Written and Photographed by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener
[Note: This is an updated and revised version of an article originally posted on June 13, 2012.]
This year, June 2oth is not only the summer solstice, but the beginning of Pollinator Week, created to advance public awareness of the significant environmental benefits provided by pollinators. This is the perfect opportunity to stroll through an MGNV demonstration or other public garden to enjoy the flowers and see how many different pollinators you can find. Stop and observe pollinators in action. Notice their characteristics and behavior. But most of all, appreciate their efforts and the many benefits that they provide.
A garden stroll also may help you identify which plants, especially natives, you could add to your property to make it more inviting to pollinators. You may want to consider one of our most well-known and indispensable perennials, which happens to be a North American native.
Echinacea (coneflower) has a rich history. Native Americans used it to treat wounds and infections. Today you can find it in pills and teas. Scientists are testing to see how well its purported anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties work. Its efficacy as a medicinal plant may be debated, but what we know for sure: Echinacea purpurea or purple coneflower is invaluable in both a backyard wildlife habitat and a cutting garden. Growing 2’-3’ tall with blooms from July to October, this native Echinacea flourishes in full sun and well-drained soils. (It thrives in raised beds.) This hardy perennial also tolerates a half-day of sun as well as heat and drought, especially in partial shade. For growing and maintenance tips, see our Tried and True Native Plant Selections for the Mid Atlantic Echinacea fact sheet.
To attract more pollinators, grow Echinacea in one or two large clumps rather than dispersed small plantings. The nectar and pollen rich flowers are especially appealing to butterflies and bees. They also appeal to hummingbirds—not for the nectar, which hummers usually obtain from reddish flowers with long corolla tubes, but rather for all of the insects that they attract. Insects are the main source of protein for hummingbirds. Another bird drawn to Echinacea is the American goldfinch. Again, it is not the nectar that beckons, but rather the seed. So, although deadheading will prolong blooming, refrain from cutting back late summer or fall flowers. This way seed heads will form, providing both food and winter interest.
If you already grow Echinacea, then you may have observed many pollinators, including the ten insects pictured below, on your plants. The captions under these pictures describe the insects and provide hints to their identities. Do you know what they are? [Answers are at the end of this article. -or- Answers will be posted after Pollinator Week.]
A butterfly or a moth?
You recognize each of the following four pictures as a lepidopteron; but is it butterfly or moth? Although moths are primarily creatures of the twilight or the night, some are active and feed during the daytime. Also, it is not unusual to find a moth resting during the day on a shady leaf. The one sure way to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth is to look at the antennae: butterfly antennae resemble slender clubs; moth antennae look feathery without knobbed ends.
A bee, a wasp or a fly?
Sometimes unrelated insects look very similar in color and shape. Stinging wasps and bees often advertise their potential danger with bright warning colors (aposematic color patterns). Some flies that do not possess such defenses use mimicry to appear like bees or wasps in order to confuse predators. Predators, fooled into thinking that these harmless flies are venomous, may leave them alone. However, you will not be confused as to their identity if you remember these facts: Bees and wasps have four wings. Flies have only two wings. Additionally, bees have long (elbowed) antennae and mostly have hairy bodies. They also are herbivores—they feed only on plants. Wasps usually have long antennae and slender, smooth bodies with very thin “waists.” Fly antennae tend to be short and stubby or barely visible.
All bugs are insects but all insects are not bugs…
You can learn more about pollinators and how to aid them by creating natural habitats on your property in the following reference materials:
- A U.S. Forest Service publication, Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants, guides you in creating gardens that attract a wide variety of pollinators with a focus on bees, which pollinate more flowers—including those of about 75 percent of U.S. fruit, nut, and vegetable crops—than any other animals.
- A Virginia Cooperative Extension publication, For the Birds, Butterflies & Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats, examines the habitat requirements specific to birds and butterflies and focuses mostly on species native to Virginia.
- MGNV’s Best Bets to Attract Pollinators and Tried and True Native Plant Selections for the Mid-Atlantic offer suggestions on native plants suited to the Mid-Atlantic Region and the types of wildlife they attract.
Answers at the end of the week!