The 5 best ways to make your yard pollinator friendly

by Atticus Murphy

Planting a pollinator garden is all the rage these days, but if you’ve never gardened before, it may seem like a daunting task. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be complicated! You can support pollinators in your yard by taking several easy and important actions. Tufts Pollinator Initiative has distilled it down to the 5 most important actions you can take today!

1. Plant a diverse set of flowering plants

Diversifying the flowers in your garden is the best way to support the most types of pollinators. Shoot for diversity on all levels: color, flower shape, size, and, most importantly, bloom time. Each pollinator species might only be active for a few weeks and visit a small number of plants, so adding flower diversity throughout the year will almost always boost your yard’s pollinator diversity (and give you blooms year round!). A good place to start? TPI’s top 10 flowers for bees! 

Diversity begets diversity: we’ve planted over 15 flowering species at our campus gardens and seen over 115 species of insect pollinators!

2. Add woody plants like trees and shrubs

Native trees and shrubs make excellent additions to pollinator gardens because they provide resources that herbaceous, perennial flowers often don’t. For instance: many native trees and shrubs bloom early in spring, at a time when few other plants are blooming on the landscape. In addition, trees and shrubs provide homes for solitary bees and many butterflies depend on tree leaves to complete their life cycles. As a bonus, trees and shrubs require very little maintenance after their first few years and provide shade for decades! To help you pick, check out TPI’s top 10 trees and shrubs for bees.

Unequal cellophane bees (Colletes inaequalis) depend on pollen and nectar from early-blooming red maple trees to complete their life cycles.

3. Grow native plants

To support our native pollinators, grow native plants. Our native pollinators have been in relationships with native plants for thousands of years, and sometimes have evolved such a picky diet that only one or a few native plant hosts will do. Avoid non-native ornamental plants (esp. doubled cultivars) like petunias and impatiens–they either offer unsuitable food resources, or have been bred to offer no pollen and nectar whatsoever. Compared to traditional ornamental plants, native plants can survive is less than ideal soils and periods of droughts, while still filling your garden with bursts of color. Pick up your locally-grown native plants at TPI’s summer plant sale!

fall bees fueling up on new england aster before winter
Native bees love native flowers like New England aster.

4. Minimize herbicide and insecticide use

It’s simple: to keep insect pollinators around, don’t apply pesticides. Herbicides kill the flowers that pollinators use for food. Leaving weedy flowers (“weeds”) to bloom creates abundant and diverse resources for pollinators. And insecticides like neonicotinoids are deadly for pollinators: remember, anything that kills a mosquito almost certainly kills a bee. Even if you apply these chemicals to a separate area of your yard, they have a high potential of running off into the surrounding pollinator friendly areas. Stick to hand weeding problem plants whenever possible and try handling pesky insects in chemical-free ways like limiting standing water or having nests removed.

5. Mow remaining lawn infrequently

Conventional turf lawns are fun play spaces, but monocultures of grass do not support pollinators, so it’s always best to limit the amount of lawn on your property. For any lawn that you keep around, one of the most impactful things you can do is to mow as little as possible. Even going from mowing weekly to mowing every other week leads to dramatic increases in the number of pollinators and flowers found in lawns. You don’t need to let the lawn look truly wild to achieve big benefits either! Leaving a margin of unmowed grass around the edge can provide valuable nesting habitat for bees and low-growing flowers like white clover.

By mowing your lawn less frequently, you can support native pollinators like bicolored striped sweat bees Agapostemon virescens!

Following these simple steps can help you take big strides towards making your patch of the urban landscape a haven for pollinators. One of the most rewarding things about implementing steps like these is that you are nearly guaranteed to see returns after just a small amount of investment–if you plant it, the bees, butterflies, wasps, and hover flies really will come. Happy gardening!

To learn more, check out our publication on pollinator gardening produced in collaboration with Tufts CREATE Climate Solutions.

Pipevine Swallowtails and the case for caterpillar gardening

When you think of gardening for pollinators, you most likely think of beautiful flowering plants which attract bees, butterflies, and other insects by offering copious amounts of nectar or pollen. But flowers cannot give all pollinators the food they need. Butterflies in particular can be very picky when deciding what to eat when first starting out their lives as caterpillars. Most butterfly species have evolved to specialize feeding on one or a handful host plants. In a sense, when it comes to supporting butterfly communities, providing ample host plants for these soon-to-be-butterflies could be just as beneficial as planting nectar flowers for adults!

Pipevine swallowtail eggs are laid in small clusters so that when they emerge, these caterpillars work together eating leaves in small groups

The Pipevine swallowtail Battus philenor is one butterfly that benefits tremendously from the gardening of its favorite plant, Pipevine Aristolochia, after which it is named. Both Pipevine and the butterfly with which it shares its name is native across eastern North America, including Massachusetts. The plant itself is highly toxic and could cause severe kidney problems or even cancer if ingested by humans, but Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars could not care less.

