I am, at best, a lazy gardener. I don’t like to weed. I don’t like to sweat. I either over-water, or I forgot to water at all for weeks at a time. My motto? Grow where you’re planted. Literally.
But I come from a long line of talented gardeners. My mom’s backyard, in suburban Washington, D.C., explodes in blooms and foliage each spring and summer. Same with my grandma, whose hosta, iris and day lilies are Better Homes and Gardens magazine-ready.
My home has a garden-ready patio opening up to a postage-stamp sized yard. When my mom visited for the first time, I could see the gears turning in her head what to plant, where to plant it, what the yard would look like in five years, in 10. She brought me a few cuttings from her yard that first spring, which I’m happy to say are flourishing. But I wasn’t really bitten by the gardening bug, so to speak, until I started reading more and more about the plight of the bees and monarch butterflies.
Where’s the bees?
For nearly a decade, entire hives of bees have been mysteriously wiped out. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and no one knows for sure why its happening. According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, “The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honey bees present in the hive but with a live queen and no dead honey bee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees (brood) are present. Varroa mites, a virus-transmitting parasite of honey bees, have frequently been found in hives hit by CCD.”
Read more: Blue Honey and Why Bees Are Dying
Why should we care? I’ll answer with another question: Do you enjoy almonds? The Almond Board of California says that “more than 1.6 million colonies of honey bees are placed in California Almond orchards at the beginning of the bloom period to pollinate the crop. California beekeepers alone cannot supply this critical need, which is why honey bees are transported across the country to the San Joaquin Valley each year.” In short: Bees are a critical pollinator for many of the other foods we enjoy, from apples to zucchini. So if you like to eat, you should be worried about the plight of the honey bee.
Monarch butterflies have also been under pressure. The beautiful orange and white butterflies migrate thousands of miles each year, traveling from Mexico to spots across the U.S. and Canada. But a “loss of milkweed habitat needed to lay their eggs and for their caterpillars to eat,” according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, monarchs are in danger of disappearing within our lifetime. Butterflies, including the monarch, are also pollinators. So again, if you enjoy eating, you should worry about disappearing monarchs.
But what does this have to do with gardening? Well, it turns out that all of us can help out honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators with what we plant around our homes. It doesn’t matter what size your yard is experts say anyone can help.
For the past year, I’ve been focusing on planting pollinator-friendly plants. My first foray, though, was a happy mistake. At a half-off, end-of-summer sale at a local nursery, I purchased a medium-sized bushy perennial that had tiny purple flowers and leaves that smelled like licorice. I stuck it in the garden and watched as it attracted honey bees, bumble bees and butterflies of all kinds. It was like a meat market for bugs. I found out later, with the help of a garden detective friend and a visit to the local nursery with photos, that it’s likely a giant hyssop. This year, it doubled in size and again is attracting all sorts of winged things.
Since then, I’ve only planted perennials that I know are pollinator-friendly. Coneflowers, daisies and yarrow are new additions to my tiny back patio garden this year, and I’m happy to report all are thriving despite my lackadaisical weeding and watering.
The next plant on my list of “wants” for the garden: milkweed. It’s the only food monarch butterflies will eat. Talk to your local nursery to make sure you’re getting the right kind, though. Or you can visit the Xerces Society, which has a milkweed seed finder by state.
According to tips that Connie Schmotzer, a consumer horticulture educator at Penn State Extension in York, Pa., I’m on the right track.
“For the most part, native plants are best, as they have an evolutionary relationship with the native insects,” she told me in an e-mail.
But she cautioned would-be gardeners about a plant most would assume would be good for pollinators: butterfly bush. It turns out, the graceful plant that boasts long stems of tiny, scented flowers is an invasive species.
“Butterfly bush is on the invasive watch list for Pennsylvania,” Schmotzer said. “It is spreading into byways and may eventually be a threat to milkweed and asters needed by butterfly larvae.”
The best plants for pollinators will vary according to where you live. But there’s plenty of resources to help you get started. And yes, there’s even an app for that! David D. Close, a consumer horticulture and master gardener specialist at Virginia Tech, recommended checking out the Bee Smart app, developed by the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit located in San Francisco. The app, available for Android or Apple, allows users search a database of nearly 1,000 native plants to find the best plans based on the gardener’s preferences including pollinator type, flower color, soil type, sunlight and plant type. The app also lets you search for the best plants for your zip code.
For the more old-school among us, the American Horticulture Society has a handy, searchable map for advice from master gardeners across the U.S. “The Master Gardener program, typically offered through universities in the United States and Canada, provides intense home horticulture training to individuals who then volunteer in their communities, giving lectures, creating gardens, conducting research, and many other projects,” the Society’s website explained.
And don’t think just because it’s mid-July that you have to wait till next year to start helping bees and butterflies. Many nurseries and garden centers are having half-off sales right now on plants that will come back year after year. Once you know what you want to plant, spread your wings and bee effective. Get it? OK, I’ll show myself out … to the garden.
For more information on CCD, visit the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
For more information on monarchs and milkweed, visit U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Erin L. Nissley is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.