Did you know pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take? According to the Pollinator Partnership website, pollinator.org, in the global landscape, somewhere between 75 to 95 percent of all plants need pollination, and the plants we don’t eat help support the ones we do.
Seattle made headlines some years ago with an art project called “Pollinator Pathway” on Columbia Street — a one-mile stretch of parking strips book ended by public spaces, inspiring communities around the world to create their own versions. Seattle City Light planted a pollinator “Green Line” in upper Rainier Beach’s Duwamish Corridor and the “Flight Path” at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which has increased overall bee populations by 70 percent.
With so many articles rightly decrying the loss of honeybee populations, people are happily more aware of the need to support pollinators, and many home gardeners are including “pollinator patches” in their yard, raised bed or community garden.
However, the imported European honeybee, the gorgeous butterfly and the enchanting hummingbird are only three segments of the intricate web made up of native birds, moths and insects that needs our help. More than 200,000 species of pollinators co-garden with us to create the world’s food, including bats, native bees, moths and beneficial insects. Planting for some of these will enrich your yard’s ecosystem, boosting the health, beauty and productivity of your flowers and fruit.
With habitats and protected parkland decreasing worldwide, many people are realizing that the chance to save our declining pollinators is right in our home spaces. We can bring the wild space they need — even on a patio or rooftop.
There are several ways to support pollinators, from planting for food, nectar and habitat, to creating habitat and maintaining water sources. The best part of creating habitats is you get points for laziness! Beyond pre-made houses for bats, birds and bees you can — do nothing. Loosen up your grip on the clippers and leave some leaf litter, brush or rock piles in unobtrusive corners to create nesting spots, and skip the traditional “fall cleanup” to leave seed heads of sunflower, echinacea, grasses, rosehips and edible berries to feed the birds.
It’s easy to remember to choose spring and summer-blooming flowers to enjoy while we are outside, but when fall wind and rains nudge us inside to our armchairs, non-migrating pollinators are still out in the weather needing food.
Some summer-blooming pollinator faves stretch their seasons into October, like agastaches (hyssops), echinaceas (coneflowers), salvias (sages), rudbeckias (black-eyed-Susans) and dahlias. But not any dahlia will do — in general, pollinators are more attracted to open, single flowers rather than tightly packed clusters (they might never find their way out). So single-flowering “Collarette” or novelty-style dahlias that look more like a daisy or coneflower are your best bet for a pollinator party.
A surprise to me was how popular panicle hydrangeas, like the honey-scented Kyushu, were this summer — they were covered in a variety of bees. It turns out, although traditional mophead hydrangeas aren’t pollinator magnets, looser lacecap and panicle-flowering varieties can be.
Native oakleaf hydrangea offers three-way pollinator support: nesting material and shelter with its leaf hairs and peeling bark, and long-blooming flowers delight a host of bee species. According to Proven Winners, its cultivar “Pinky Winky” repeats bloom into the fall.
Consider fall-blooming perennials like asters for butterflies and bees, and the long-blooming abelia shrub for bees, as well as for migrating butterflies and hummingbirds to load up for their trips south. Grevillea, with exotically spidery flowers shouting its Protea heritage, is a lesser-known shrub favored by birds including hummers, bees and other insects. I’ve recently planted “Murray Valley Queen,” with rounded sage-like leaves and orange flowers, because orange flowers jump in my cart, and “Noelli,” which I thought was orange, but is described online as pink and white.
Save space in partial shade for winter blooms like easy-to grow mahonia, whose abundant yellow blossoms and ink-blue berries will feed bees, hummingbirds and bees, letting them conserve energy by eating in one spot, and the long-blooming clan of hellebore varieties. In sunny spots, include some winter heath (Erica species), which feed bees in the lean season.
Here in Seattle, the green Anna’s Hummingbird sticks around in the winter, while the Rufous Hummingbird takes a vacation south. Many bees and wasps are hibernating, but warm spells may tempt them to break dormancy and go hunting for blossoms.
I prefer planting if you have space to do so, but if you supplement for your hummingbirds with a feeder, the Seattle Audubon Society’s (Seattleaudobon.org) tips on winter feeding for hummingbirds include rotating two feeders, taping a hand-warmer packet to the feeder to keep it from freezing and cleaning the feeder at least weekly. For all birds, a pan of water refreshed with hot water occasionally, or with a heating pad under, ensures they’ll have a source despite freezes.
If you are shopping for spring-blooming bulbs right now, pick up some of these for pollinators — I’ll use common names first since that’s how they are primarily marketed. In rough order of bloom, look for snowdrop (Galanthus species), crocus, winter aconite (Eranthis), glory of the snow (Chionodoxa), iris reticulata, wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), hyacinth, grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.), fritillaria, ornamental onion (Allium) and native Camassia. If you already have bluebells (Scilla spp.), congratulations: You are feeding the bees. If not, only plant if you want it everywhere.
Some beautiful early-flowering shrubs and trees that can complement your spring bulbs while feeding pollinators include elegant witch hazel (Hamamelis) with bonus fall color, showy red-flowering native currant (Ribes), and lovely multi-season serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), who offer patterned bark and fall color as well as white flowers.
A few more tips: Maintain a water source in a birdbath or dish for both the birds and the bees, leave a few piles of brush or rocks, use organic amendments and pest control in your garden (take care to apply anything, even neem oil, at a time when insects are not active like evening or early morning) and include native plants as much as possible.
Lastly, converting your outdoor lights to motion-sensor, preferably LED lights that will be less attractive to insects is a simple move that can save lives. Author Douglas Tallamy writes in his new book, “Bringing Nature Home,” that night lighting is deadly to many species, particularly moths, who are lured to the lights and are either picked off by predators or die of exhaustion.
After applying these tips, you can even get your yard certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org) for a $20 donation that supports conservation efforts and education, and the NWF will send you a sign.
— Erica Browne Grivas is a Seattle resident and avid gardener.