How to stop bunnies from eating your pollinator garden

Don’t be fooled by extreme cuteness: bunnies are every pollinator gardener’s nightmare. You spend precious time and money planting a native garden to feed pollinators, only to end up feeding bunnies instead. In the TPI gardens at Tufts, we face our fair share of bunny herbivory. But, we’ve also learned a few strategies for combating hungry rabbits, including a list of which plants rabbits avoid entirely. Read on to learn our tips for how to bunny-proof your pollinator garden, and visit our native plant sale in mid-June to pick up plants that will thwart the rabbits!

1. Prioritize rabbit-proof plants

The single best way to avoid having your garden munched on by rabbits is to grow plants that rabbits do not like to eat. Over the past three years, we have kept track of the fates of over 30 different species of native plants in our gardens. Although many of them, in one year or another, have been munched on by rabbits, some species have been avoided entirely. Here is the list of plants from our garden that have never been eaten by rabbits:

  • Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp., e.g. P. virginianum, P. tenuifolium)
  • Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
  • Bee balm (Monarda spp., e.g. M. bergamot, M. punctata)
  • New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
  • Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
  • Golden Alexander’s (Zizia aurea)
  • Goldenrods (Solidago spp. e.g. S. sempervirens)
  • Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa)
  • Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum)
  • Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
  • Cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
  • Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
  • Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)
  • (most herbs*)

2. Avoid tasty plants

In a similar vein, a great way to make your garden bunny-proof is to not grow the plants that rabbits love. Here’s a list of plants from our gardens that fed more rabbits than pollinators, and which should be planted with caution:

  • Symphyotrichum spp.asters (S. novae-angliae, S. laeve, S. prenanthoides)
  • Blazing star (Liatris spicata, L. scariosa)
  • Wild false indigo (Baptisia spp.)
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
  • Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
  • red columbine (Aquilegia canadense)
  • Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) — not always eaten

3. Create an unappetizing display by mixing plants

We’ve found that tasty plants are often avoided when planted among distasteful plants, so try to mix and match. This means your tasty asters stand more of a chance if mixed in with lots of distasteful mountain mints, ironweed, and goldenrods. Pollinators appreciate the diversity too—the more diverse your garden, the more kinds of pollinators you will attract! And, from an aesthetic perspective, inter-mixing plants means that any rabbit herbivory that does occur will be far less noticeable.

4. Protect vulnerable plants

Rabbits love eating the youngest plants. Often, young leaves have not yet accumulated as many distasteful chemical compounds as older leaves. In our gardens, for example, young emergent sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) and cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum) are frequently nibbled as seedlings, but are left untouched when they are larger. By protecting young plants with fencing, your garden will have the blooms you want later in the season!

The same applies to woody plants and saplings, but for a different reason. Young wood is soft, sweet, and easily chewed by rabbits and rodents. Be sure to fence young saplings in their first years–especially over winter–to prevent girdling and other herbivory that can kill your long-term investment.

5. Use your local knowledge

Keep in mind that our lists of plants (both enjoyed and rejected) reflect the tastes and preferences of rabbits in urban Massachusetts, as well as the context of our campus garden. So, to make your garden as bunny-proof as possible, learn from experience. If bunnies in your neighborhood never touch the wood asters and swamp milkweed in your garden, then by all means, plant, plant, plant. Conversely, if the bunnies in your neighborhood have a penchant for anise hyssop, then definitely don’t keep planting while expecting a different result.

Do you have tips for thwarting bunnies in your pollinator gardens? Drop us a comment!

*Although we advocate for growing native, you can add fragrant, non-native herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme, borage, and oregano to make your garden even more bunny-proof. The nasty compounds in most mint-family plants are quite distasteful to bunnies.

How to pick cultivars for pollinators

by Emily Erickson

Spring has finally arrived in the Northeast, and it’s time to start planting your pollinator garden! Perhaps you have already picked out the perfect spot in your yard and started making a list of which plants to purchase. Once you reach the garden center, you may be in awe of the different varieties to choose from. At the same time, you are faced with a familiar dilemma: are all these varieties equally good for pollinators?

What is a cultivar and why should I care?

Unless you are going out of your way to buy your plants from a specialty nursery, chances are you are purchasing a “cultivar,” or a plant that has been bred for desirable traits like the number of petals, flower shape, or flower scent. Plant breeding is not inherently a bad thing: it broadens the diversity of species that you can grow in your garden by improving resilience against pests, drought, or poor soils. As a result, cultivars have become the industry standard. They can be identified by the single quotation marks in the name (ex. Marigold Alumia ‘Flame’).

While cultivars are great for people, they are not always great for pollinators. Native plants and their pollinators share a long evolutionary history, and many flowers have evolved particular traits that signal honest advertisements of a high quality food resources. For instance, the smell and color of wild geranium tell a bee that that nectar and pollen awaits and the dark lines on the petals help them to quickly locate their meal.

