The importance of pollinating and beneficial insects in our world cannot be over stressed. The production of 3⁄4 of our major food crops depends on insect pollinators. Most of the crops we grow and eat (tomatoes, cucumbers, almonds, eggplants, fruits and berries, to name just a few) need pollinators to produce fruit. Unfortunately, the population of both native and managed pollinators is in decline due to destruction of habitat and the use of broad-spectrum pesticides. Perversely, this decline in our beneficial and predatory insect population has led to the use of even more pesticides as people try to kill the “bad insects” with less help from the “good”.
As a homeowner, gardener, or farmer, you can help our insect populations to regenerate and prosper by providing a safe, nurturing environment for bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, predatory insects, and flies (even houseflies are important pollinators!). Increased yields and higher-quality, toxin-free crops are some of the benefits that we can realize from creating a healthy population of pollinating and beneficial insects.
Incorporating native wildflowers, trees, and shrubs into your landscape is one of the best ways to provide nectar and habitat for our valuable, hard-working native insects, as native insects will not readily feed from non-native plants. In addition to our native species needing support, we have built an agricultural/economic dependence on non-native honeybees that also need to be provided for. Native plants that are high in nutrition for our native pollinators are great food sources for honeybees as well.
One of the best ways to create an attractive environment for your pollinating friends is to plant bright colors of similar plants in mass plantings in an area at least 4’x4’. Grow enough flowers and herbs so that you can harvest what you need and leave plenty to go to flower for the pollinators. The plants must flower to provide nectar. Use a wide variety of attracting plants that flower at different times to cover all stages of a variety of insects’ lives.
Bees tend to prefer flowers that are strong enough for them to walk on while sipping nectar. Butterflies and moths need a place they can land. They usually prefer the flat faced, umbelliform flowers of dill, fennel, parsley, and ammi to feast on. These easily-accessible flowers are also frequented by beneficial and parasitic insects.
Providing host plants in your garden that butterflies, moths, and other beneficial insects can lay their eggs on is another important element in creating a welcoming environment for these insects. Butterflies and some other beneficial species will only lay eggs on specific plants that will feed their larvae as they grow. Many varieties of milkweed are important host plants for Monarch butterflies, and are also valuable nectar producers for other species of butterfly. There are many varieties of Milkweed to choose from; some are better as hosts, while some are better as nectar providers. Surprisingly one of the best host
Milkweeds being used successfully in this area, Asclepias Currassavica, is a tropical, non native, annual. Its fast growth and early flowering has made it a great plant to help boost the Monarch population. There are many other host plants, shrubs, and trees you can easily plant in your garden whether you have a large farm or a small city lot.
Another way to attract insects is to provide a water source with stones where they can perch and drink; moving water will not allow mosquito larvae to survive while still allowing other insects to take a drink.
Don’t clear out your beds at the end of the growing season; instead, let your garden stand as it is in the winter months so that beneficial insects can overwinter safely and birds can eat the seeds from spent blooms.
Don’t eradicate your dandelions, as they are an important food source for early bees, and dandelion flowers attract lacewings, which dine on aphids and mites.
Finally, and most importantly I believe, avoid the use of pesticides.
Some garden plants that are easy to grow, useful in the kitchen, fairly drought tolerant, and that act as nectar/ host plants include:
Ammi Majus– These beautiful Queen Anne’s Lace flowers attract the Syriad flies whose larvae feed on aphids and other soft bodied bugs; it provides nectar for butterflies, and as a cut flower it lasts in a vase for almost 2 weeks.
Anise Hyssop– Is neither anise nor hyssop; it’s an agastache. This deer-resistant plant makes a great tea, attracts bumble bees, honey bees, native bees, and hummingbirds.
Borage– A host plant for Painted Lady butterfly. When flowers first appear they are blue, after bee pollination the flowers turn purple-to-pink. Bees can’t see shades of red, and this color change encourages the bees to move on to the next, unpollinated flower. Borage is an ingredient in gin production. I use the flowers in cold brewed tea, on salads or candied as a decorative confection.
Chamomile– German Chamomile is the best variety for making tea. It settles the stomach, calms the nerves, reduces inflammation. When planted around basil, rosemary or mint it is said that it increases the oil production of these plants, making them more potent. Planted in the fall or early spring it prefers a cold spell to flourish. It’s attractive to hoverflies, beneficial wasps, ladybugs, honeybees, and it deters mosquitos. Plant a ton of it; you won’t regret it.
Comfrey– A relative of Borage, it has a long tap root that mines nutrients from deep in the soil, holding these nutrients in its leaves. It not only provides great bee food, its leaves act as a habitat for beneficial insects. I use the leaves of Russian comfrey in my tomato planting holes, it can be harvested to add to compost as an activator and to add nutrients.
Catmint or catnip– Is a great nectar plant for bees; however, be aware that it may attract every feral cat in the neighborhood, which could have a negative effect on surrounding wildlife.
Dill– An umbelliform, butterfly-attracting herb. The leaves and seeds are great for cooking, fresh or dried. Dill is a host plant to Swallowtail butterfly larvae; it attracts bees, lacewings, hoverbugs and Braconid wasps ( their larvae feed on the backs of horn worms)
Marjoram– An often overlooked herb, I prefer its taste over oregano, in that it’s sweeter and less bitter. It’s also quite popular with the bees.
Rue– An attractive, old world herb that is hard to come by. It has beautiful blue green foliage, lovely in a flower or herb border. Rue is a deer repellant and a host for Swallowtail butterflies. Don’t eat it as it can be toxic and don’t touch it as it can induce a rash.
Summer Savory– Another overlooked herb that is a bee magnet. With its heavenly scent, summer savory is essential for making Herbs de Provence.
Other beautiful hosting and nectar-producing flowers and herbs include; Lavender, Mountain Mint, Basil, Thyme, Ajuga, Tansy, Achillea (Yarrow), Spearmint, Angelica, Coreopsis, Cosmos, Shasta Daisy, Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), Zizia, Rosemary, Lambs ear… the list goes on. Not only are these plants beneficial to wildlife, they are beautiful, useful, and because of their strong attracting scents most of them are deer-resistant to boot!