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Welcoming bees and butterflies into the garden

Bees and butterflies add beauty and excitement to the garden—but that’s not the only reason to plant for these pollinators.

We have all heard about the dangerous decline of the bee population. Did you know that we can thank pollinators for one out of every three bites of food that we eat? About 35% of the world’s food crops and 75% of all flowering plants need pollinators to reproduce. Bees pollinate many of New Jersey’s most important crops including blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, peppers peaches and cucumbers. Planting for these pollinators will reward us with a bounty of fruits, veggies and flowers.

There are many varieties of bees that we see buzzing around our yard other than the most widely known honey bee. These include Bumble, digger, leafcutter, mason and sweat bees. These busy little bugs crawl inside flowers and gather pollen onto hairy receptacles on their hind legs called corbiculae, and they also collect nectar using their long, straw like tube tongues called a proboscis by sucking the nectar out of the flowers and storing it in their stomachs. (Did you know a single bee can carry about half her own body weight in pollen!) Since this is a labor-intensive job, bees need both pollen and nectar to sustain them. Butterflies seek nectar only, but that doesn’t keep them from transferring pollen as they feed.

The most important step you can take to help keep the bees alive is by planting a pollinator-friendly garden and keeping your garden pesticide-free. Chemical weed-killers and pesticides used to maintain pristine lawns actually do the opposite to the life in your biosphere. The chemicals and pest treatments you put on your lawn and garden disrupt the honeybees’ life systems. These treatments are especially damaging when applied while the flowers are in bloom as they will get into the pollen and nectar and be taken back to the bee hive where they also get into the honey—which in turn means they get into the bees, and, if we are consuming that honey, they get into us. Look for organic ways to tackle pests. A garden with a succession of blooming annuals, perennials and shrubs keeps nectar available throughout the growing season.

Bright showy flowers are magnets for bees. Taller flowers like Monarda are a great backdrop for the gardens. Plants with simple flat blooms such as zinnias, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and asters provide both pollen and nectar. Bees favor white, yellow and blue blooms. Flowering herbs such as lavender, dill, marjoram and chives are excellent additions as well.

Fluttering butterflies connect all of us to nature. There are so many varieties in different sizes and colors to watch. The Monarch butterfly is considered an endangered species. These orange and black beauties feed on milkweed nectar to fuel reproduction while simultaneously pollinating your garden plants. Planting milkweed remains the easiest and best thing that the average gardener can do to help the monarchs. Filling your garden with butterfly plants creates an inviting, beautiful space to welcome them as well as shelter them from predators and the weather. They depend on finding a diverse food supply not only when they are breeding in the spring and summer, but also in the fall when they migrate South. Consider plants like yarrow, coreopsis, liatras salvia, phlox, aster and Anise hyssop for perennial choices.

Passion flower, one of the most beautiful vines on earth is a beloved choice. Annuals including verbina, zinnias, pentas, lantana, ageratum, dahalias, petunias and alyssum are some of the many favorites. Of course, butterfly bush is on the top of the list. You will be assured to have butterflies if you plant one. Lilacs are also great as they are enticed by fragrance. Butterflies look for places to lay their eggs and find nectar, and this bush is perfect for both.

Adding inviting elements help keep the bees and butterflies around. A source of water for drinking is a must. Nectar-gathering can be pretty sticky business so a bubbling fountain is always welcomed. Butterflies rely on the warmth of the sun to maintain their body temperatures. Rocks in the garden give them a place to sit and recharge. We normally see butterflies at the warmest time of the day.

By making your garden a welcoming place for bees and butterflies you can enjoy their beauty while helping the earth.

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