment in which native bees will thrive.  Most homeowners and community gardeners can easily afford the time and funds required for hosting pollinators in their garden spaces, directly benefiting their personal gardens and the greater ecosystem.

Planting the lovely flowers that pollinators need,

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

Green Sweat Bee (Agapostemon texanus)

…and the host plants that butterfly and moth caterpillars eat,

…means that you’re part of the solution.

For all the good reasons to convert your space into a pollinator garden, I’ll add one more:  they’re beautiful.

Bordered Patch (Chlosyne lacinia)

Horsefly-like Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa tabaniformis)

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Munching for a Cause

I would usually post nice photos of the currently stellar-in-the-garden foliage to mark the monthly foliage fanfare that is Garden Bloggers’ Foliage Day, but since it’s also National Pollinator Week in the U.S., I’d like to remind gardeners everywhere to look beyond mere surface of leaf beauty to something deeper, and even profound, in the garden.

In my garden this month, there are certain leafy greens that are being munched.

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The stripped remains of Maypop foliage

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Chewed foliage of  Blue passion-flower

Oh my!!  Should I fret?  Should I swear?  Should I throw in the trowel and give up gardening entirely? Or instead, should I celebrate the life cycle of pollinators who lay their eggs on host plants and then accept that at certain times during the growing season, some of my plants’ foliage will be less than flawless because of insect-eating damage?

I think I’ll go with that plan.

The host plants of many pollinators (butterflies and moths species in particular) serve as ready-made food bars where the leaves and stems host the incubation period of the eggs, and then once hatched, are munched by the larvae.  Eventually, the larvae, after consuming their fill of the required greens, morph in their beautiful adult stage.

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A newly emerged Black Swallowtail

Yes, fennel foliage is fabulously beautiful in June’s sunshine.

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But so are the Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, caterpillars that are devouring contentedly.

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A mid instar  Black Swallowtail larva

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Eventually, that hungry, hungry caterpillar will morph into this:

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A Black Swallowtail in “J” formation. Finished with eating and growing, it’s time to morph into the adult stage

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The same pupa, 24 hours later–in full chrysalis mode

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Newly hatched Black Swallowtail, with ventral (underside) wing view. This butterfly is drying its wings after emergence from the chrysalis

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The same butterfly, with dorsal (top) of wings in view–still drying.

 

For a while, I’m glad to tolerate the change from this,

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…to this:  the spare, stripped stems and leaves, and yes, less lovely foliage, that is fennel after the larvae feeding.

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None of my butterfly host plants (I grow about a half-dozen) have ever experienced too much munching damage to the point that the plant(s) didn’t return to full health.  From a biological standpoint, that makes sense, because a host plant wouldn’t be much of a host plant if the visiting insect ate it to death–that wouldn’t bode well for either the plant or the insect.  Nature is generally designed better than that.  The only caveat in my experience is that if fennel (a cool season plant and NOT the native host plant for the Black Swallowtail) is decimated, and it’s an older plant, and the summer is truly blazing hot (reminder–I live in Central Texas), the fennel might succumb. But there is an easy fix for that: a four-inch pot replacement is about $2 at my favorite nursery.

Also, as lovely as fennel foliage is for most of the year, I must be patient and understanding during the late spring/early summer and then again, in early fall, when the Black Swallowtail larvae are most active and therefore, the fennel isn’t in its best looks. I must recognize that the munched fennel will not add anything to accepted aesthetics of garden beauty. At that point, fennel has a more important role to play than as a just another pretty plant.

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Currently, two different passion-flower plants, Blue passion-flower, Passiflora caerulea,

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… and Maypop, Passiflora incarnata,

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…are hosting the eggs and caterpillars of the Gulf FritillaryAgraulis vanillae.

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Gulf Fritillary nectaring on a Giant spiderwort

A bit chewed up and worse for wear,

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…the foliage feeds the larvae of this active and important pollinator which lives throughout Florida and Texas. The Gulf Fritillary lays her egg,

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The newly laid egg is perched on the passion flower’s climbing tendril

…the larva eats,

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…a  chrysalis is formed,

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…and in time, the butterfly is born.

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Gulf Fritillary in a resting position–ventral wing position

 

Gardening is neither an exact science or pure art form.  Gardeners must keep a keen eye on the garden for changes–good and bad–and for potential problems.  While almost all insects (like moths and butterflies, as well as their larvae) are beneficial, there are the bad bugs that no one wants to see cozying up to their well-loved and well-maintained gardens. Obviously, we don’t want to allow tomato horn worms to careen through our summer tomato crops with abandon.  Nor do most gardeners have much patience with aphids and other sucking insects.  But let’s keep noxious insecticides on the shelf, or better yet, un-purchased, and let’s hand remove or water-spritz the bad bugs when necessary.  A low maintenance insect management method will allow beneficial insects, pollinators especially, to thrive and to continue their work in our gardens and contribute to the health of larger world.

Even if they do eat up our foliage!

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Whether your foliage is intact–or otherwise– join with me in celebrating foliage in the June garden.  Thanking Christina and her lovely Creating my own garden of the Hesperides for hosting, check out her Garden Bloggers’ Foliage Day for a look at foliage in many gardens, from many places, and share your leafy loveliness, too!