Did you realize that one out of three bites of your food is provided to you through the services of pollinators? Did you know that pollinators including honeybees, bumblebees, and the iconic Monarch Butterfly are declining due to habitat loss, insecticide/herbicide usage, and extreme weather events? The good news is that you can help by making a few simple changes and additions to your existing garden. Butterflies and other pollinators are simple to attract, beautiful to observe, and they undergo a life cycle that will fascinate you. Pollinator gardening is a wonderful way to appreciate the vast beauty of nature that exists right in our own backyard while making a very real difference in our local ecosystem. We can change the world, one garden at a time!
1. Host Plants: All butterflies begin as a tiny egg laid by a female adult butterfly on a specific plant called a host plant. The “baby butterfly” that hatches out of the egg is really a caterpillar with a voracious appetite for this specific plant. Provide the host plants for whatever butterfly you want to attract. For example, Monarchs require Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) or Swamp Milk Weed (Asclepias incarnata) as a host plant. Spicebush Swallowtails would appreciate the aptly named Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). To attract the Eastern Black Swallowtail, add some celery, dill, fennel, or parsley to your herb garden. Pawpaw trees are the host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, and Passionflower Vine is a host to the Variegated Fritillary. A complete listing of host plants and their butterflies can be found on this amazing publication from North Carolina State Cooperative Extension Butterflies in Your Backyard . Remember, baby butterflies (caterpillars) will eat the host plant—meaning they will eat your garden–this is what nature intended so do not be tempted to remove them or they will starve! Do not fret, however, most host plants will tolerate the loss of foliage just fine and continue to grow.
2. Nectar Plants: With all that fluttering about and laying of eggs, adult butterflies, bees, and other pollinators need a constant energy source, i.e. nectar and pollen, in the form of flowering plants. Plant a good variety of native flowers (which have coevolved with our local insects) such as Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.), Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.), Tall Mountain Mint (Pyncnanthemum muticum), and Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). Again, a complete listing of nectar plants can be found on the aforementioned article Butterflies in Your Backyard. Aim for flowers of many different sizes and shapes, and make sure you have early, mid, and late-blooming plants. Having many flowers in bloom during late summer through fall is especially important for pollinators that migrate like Monarch and Cloudless Sulfur butterflies so include several species of Asters in your garden. Don’t forget some flowers for hummingbirds–they tend to love long tubular flowers including Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), Black & Blue Salvia, and Indian Pinks (Spigelia maralandica).
3. Location, Location, Location: A sunny location is a must for two reasons: butterflies and bees need to warm their bodies in order to fly, and most of their favorite flowering plants grow in full sun. Provide a flat rock or two in the garden where they can rest and warm up. Choose a spot that is protected from strong winds, as many butterflies will avoid areas where they are rudely blown about. Provide a source of water in the form of a shallow, sand-filled “puddling” area, where male butterflies will congregate to ingest water and salts needed for reproduction. Last, avoid chemical pesticides (which include insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides)! Even products labeled “organic” can kill bees and butterflies, butterfly caterpillars, and beneficial insects like ladybugs and mantids, thus defeating the very purpose of your pollinator garden. To learn more about safely controlling pests and diseases in the garden READ THIS.