These caterpillars have evolved not only to cope with the toxins in the plants, but to actively seek them out. Pipevine swallowtails, like many other butterflies, including Monarchs and their beloved milkweed, acquire the toxic chemicals present in their host plant and sequester them. As caterpillars they build of reserves of this chemical making them unpalatable to potential predators for the rest of their life. This is part of the reason many butterflies display such bright and captivating scales – it can be a signal to predators that nothing good will come from eating them.

In the right conditions Pipevine can scale great heights clinging to trees or other supports

Though these caterpillars cannot get enough of Pipevine, the adult swallowtails themselves do not nectar on the flowers it produces. Pipevine, like the name suggests, produces curved flowers that resemble a smoking pipe which is not conducive for a butterfly proboscis. Dutchman’s pipe Aristolochia macrophylla, is the most common species in eastern North America, and produces small tubular flowers with a small circular entryway. Into that entryway go flies which are actually attracted to the flower’s fragrance. Upon entering the narrow pipe, the flies get a little stuck, catching some of the flower’s pollen and carrying it with them until they end up in another flower which they help fertilize. After fertilization, the plant produces great seed pods which, when rooted and grown, will provide more food for those hungry caterpillars.

Before you start thinking this toxic, fly-attracting plant might not be the right fit for your garden, consider that Pipevine has been an immensely popular ornamental plant since Victorian times. It is an ideal option for trellises, fences or pergolas, providing plenty of shade when mature! If you are interested in attracting these beautiful butterflies to your home or garden in the future be sure to water your Pipevine as it needs lots of water and give it a place to climb. Be sure, too, to get Aristolochia macrophylla specifically, as some species will not support these caterpillars or might even be invasive – moreover macrophylla will provide the best shade (it is given the Greek name meaning ‘large leaf’) and will attract some marvelous butterflies looking for the right place to lay their eggs.

Adult Pipevine swallowtails have a remarkable coloration, with black and iridescent blue wings that have orange and white spots on the underside (Photo credit: John Flannery)

Five easy ways to support pollinators in 2021

2020 was a rough year for everyone, including pollinators. Asian giant hornets arrived in Washington state, threatening honey bees; western Monarch butterfly numbers were the lowest in the past 30 years; neonicotinoid pesticides continue to be approved for use in the United States; and endangered rusty-patched bumble bees did not receive critical habitat because their biology is too poorly understood. That’s just the start.

Pollinators face a relentless barrage of threats from humans. The main factors driving pollinators declines include habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, light pollution, and the spread of exotic species and disease. Recently, scientists framed pollinator declines as “death by a thousand cuts,” underscoring that no single factor is solely responsible. Rather, the combination of multiple factors working in tandem is the greatest threat.

With this in mind, 2021 is a perfect year to resolve to make a small change in your lifestyle to support pollinators. Inspired by a recent list of actions to conserve insects, TPI proposes five actions you can take in 2021 to make a difference in the lives of urban pollinators:

1. Grow native plants. Native plants are beautiful and adapted to the local environment, meaning they require less water and fewer chemical inputs compared to ornamental plants. Even more, they offer food (pollen, nectar, leaves), nesting sites, and shelter for pollinators. Native plants also provide cultural benefits in the form of reconnecting community members to their local environments. Interested in growing natives? Check out our native planting guides and stay tuned for details regarding TPI’s native plant sale during 2021 national pollinator week.

Plant native goldenrod to assist eastern Monarch butterflies on their fall migration to Mexico.

2. Reduce your pesticide use. Pesticides are nasty chemicals that are widely used to suppress pest insects and weeds, but also cause non-target effects in pollinators. In spite of successful efforts in Europe to increase regulation on these pesticides, as well as ongoing campaigns here in the U.S., many harmful chemicals remain available to consumers worldwide. On average, lawns receive ten times more pesticides than do conventionally grown crops. Use pesticides judiciously and in a targeted way; avoid broad applications and claims by companies to “eradicate mosquitos.” Remember: any product that kills a mosquito also kills a bee.

3. Turn off your lights at night. Artificial light at night (ALAN) is one of most recognizable signatures of humanity from space. Yet, it also spells disaster for nocturnal pollinating insects like moths and beetles. Insects attracted to lights are easily picked off by predators and are worse at finding mates. As a result, insect populations suffer in areas with high ALAN such as cities. To curb declines of nocturnal pollinating insects, install motion-activated lights, replace bright blue-white lights with softer red-orange ones, or plant a moon garden containing night-blooming plants. Let’s keep our skies dark.

4. Shop local and support farmer’s markets. Many growers and vendors in Somerville and Medford near Tufts University (like the Somerville Winter Market and Neighborhood Produce) are committed to supporting pollinators by selling pesticide-free, locally-made products. Shop there as often as possible in order to avoid less insect-friendly alternatives at larger chain stores.

5. Educate others and share this post. Urban pollinator conservation depends on the active participation of the community. Become an advocate for pollinator conservation by writing to your politicians, installing a yard sign, or by simply talking about it—to your kids, your friends, your neighbors, your hairdressers, your bakers, your baristas. Teach them that bees come in all shapes and sizes or challenge them to notice their first monarch butterfly of the year. Simple awareness of pollinators—getting people to notice their environment—is the goal.

Have you made any pollinator resolutions for 2021? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you.