Albert Einstein once said, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pollinators, including bees, butterflies, beetles, birds and bats, are critical to producing more than a third of the world’s food. In the U.S., $85.1 billion of annual food crops are pollinator dependent.
Although we generally think of the domestic honey-bee as the principal crop pollinator, the vast majority of pollination services are carried out by wild, native bees, many of which are in precipitous decline along with the domestic honeybee.
For example, the western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis), once the most common bumblebee in the western U.S. and an important pollinator of apples, cherries and blueberries, has nearly disappeared from its range.
Five years ago, two of these endangered insects were identified on Zumwalt Prairie. The discovery caused a stir of excitement among entomologists.
Whether bee, beetle, bird or butterfly, pollinators rely upon pollen and nectar for their food. Establishing a garden of plants that bloom throughout the season can help local native pollinators thrive.
And as an extra benefit, you’ll be able to watch colorful native butterflies, solitary bees and other tiny fauna in your own backyard.
Few of the native insect pollinators are capable of stinging. Many are solitary – they do not live in hives or colonies. Instead, they live in individual holes or nests.
Some, including bumblebees, alkali bees, and sweat bees, are ground-nesters. Others, including mason bees and leafcutters, nest in small holes in trees or in cavities excavated by beetles and need mud to construct chambers to hold their eggs and protect their brood from parasites.
Planting a garden or landscaping that supports local pollinators means choosing a variety of plants with different blooming times to provide flowers (and food) from spring through summer and fall, said Terry Bates, owner of Eastern Oregon Nursery in Enterprise.
He recommended very early spring bloomers, including daffodils and crocus, to support early-emerging pollinators. Early-mid May flowers include potentella, a shrub with big, showy blooms, and cultivars of wild geranium plants with generally small flowers that appeal to smaller bees. Chokecherry, a tree with profuse white blossoms and mid-summer fruit that supports birds, is also a favorite early bloomer.
Mid-spring blooms include lupine and cinquefoil. They are followed by Indian blanket, sunflowers, and asters, all favorites of bees and butterflies.
“Herbs like thyme, mints and catnip are excellent choices,” Bates said. “They are fragrant, and attract many different pollinators.
And as an extra benefit, generally deer don’t eat them,” Bates said.
Bates emphasizes planning a garden that provides not only flowers, but also habitat for native pollinators.
“I’m really a fan of solitary, wild native bees, including mason bees,” he said. “They need water and mud to help make their nests. You can provide a mason bee nesting area by bundling some hollow bamboo rods that are about six inches long, and 5/16-inch in diameter, and securing these in a tree or even under the eaves of your house. Mason bees don’t sting, but they are excellent pollinators.”
Other important pollinator habitat considerations include providing bare ground for solitary bees to nest and small piles of leaf litter for rest and overnight accommodations.
When planting a pollinator garden, place flowers and shrubs in clumps or bunches and also vary the height, including low, medium, and taller plants in each bunch, says Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener specialist Gail Langellotto.
Because smaller pollinators (think sweat bees, hover-flies, and solitary wasps) prefer smaller flowers, try to include a variety of blossom sizes in your garden.
When planting for pollinators, you need to think in four dimensions.
Pollinators have a very different view of a flower garden than we do. Most butterflies can see colors. Many species, including tiger swallowtails, see the red-green spectrum colors, while others may see only the yellow-ultraviolet spectrum.
A butterfly’s view provides a bright, but slightly blurry and pixelated 360 degree view of the world. Bright colors, especially reds, are important if you wish to attract butterflies.
Most bees can see muted colors, are fine-tuned to see in polarized as well as ultraviolet light, and they have a high “flicker rate” — their eyes are, essentially, high-speed cameras that can accurately distinguish different flowers even when they are flying at top speed.
Bees’ favorite colors seem to be violet, purple, yellow, white, and blue. Many flowers, including daisies, black-eyed susans and sunflowers provide visual targets and “landing strips” for pollinators that can only be seen in ultraviolet light.
And don’t forget that pollinating is a 24/7 job. Night pollination specialists include many moths such as the large hawk moth (large enough to be mistaken for a hummingbird out on the town) and the black and white Magpie moth.
Light-colored, highly fragrant flowers, including moonflower, columbine and evening primrose, are among the plants that attract night pollinators.
Want to attract and feed hummingbirds?
“Fuschias are one of the best plants for that,” said Pam Slinker of Alder Slope Nursery. “Plants that let humminbirds get their beaks into the flower and find nectar -- like the penstemons and snapdragons -- can also really get their attention.”
While many people think that hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, a 2012 study published in the journal Animal Behavior showed at they are more influenced by the location, nectar content and shape of the flower.
Apparently, the red color makes the flower less visible to many bees (and the ultraviolet colors may also be muted), thus reserving more nectar for the hummingbirds.
Planning, planting, and growing a garden that supports pollinators is far from simple. There’s a lot to remember: planting in clumps, planting flowers of varying heights and sizes, considering night pollinators, providing habitat and assuring that the assortment of plants flower all season.
But there are great rewards, not only from the beauty and fragrance of the blooms, but also knowing you are helping some of the most important, and very smallest, animals on the planet.
Alder Slope Nursery: Randy and Pam Slinker, 64934 Alder Slope Road, Enterprise, Oregon. 541-426-3317
Eastern Oregon Nursery: Terry and Irene Bates, 103 Fish Hatchery Lane, Enterprise, Oregon 541-432-0588
Online info about planting pollinator gardens:
Online sources of info about pollinators:
Side-bar for Planting for Pollinators
Planting for blooms all season: A partial list
Blooming times will vary with elevation and weather.
Shrubs/vines/trees: Currant, Siberian pea shrub, serviceberry, forsythia, Scouler willow, currant,
Perennials: lomatium (biscuit-root), phlox.
Annuals: clover, dandelions, crocus, chives (allium), violets.
Shrubs/vines/trees: chokecherry, mock orange, currant, ninebark, ocean spray, fruit trees (plum, apple, domestic cherry), elderberry, Oregon grape, lilac, spirea, burning bush, western mountain ash, snowbush.
Perennials: daffodils, cleomes, phlox, cinquefoil, globe mallow, blanketflower, balsamroot, lupine, phlox, iris, geranium (wild), Solomon’s seal, bleeding heart, geum, candytuff (Iberis), strawberries, mint, catnip, kinnickinick
Shrubs/vines/trees: wild rose, clematis, potentilla, viburnum, witchhazel
Perennials: buckwheats, vetch, evening primrose, bleeding hearts, coneflower, Pineapple sage, mint, lavender, mints, including catnip, dill, daisy, columbine, saxifrage, penstemon, bacopa.
Annuals: basil, thyme, zinnias (not double)
Shrubs/vines/trees: clematis, honeysuckle, spirea
Perennials: hyssop, cleome, clarkia,
Annuals: milkweeds, bee-balm, daisies, blackeyed susans, sunflowers, milkweeds, goldenrod,
Shrubs/vines/trees: green rabbitbrush, clematis
Perennials: Joe Pye weed, hyssop, yarrow, fireweed, aster, goldenrod
Annuals: sunflowers, heliotrope
Shrubs/vines/trees: Some varieties of potentella, clematis, and spirea.
Perennials: yarrow, heather, heliopsis, pansy, stonecrop, hyssop.
Annuals: helenium (sneezeweed), goldenrod
Sources: USDA, Washington State University, Eastern Oregon Nursery.