Welcome Beneficial Insects with a Pollinator Garden

Reader Contribution by Rebecca Harrold

In an effort to encourage pollinators around our property we beautified the side of a corrugated steel drive-shed with plants attractive to pollinators.  

Pollinators play an invaluable and irreplaceable role in both our natural and human-made ecosystems. Bees are perhaps the best known pollinators, but it’s not the popular honey bees (brought over from Europe by early settlers) that do all the work; it’s the humble native bees who perform this service. Where we live in Southern Ontario, over 400 species of wild bees also make their home. What many of these bees have that make them so effective at pollinating is a coating of bristly hairs over their bodies and a preference for pollen instead of nectar. These busy bees crawl over a flower collecting pollen and covering themselves with a dusting of the same substance stuck to their velcro-like coats. The bees then fly to another flower, mixing the pollen of this new flower with the pollen of previous flowers that they have visited.

Other insects also pollinate our gardens and crops. Butterflies, moths, wasps, and hoverflies all transport pollen between flowers. As humble caterpillars, moths and butterflies can be pests when they feast on our crops or flowers, but as adults their fragility and beauty, to say nothing for the pollination services they perform, can make us forget their lowly beginnings. Wasps also visit flowers to drink nectar, and as they move from blossom to blossom, they too carry pollen. But wasps have another service they provide; the larvae feed upon the caterpillars that damage our garden plants and so help us with our pest control. Like the wasps, hoverflies serve both as pollinators and pest controllers. The adults drink nectar from the flowers and the larvae feast voraciously on aphids and other soft-bodied insects. Birds too can pollinate; hummingbirds specialize in drinking nectar from flowers, and as a result, spread the pollen between plants.

To have a productive vegetable garden, berry patch or orchard – we all rely on pollinators. At our country home, we created a special garden designed specifically to attract pollinators. Two years ago we began our pollinator project with four beautifully built (by my husband) cedar trellises placed along the wall of our drive shed. The garden is a narrow strip that we filled with sun-loving plants that would attract butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

Within the new garden we planted the following native species: Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) and a new variety of aster (Aster Kickin Lavender), as well as Honeysuckle (Loincera x heckrotti ‘Goldflame’) to grow up the trellises. We also added some non-native but pollinator-friendly plants: Purrsian Blue Catmint (Nepeta faassenii), Deep Rose Improved Saliva (Salvia nemorosa), and Grape Gumball Beebalm (Monarda ‘Grape Gumball’ PPAF). To improve the attractiveness of the site, we hung a nectar feeder for hummingbirds and set up a small birdbath filled with pebbles, as well as a shallow water feature that permits insects to safely land and drink without fear of drowning.

We’re glad to report that our efforts are being rewarded. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird patrols the feeder and flowers. Monarch, Red-spotted Purple, Giant Swallowtail and Red Admirals are among the butterflies that feed from the blossoms. Fortunately, something’s always blooming in our garden and the colourful and fragrant flowers host myriad species of bees, wasps, beetles and hoverflies. All this activity attracts the predatory insects and we find spiderwebs strung between stems and dragonflies patrolling overhead.

When in bloom, the milkweeds are magnets to the insects. The children and I took advantage of these guests and had a nature lesson as part of our homeschool; we pulled out the insect guides to identify some of the bees and then sketched them in our Nature Notebooks. Later in the summer those same milkweeds hosted Monarch caterpillars. We found one chrysalid and kept our eye on it for over three weeks. The morning it hatched we discovered two other butterflies hatching from nearby chrysalids that were so well camouflaged among the foliage that we had not noticed them before.

Our little garden is a testimony to the difference that even a handful of plants in a previously wasted space can make to the local population of pollinating insects.

Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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