A world without pollinators would be a world without blueberries, strawberries, apples, agave, chocolate, almonds, melons, pumpkins, and peaches. Stop salivating for a moment, because we’ve got some bad news for you. Pollinators really need our help. There's increasing evidence that many pollinators in Austin and around the world are in serious decline. More than a quarter of the world’s flowering plants and over thirty percent of our food crops depend on pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, moths, and bats. Scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exist because of pollinators. Many face survival challenges around the world due to habitat loss, environmental contaminants, and diseases. You can learn more about why pollinators are on the decline worldwide at the National Wildlife Federation’s website.
The Good News: It’s easy to show pollinators some local love. Here are some easy steps that can be done in your own yard!
STEP 1: Be Aware of Pollinators
Left: Bee with pollen balls, Photo credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim. Right: Butterfly on a Pride of Barbados, Photo credit: Camille Cotsakis.
Look for any insects on flowers in all seasons and at different times of the day. You really want to look for bees with pollen balls on their back legs. Scan the area for small holes in the ground, dead tree trunks, and hollow stems for evidence of bee nests. The more time you take to observe, the more evidence of pollinators you’ll be likely to see.
STEP 2: Plant a Broad, Native Palette
Planting similar colored flowers in the same area will help attract pollinators.
Left: Eastern Purple Coneflowers, Photo Credit: Lee Page. Right: Pink Lantana, Photo credit: Camille Cotsakis.
Plant a variety of nectar and pollen rich plants on your property to provide a food source for all wildlife. Make sure that the plants bloom at different times of the year. If you love monarchs be sure and plant flowers that bloom in the fall. Native plants are good plants for pollinators because they have evolved alongside each other. Many of these plants are perceived as weeds, or plants with little to no value, but besides producing nectar and pollen, many also produce food for other wildlife like birds and mammals.
Plant flowers in clumps arranged by colors. Some pollinators are only attracted to specific colors or can only see certain colors, and they are more likely to visit your garden if they see a large clump of similar colored flowers. Provide a variety of flower shapes to attract different pollinators. Hummingbirds prefer different flowers than butterflies, so do some research to find out the best type of flower for the type of pollinator you wish to attract.
For a template on how to design a wildlife habitat in your backyard check out the Grow Green Program's Wildlife Habitat Design.
For a list of native plants in Central Texas visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's Pollinator Conservation website.
STEP 3: Create Pollinator Nest Sites
Bat House, Photo credit: Cynthia White
Establish and protect suitable nesting sites for pollinators. Wildlife needs places to reproduce and raise their young, where they can hide and feel safe from predators. Native vegetation in the form of shrubs, thickets, and brush piles, is perfect cover for wildlife. Even dead trees will work, if you have the room. Many downed trees are home to a variety of mammals and insects. If you live in a more urbanized area and natural options are not available to you consider constructing a bat or bee house, or buying one from your local hardware store.
STEP 4: Provide Water
Photo credit: Joseph Lazer
Providing water for pollinators in crucial to their survival. Just like us, insects and other wildlife need water to live. Bees use it to keep cool, creating pollen balls, and making mud for nest construction. They don’t need a lot and can be as simple as a butterfly puddling area. This is just a shallow container filled with small pebbles with a small amount of water in it. The easiest way to install a water source in your backyard is with a bird bath. Be sure to change the water 2 to 3 times a week so you do not attract mosquitoes. If you have a larger backyard, you may want to consider installing a fountain, rain garden, or backyard pond. It is very important that the water source is not contaminated with insecticides.
STEP 5: Be Pesticide Free
The honey bee is responsible for the production of billions of dollars’ worth of crops in America every year.
Photo Credit: Alliance/DPA
Bees and butterflies are the most threatened pollinators today. Make your yard a pesticide free area to encourage pollinators in your yard. Deter pests from entering your yard by planting a diversity of native plant species. If you do find something on your plants, check first to see if it is a beneficial pollinator. If it is harming your plant, look up natural and organic ways to deter pests without killing the beneficial pollinators. Take the least toxic approach. http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/growgreen/downloads/beneficial.pdf
STEP 6: Focus on Milkweed for Butterflies
Left: Texas Milkweed, Center: Green Milkweed, Right: Antelope Horns Milkweed
Photo credit: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
One of the most important plants to grow for the monarch butterfly is milkweed. Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on the milkweed plant, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars. Help offset the falling number of milkweed plants in crop fields by growing native milkweed plants in your yard.
Here are some milkweeds that are suitable to grow in Central Texas:
- Butterfly Milkweed
- Antelope Horn Milkweed
- Green Milkweed
- Texas Milkweed
- Common Milkweed
- Swamp Milkweed
Many of these you might need to do some searching to find, but recently more and more plant nurseries have started selling milkweed, especially in the Austin area.
STEP 7: Feed The Caterpillars
Photo Credit: ZippyKid at Texas Butterfly Ranch
Let the caterpillars feed on your plants. Don’t be alarmed if it looks like they are eating your entire plant. These butterfly friendly plants have evolved to grow back their leaves to host other caterpillars. Your milkweed and other host plants will show lacy fringes, and this is a sign of success.
STEP 8: Treats for Butterflies
Photo credit: Pat Leuchtman
Give the butterflies some treats to munch on. Set a peeled banana or some other fruit on a clay flowerpot near your water source. A butterfly cannot ingest fruit flesh, but it can extract the juice from old fruit. The best thing to do is choose a brown banana or fruit that is past their prime like grapes, berries, or apples. It may also be a good idea to mash the fruit first to extract as much of the juice as possible. This will also attract bees and hummingbirds. Make sure to clean and replace the fruit every couple of days to keep away any undesirable pests.
STEP 9: Join the Pollinator Challenge
Join the Pollinator Challenge and let your neighbors and friends now what you’re doing. Encourage them to join in. By talking to others and spreading the word about pollinators, we can help pollinators return to the levels we need them at for food productivity. Be sure and proudly display your Butterfly Crossing sign once you’ve joined the challenge. http://austintexas.gov/pollinatorchallenge
STEP 10: Learn More and Get Involved
Lastly, there are many organizations including Save Our Monarchs, Monarch Watch, and The Pollinator Challenge. These are dedicated to researching, communicating, and helping the pollinators rebound from the decline they are in now.
Visit these websites to learn more about what you can do to help pollinators!
Article by Camille Cotsakis, Wildlife Austin Program, Parks and Recreation Department