In small and large garden plots all around Michigan, gardeners are working diligently to help pollinators like bees and butterflies, whose populations have been declining for a decade.
Community gardens, rural plots and even urban backyard gardens all help provide the food and habitat they need, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which added the rusty patched bumblebee to the federal endangered species list in 2017. It is the nation’s first bumblebee on the list and the first bee species to be added from the lower 48 contiguous states.
Once native to Michigan and other parts of the Midwest, the rusty patched bumblebee and other pollinators face population threats from habitat loss, pesticide use, disease, climate change and other problems. Twenty years ago, the rusty patched bumblebee was common in 28 states. Its population has declined by 87 percent. It now is found in 13 states and one Canadian province. Michigan is no longer one of them, according to the FWS.
What Can You Do?
FWS (fws.gov) encourages concerned citizens to “grow a garden or add a flowering tree or shrub to your yard. Even small areas or containers on patios can provide nectar and pollen for native bees.”
Gardeners around Michigan are doing just that, as well as educating others. Pollinators — not solely bees — are necessary for about 75 percent of the crops, including broccoli, cucumbers, apples and peaches.
Chris Cole is one who has made it a personal mission. Cole, who lives with his wife in Warren, visited Ray Wiegand’s Nursery in nearby Macomb at the suggestion of a gardener neighbor. The couple saw the nursery’s butterfly house, and he discovered a book that would add a new dimension to his life: “Learn about Butterflies in the Garden,” by Westland resident Brenda Dziedzic.
“I bought it and I read it over and over and over,” Cole said, adding he now has 78 plants in his garden, including 44 milkweed plants for the monarch butterflies.
“The other host foods I planted were pearly everlasting — two of those — for the American lady butterfly. I planted four dill plants and four rue plants; the dill and the rue are both for black swallowtail butterflies and giant swallowtails. I was successful with both of those.”
Cole now speaks fluent “gardener,” but he is quick to point out he’s a newbie to all things flora.
“This is the first time for me for butterflies and gardening. … I’d read that the monarch butterfly population was declining,” he said. “I work as an automotive engineer, so it seems odd to people when I ‘talk green’ like this. I would never call myself a tree hugger or an environmentalist, but I do respect nature.
Pollinators are attracted to large sections of one color and batches of the same type of flowering plant. So, rather than scattering the coneflowers, plant several together.
“This is a nice way to bring a little bit of environment back, especially living in the city like I do. My wife was like, ‘Do you think it’s gonna work?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s see how it goes.’ I brought the plants home and we were trying to arrange them, and within an hour, we already had butterflies landing on them.”
Maybe there’s an unspoken connection between engineering types and destined gardeners. Dziedzic, 66, earned her college degree in electronic engineering technology and later devoted her life to the preservation of pollinators, specifically butterflies. Today an advanced master gardener, she is a Monarch Watch Conservationist, author and speaker.
“For butterflies, it’s important to plant host plants; that’s the most important thing,” Dziedzic said. “The host plant is what the female lays her eggs on and what the (babies) feed on. Nectar plants are also important. Bees and other insects use the nectar plants. Those are the two most important things for both. For a lot of the bees, you need to leave a natural patch of ground and not cover everything with mulch. Some of them lay eggs in the ground, but what they need are the nectar plants — they feed their young with (them).”
Color is Important
True gardeners know gardens should have color year-round, according to Dziedzic. She plants species that provide for the pollinators spring through fall. Milkweed is a must-have for the monarch, but other favorites are lilac bushes, Mexican sunflower, Joe Pye weed, blue mistflower and purple coneflower. Chives, an herb, is another favorite of butterflies and bees.
One controversial addition to Dziedzic’s pollinator garden is butterfly bushes, a flowering species from Asia, Africa and the Americas. She sometimes gets a questioning look from purists who identify them as an invasive species. Quick to substantiate her use of them, Dziedzic explained she’s had hers for years without any unwanted spreading, and the butterflies love them.
Another topic discussed by pollinator gardeners is whether to plant only native species. There are convincing opinions on both sides, but Cindy Murphy, a Michigan certified nurseryman, encourages the use of native plants.
“They (native plants) aren’t as showy. Joe Pye weed supports like 150 native insects, but it always looks rangy because everything is chewing on it,” Murphy said, noting it’s common for people to gravitate to more colorful, non-native choices. “If you are a persnickety gardener, you’re not gonna like the way a native garden looks. It’s gonna be unkempt-looking at times.”
Murphy works for Huntree Nursery in Fennville, where co-owner Jan Landry’s efforts to support pollinators include a list of what to plant near the business entrance. Her efforts to attract pollinators is so effective that hummingbirds are sometimes seen flying around the store, in and out of the open doors.
Landry agreed with the practice of planting for year-round color, and she recommends bulbs like crocus for the earliest species’ needs and planting clover throughout grass lawns. Pollinators appreciate it. Even more cringe-worthy to some is her suggestion to leave dandelions alone.
“Dandelions are crucial for the mason bees because they’re the first thing that blooms, and the mason bees hatch out early and there could be a shortage of food,” Landry said. Beyond just planting pollinator gardens, Landry also suggested having water available. And because pollinators won’t go to water that is too deep for them — like a typical birdbath, for example — she recommends filling the bottom of the birdbath’s bowl with stones or marbles, which provides a shallower water source, allowing them to drink.
“They (pollinators) also drink from puddles and get minerals from that,” Landry said, adding flowering plants chosen for the garden are best planted in large batches. Pollinators are attracted to large sections of one color and batches of the same type of flowering plant. So, rather than scattering the coneflowers, plant several together. Perennials will come back year after year, as long as they are hardy enough for Michigan growing zones and can survive specific cold-weather temperature ranges.
Julie Williams is an award-winning poet and a professor at Grand Valley State University.