In contrast, cultivars have been removed from evolutionary history with insects; humans have bred cultivars in labs and greenhouses to meet our aesthetic preferences. And sometimes, by selecting for traits that we deem impressive, we inadvertently produce plants that broadcast false advertising. Recent work, including my PhD research,  has demonstrated how cultivars—even ones that look quite visually similar—can vary dramatically in the abundance and diversity of insects that they are able to support1–6, so it’s important to choose carefully.

5 tips for choosing better cultivars

But, how do you choose? Ideally, all ornamental cultivars would scored for pollinator attractiveness to help guide customers to select high-value plants for their flower gardens. A metric like this doesn’t yet exist, however, so we’ve distilled down some basic guidelines that you can use to identify the best plants for flower-visiting insects!

1. Avoid doubled flowers

Double-flowered varieties are those that have been selected for extra petals, such as in many roses, impatiens, chrysanthemums, and carnations. Often, this doubling comes at a cost: the reproductive florets (where pollen and nectar are produced) are converted to petals, meaning the flower no longer feeds pollinators! And, even if the plant is still capable of producing rewards, doubling often obstructs visitor access to those resources6. So, while doubled varieties are interesting to look at, they are best left on the shelves.

2. Choose perennials and ‘nativars’

Recently, the commercial plant industry has shifted towards producing more cultivars of perennial plants, including many native species, or ‘Nativars’.7 These varieties are often rewarding to grow since they come back every year once established and they require less maintenance overall. My research found that many native and non-native perennial cultivars can be highly attractive to flower-visiting insects in the field. I even observed several rare and specialized species foraging on nativars! Some of the best pollinator-friendly nativars are also easy to find:

  • Oenothera ‘Fireworks’
  • Echinacea ‘Magnus’
  • Rudbeckia ‘Herbstonne’
  • Solidago ‘Fireworks’
  • Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’
  • Eupatorium ‘Gateway’

For tips on which native plants to source for your garden, check out TPI planting guides!

3. Choose cultivars that resemble wild types

A general guideline for selecting the best ornamentals is to go for cultivars that look most like the wild types. Of course, this is a subjective criterion, and there are many traits that we cannot readily perceive (such as scent or nutrition) that can influence plant attractiveness to pollinators. Still, in my research I found that pollinator attraction to the herbaceous perennial Catmint (Nepeta)—of which purple is the primary color found in the wild (Catmint is native to the Caucasus region)—was highest for purple compared to white cultivars. In other words, the less derived, the better!

4. Check the label

A major concern with ornamental flowers is the use of pesticides, particularly systemic neonicotinoids, during production. These pesticides can end up in the pollen and nectar treated plants and can have lethal and sublethal effects on visiting pollinators. Before you purchase a plant from the nursery, check the label to see if it has been treated with neonicotinoids!8

5. See for yourself!

One of the best ways to find ornamental cultivars that are attractive to pollinators is to walk through the garden center and notice which plants seem to be either getting the most pollinator visits or are visited by many different species! This will open your eyes to all the different pollinators that call our yards home and the wide array of plants that they like to use.

References

1.  Garbuzov, M. & Ratnieks, F. L. W. W. Quantifying variation among garden plants in attractiveness to bees and other flower-visiting insects. Funct. Ecol. 28, 364–374 (2014).
2. Erickson, E., Patch, H. M. & Grozinger, C. M. Herbaceous perennial ornamental plants can support complex pollinator communities. Sci. Rep. 11, 17352 (2021).
3. Erickson, E. et al. More than meets the eye? The role of annual ornamental flowers in supporting pollinators. Environ. Entomol. 49, 178–188 (2020).
4. Rollings, R. & Goulson, D. Quantifying the attractiveness of garden flowers for pollinators. J. Insect Conserv. 23, 803–817 (2019).
5. Marquardt, M. et al. Evaluation of the importance of ornamental plants for pollinators in urban and suburban areas in Stuttgart, Germany. Urban Ecosyst. 24, 811–825 (2021).
6.  Corbet, S. A. et al. Native or exotic? Double or single? Evaluating plants for pollinator-friendly gardens. Ann. Bot. 87, 219–232 (2001).
7.   Criley, R. A. Native fashion. Acta Hortic. 1167, 1–10 (2017).
8.   Erickson, E. et al. Complex floral traits shape pollinator attraction to ornamental plants. In Review.

Bee Mine: Pollinator Love Stories

The world of pollinators and flowers is full of love and heartbreak. For Valentine’s Day week, we’ve come up with some tales of romance to share: male honey bees that explode upon mating; hawkmoths that don’t pull their weight in the relationship; what happens when humans meddle with pollination; and more! Follow us on social media @PollinateTufts for daily updates ❤️ 

Bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) are in love with goldenrods.

Love is in the air …. and pollen – Jessie Thuma
On a crisp autumn morning, the bumble bee awakes at first light,
She suns herself at the entrance to her nest and prepares to take flight.

