Whether you have a small plot in the city or a few country acres, you can create a welcome space for important pollinators such as butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. Creating and restoring pollinator habitat and gardening pesticide-free helps offset what's being destroyed by development, roadside mowing or wetland drainage.
How to attract butterflies
Choose native flowers and shrubs. Butterflies need nectar plants for food and host plants to lay their eggs.
- Tiger swallowtails choose nectar plants such as lilacs or bee balm; nearby willow, alder, or apple trees can host larva
- Painted ladies choose nectar plants such as aster, cosmos or zinnia; host plants include thistle, mallow or hollyhock
- Monarchs choose nectar plants such as milkweed, lilac, goldenrod and cosmos; the milkweed family are the monarchs' only host plants
To attract butterflies like the red admiral, tiger swallowtail and mourning cloak, you can also set up a nectar feeder using a solution of one part sugar to 18 parts water.
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- Sunny days are best for butterfly watching — they're active from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- Some individual butterflies live only a week, but the flight season for a species may be more than a month — the migrating monarch "super generation" may live for several months
- In Canada, butterfly season runs from March through October
- Females are slightly larger than males — because she carries the eggs!
- Bonus: Butterflies and hummingbirds share many nectar flowers, so efforts to lure one may attract both
How to attract hummingbirds
Hummingbirds are guided by their eyes and many red-coloured flowers provide good sources of nectar.
Try perennials like red or purple hollyhock, pink or red coral bells, bee balm, summer phlox or sage. Annuals that attract hummingbirds include begonias, cosmos, geranium and petunias. And don't forget shrubs and vines like hibiscus, honeysuckle and flowering currant. These plants prefer full sun exposure with shelter from strong winds.
Don't see much action the first season? Enjoy the flowers and wait a year.
Why plant sunflowers?
Sunflowers' height makes them beacons for pollinators. They're also rich sources of nectar and pollen for honeybees, bumblebees and other wild bee species, butterflies and other beneficial insects. Leave the flower in the garden as a natural fall and winter bird feeder.
Plant sunflowers in your food garden to lure important insects and improve pollination for fruits and vegetables. Get kids involved! The seeds are big — easy for tiny hands. Push each seed two centimetres (one inch) into the soil. Big varieties need to be spaced three to five feet apart, but tiny ones will grow one foot apart (or one plant per three-gallon container).
Not all sunflowers are tall. Choose dwarf varieties, like music box (grows a few feet) for raised beds or in large containers, like half-barrels. For small spaces, choose tiny suntastic, which reaches about 30 centimetres (12 inches) tall, doesn't produce edible sunflower seeds, but adds colour to patio containers.
Seeds are ready to harvest when birds make frequent visits. Seeds from large sunflower species contain a substantial amount of oil — much loved by chickadees!
How to help bumblebees There are about 250 species of bumblebees and they all need help. Most common species prefer dry, dark places. Your yard is probably home to a few types of bumblebee nests — some can contain up to 400 bees!
There are three kinds of bumblebees:
- Underground nesters like abandoned mouse holes, under garden sheds and in compost heaps.
- Ground-dwelling bumblebees will nest in a compost pile — some love the heat.
- Above-ground bumblebees will take over any bird house you didn't clean out. They also make nests in thick grass and in tree cavities.
In addition to pollinating wild plants and food plants like tomatoes and blueberries, bumblebees that nest in the ground benefit your garden by:
- Improving soil quality
- Increasing water movement around plant roots
- Mixing up soil nutrients
How to make a bee bath
Bees are busy. So they get thirsty! But like those other beneficial insects, ladybugs, bees are crash landers. Open water — a creek, pond, even a bird bath — puts bees at risk for drowning or being caught by predators. So make a bee watering hole.
Place a shallow plate in your yard at ground level where you've noticed bee activity. Add a few rocks to create landing pads or islands. Add fresh water but don't submerge the stones. You won't encourage mosquito larvae if you keep the water level low. And it's okay if the water evaporates. Refill your bee bath as needed.
Enjoy the buzzing, flittering activity knowing you're supporting important creatures we humans need to survive!
Lindsay Coulter, a fellow Queen of Green