Photo by Sharon Kitchens
Whether your garden is a floral retreat or a source of food, you will need pollinators to ensure long-term productivity.
Jim Bobb, the chairman of the Eastern Apicultural Society of North America, offers some advice on designing and maintaining a pollinator-friendly garden. A Master Gardener for more than 10 years now, Bobb has led plant identification walks concentrating on all the plant groups found in Pennsylvania and the North American Eastern Piedmont flora. He has been keeping bees for nearly 20 years.
What is at the root of your selection criteria when it comes to ordering seeds for a pollinator-friendly garden?
It is important to first discover the periods of dearth for your bees. In eastern Pennsylvania we have a strong spring flow and a weaker fall flow. The critical time is the summer dearth, usually July and August. Find the period of dearth and grow plants that flower during that timeframe.
Location is also very important for the placement of hives. Try to find a place that has one or two flows throughout the year. Many people do not realize that trees are flowering plants and that maples, locusts, tulip poplars, and basswood are fantastic nectar producers-so forested areas can be heavy honey-producing sites. If there is a very weak fall flow, you will need to plant asters, goldenrods, and other fall blooming plants or feed supplemental sugar syrup.
Which pollinator-friendly plants do you feel offer the best nourishment for pollinators?
First, it depends on the size of your garden. If you have space, plant trees. Trees that bloom in the summer are especially great for honey bees. The Korean Bee Bee Tree blooms in late July, early August and attracts so many bees that the entire tree hums. You would plant this tree if you want a beech but don't have 80 years to wait, the Korean Bee Bee Tree achieves the size of a beech in 20 years. The Raison Tree also blooms in the summer and buzzes with bees. A fall-blooming Seven Sons Tree will also attract bees, has beautiful peeling bark, and the red flower stems persist for weeks after blooming, making the plant look as if it is in bloom until frost.
If you do not have large space, small trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals can form a wonderful mixed garden. Plan to emphasize pollinator plants and limit the use of ferns and wind-pollinated plants, such as grasses and corns, which will not attract pollinators. There are thousands of spring-blooming flowers and bulbs. If you choose native plants, you will most certainly attract local pollinators.
Again, I would concentrate on flowers that bloom in the summer, when there is a nectar dearth. Start with the mint family, most all will bloom repeatedly throughout the summer. One of my favorites is the Mountain Mint -- it has a white-dusty covering on the leaves and the flowers bloom continuously well into fall. Herbs also bloom all summer and thrive in dry weather.
Many sedums will also bloom into late summer. A common ornamental, Autumn Joy Sedum, will attract a host of bees.
Don't overlook the aster family. Brown-eyed Susan will bloom all summer and attract bees. Another aster, the common sunflower is a native, which now is available in hundreds of sizes and color combinations.
The Pea Family has many pollinator-friendly plants. Two that I personally enjoy are Sweet Yellow Clover and Sweet White Clover. These biennials will start growing the first year and then bloom the second year, dispersing seeds to continue the cycle. Each species blooms for several weeks and since their bloom is somewhat staggered, the bloom season will extend for many weeks.
No pollinator garden is complete with milkweeds. One of my favorites is an orange-blooming Butterfly Weed. It will attract bees and butterflies; the leaves are also the food source for monarch caterpillars. (Plant plenty of parsley for the swallowtail caterpillars.)
There are many more plants that can be added to this list. Just study a plant's bloom time and color and you can easily predict the type of pollinator that will visit your garden.
Is it important to incorporate a range of color in a pollinator garden to make the area more enticing to pollinators?
The reason for flower color, size, and shape is to attract pollinators. There is a fierce competition going on in your garden and each plant must discover an advantage to outcompete the others. Some open early in the morning, others late in the day, and some at night. So, a table can be drawn to describe the type of pollinator each flower is seeking.
If you want to attract bees, plant flowers that bloom with all the colors of the rainbow, except for red. (But for the color red, the bees see all of the same colors that we do. They do see ultraviolet, which we cannot see.) Grow flowers that smell good to you, bees are attracted to those same smells. The shape really doesn't matter, except that the bee's tongues are not as long as hummingbirds and some other insects, so narrow tubular flowers are not attractive to bees.
If you want to attract butterflies, plant hot colors -- red, yellow, orange, purple are all wonderful colors. They will only go to flowers that have flat landing pads -- not cup- or tube-shaped flowers. (Butterflies must be able to see 360˚ to watch for enemies.)
For hummingbirds, plant tubular flowers that are red, reddish purple, or reddish orange. Hummingbirds have no sense of smell, so often hummingbird flowers have no fragrance.
Moths fly at night, so moon garden plants attract them. Grow plants that bloom white at night and have strong night fragrances.
Flies are attracted to flowers that do not smell appealing to us. Queen Anne's lace, and similar plants, will attract flies.
Purple flowers that smell like dead meat will attract carrion flies.
Do you have any tips for natural pest prevention in a pollinator garden?
I would encourage companion planting. Tomatoes, roses, and potatoes have many pests. Planting marigolds around plants will control aphids, nematodes, cabbage loopers, Mexican bean beetles, and cabbageworms.
Are pollinator-friendly gardens essential to the future of honeybees?
Dr. Douglas Tallamy, in his book Bringing Nature Home, explains the need for a network of pollinator gardens and hedgerows to provide not only the nectar and pollen for animals but also a habitat for our wildlife to survive. If we turn all of our land into grasses and paved area, we will lose not only our honey bees, but also the rest of our fauna.
Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State -- Find out what you need to certify your garden as "Pollinator Friendly"
Pollinator Partnership - site has planting guides for different regions
Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society