Attracting Pollinators

Ash Barsody, Extension Master Gardener, Anoka County

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Having a population of pollinators in your garden is vital to many aspects of gardening, from setting fruit to making seed for the next generation of plants. Here are some steps you can take in autumn to protect and encourage a plentiful number of bees and butterflies in your habitat.

            Fall is the time to plant early spring bulbs that can serve as the first source of food for pollinators waking up in springtime. Crocus, snowdrops and grape hyacinths are some of the earliest blooms that are attractive to bees.

Fall is milkweed pod season, the snack of choice for Monarch caterpillars. Break open those pods and plant milkweed seeds, as they require the cold of winter to break through the hard coating on the outside of the seeds. Buy seeds or collect pods from a friend. Choose varieties that are hardy to our area, such as common swamp, orange and purple milkweed.

If you plant annual herbs, let them flower in fall for pollinators. Thyme, oregano and basil are all particularly appealing choices.

            Reconsider the use of pesticides. It’s easy to reach for a spray bottle to solve  problems when something decides our precious flowers make a delicious snack, but many pesticides are harmful to the things we want to protect, like caterpillars and bumblebees. With such unintended consequences to desirable insects, it’s worth using non-chemical means of control whenever possible. Try to reduce pesticide use to situations when it’s actually warranted. If you have a plant suffering from a fungal disease, a pesticide will do no good and may have lasting harmful effects you didn’t intend. If the damage is limited or cosmetic and isn’t spreading, sometimes it's best to accept a certain amount of damage to plants. Do not spray on windy days to reduce carry-over to other plants. If the situation does call for the use of chemical treatment, try to use one that has a targeted effect and won’t bother pollinators. Look for the pollinator protection box on pesticide labels and always follow label directions for use.

            There are garden management practices we can use in fall to encourage habitat for pollinators over the winter. Cutting back on tidying up tendencies and leaving leaf litter, peeling bark, or dead wood can offer valuable wintering sites for native bees and butterflies. Leave late flowering plants as long as possible to offer up last minute food supplies. Sedums offer not only a vital late food supply, but also hollow stems. When cut to 6 to 8 inches in fall, their hollow stems provide a place for native solitary bees to lay eggs, similar to commercial bee houses for sale. They can then be cleared away in spring when the bees have emerged once more and new growth is beginning to appear.

            Though the weather grows cooler, there’s still plenty to do that benefits our native pollinators. A few small steps could make a world of difference to enjoy pollinators and the fruits of their labor for years to come.