From her nest below the ground, she sets out through the meadow. 
What flower will she choose first? Blue or purple or yellow?

She’s an early riser, and has her pick of flowers.
But she will wait for that special bouquet that holds her in its power.

As she flies between the trees, 
She catches a sweet scent carried by the breeze.

A patch of goldenrod lit by the mid-morning sun, 
Stalks of yellow flowers enticing bees with tasty pollen.

The worker slows to land, taking stock of her workplace,
The goldenrod welcomes her, flowers opening like a warm embrace.

As she moves from plant to plant her baskets fill with pollen,
But she leaves a little behind at each plant, setting seed for future blossom.

Flowers take the shape best suited to their companion bee,
And in return bees drop pollen between plants in a pollination jubilee.

Some flowers are so perfectly shaped that only a bumble bee can reach the pollen inside,
And for these plants the worker sings a sweet buzzing song coaxing the petals to open wide.

Bumble bees are loyal and will visit the same patch of flowers for weeks on end,
Once they are enticed to try the reward, that flower becomes a bee’s best friend.

The worker leaves when she can carry no more, 
But she will be back tomorrow—that is for sure.

A honey bee drone. His huge eyes help him
find a queen to mate with, his only purpose in life! (PC: Karen Johns, Flickr)

The tragic love of a honey bee drone Isaac Weinberg
Male honey bees–known as drones–have only one purpose: reproduction. They leave the nest in the spring and summer, using their massive eyes to tirelessly search for a queen to mate with. With each hive producing hundreds of drones, but only one or two queens, most drones fail to find a mate. Eventually, these unlucky males are barred from reentering the hive, and die within a few days, cold and alone. For the lucky few that find a mate, however, love is bittersweet. The male projects his love with such force that his reproductive organs explode with a loud audible “pop,” killing the lucky bee. Thus, for the drone, Lord Tennyson’s poem becomes the eternal question; Is it better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?

Orchid bees come in combinations of brilliant and iridescent colors, including green, blue, purple, orange, and yellow!  (PC: Euglossa imperialis; Flickr, USGS Bee Lab)

Orchid Bee Mine Sylvie Finn
For many, Valentine’s Day is about indulgent gift giving. Maybe you’re thinking about getting your loved one an orchid, or perhaps a fancy perfume. Well, I hate to break it to you, but you’re a little late to the game on that idea. Orchid bees are the ultimate authority on Valentine’s Day gift giving. As their name suggests, male orchid bees have a special relationship with tropical orchids (Orchidaceae). Males are attracted to the sweet and specific volatiles of orchids and use special hairs on their front legs to collect the essential oils that produce the scents. The males then store these essential oils in large modified hind legs. Each species of orchid bee has its own “recipe” of scents to combine, creating the perfect perfume to woo a mate. Once the male bee has perfected his fragrance, he presents his perfume to females in the hopes of impressing her with his ultimate Valentine’s Day gift. If he’s lucky, his perfume will be so complex and impressive that the female orchid bee will choose him as her valentine.

Tobacco hornworm moths are nocturnal pollinators. (PC: Mike Lewinski, Flickr)

You take too much in this relationship Adam Pepi
Hawkmoths are nocturnal pollinators of many plant species, including the fragrant night-opening flowers of wild tobacco. The pollination is beneficial for the tobacco plants, but sometimes the moths leave an unpleasant gift behind: their offspring. Hawkmoths deposit eggs on tobacco plants, which develop into giant caterpillars (also known as hornworms), devouring the leaves of the tobacco. This makes this a risky deal for the tobacco, but they have other options: tobacco plants that are attacked by caterpillars keep their flowers closed at night so that the hawkmoths aren’t attracted, and instead open their flowers during the day to attract hummingbirds. We can learn something from the tobacco plant this Valentine’s Day–don’t let the hawkmoth in your life hold you back.

Bicolored striped-sweat bees (Agapostemon virescens) are faithful partners of wild roses.

Roses and bees–a love story a million years in the makingNick Dorian
It wouldn’t be Valentine’s day without roses. But the roses you pick up for your honey are a far cry from the roses a bee visits in a meadow. Wild roses are simple and straightforward: five white or light pink petals open to the sky, a delicate fragrance, with pollen-laden anthers and corollas full of nectar. These flowers look and smell this way as the result of a love story with bees millions of years in the making. In contrast, ornamental roses show what happens when humans meddle with this relationship. Through careful breeding over thousands of years, we’ve managed to accentuate all the flower traits that we deem desirable, and discarded those we deem undesirable. A swirl of lipstick red petals, a hyper-intense fragrance, and no messy pollen or sticky nectar to speak of–something a bee would never recognize as her faithful lover! As a result, ornamental roses are entirely dependent on humans for reproduction. Ornamental roses may win our hearts, but it’s safe to say their long-term relationship with bees is over for good.