Guest Post by Rich Dolesh
This article originally appeared first in the Black Swamp Creek Land Trust Newsletter
Long taken for granted, pollinators perform a valuable service for agriculture, horticulture, and ecosystem health. But there is growing concern across the United States about the long-term health of pollinators. Despite their immense economic and environmental value, pollinating insect species are facing serious threats to their health and even their continued existence from insecticides, loss of habitat, extreme weather, parasites and disease, and many other factors that have caused many species to dramatically decline.
In some areas of the country, wild bee species have declined more than 50 percent in recent years and some bumblebee species have declined so rapidly that scientists believe they could be already extinct. The rusty-patched bumblebee, once found fairly commonly in Maryland was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2017, the first North American bee species to be so classified.
And it is not just bees that are disappearing. Monarch butterflies, for example, have declined more than 90 percent in the last 20 years alone, and there is national recognition that the amazing multi-generation monarch migration in which successive generations of monarchs migrate north all the way to northern US states and Canada and then return to Mexico on a journey of thousands of miles may be imperiled.
Honeybees, essential to American agriculture, are also facing serious threats. Beset by disease, parasites, and a phenomenon called colony-collapse disorder, as much as 50 percent of honeybee colonies die from year to year, a clearly unsustainable trend.
Increased use of pesticides, fungicides, and other compounds may be devastating some pollinator species. One class of insecticides called neonicotinoids (aka ‘neonics’) is a controversial insecticide in the agriculture industry, with some claiming it harms pollinators, and others arguing against that claim. The USDA and EPA are currently studying the issue. Noteworthy is that the European Union this April approved a ban on use of all neonics for agriculture by the end of 2018. To date, MDA has not documented any cases of neonicotinoid pesticides negatively impacting honeybees in Maryland. According to the USDA APHIS 2012-2014 National Honeybee Survey data for Maryland, no neonicotinoids were found in Maryland pollen samples, and fewer pesticides overall were detected when compared to the national average.
The landscape of Southern Maryland is changing rapidly. While in some areas it is almost as it was one-hundred years ago, in many other areas it is changing dramatically. Impervious and paved land has increased dramatically, there are fewer orchards and gardens, and fewer native wildflowers and beneficial plants for pollinators.
What Can Be Done to Save Our Pollinators?
There is something that every landowner, gardener, farmer, and homeowner can do to help our threatened pollinators and that is to plant a pollinator garden on your property. Better yet, plant more than one! It’s very easy to do at any scale from a mini-garden in large pots on your porch or deck, to pollinator gardens in your yard, up to large habitat areas specifically planted to benefit pollinators in agricultural fields, around field edges, alongside pastures, and in areas unsuitable for cultivation.
If you plant one or more pollinator gardens you will know you are doing something very important and valuable for conservation as well as bringing yourself a deep sense of satisfaction every time you take a walk in or around your own pollinator gardens. And chances are you will see much more than just insects—hummingbirds, song birds, and other wildlife will visit your pollinator habitats as well.
Planting a pollinator garden is no more difficult than planting a vegetable garden or a flower garden and in some ways, it is easier to plant and care for a pollinator garden. The steps are simple—prepare the soil, choose the seeds and plants, plant them according to a simple plan, and sit back and enjoy. There may be some simple weeding at certain times of the year and you might need to do some winter pruning and cleaning, but once your pollinator garden is growing, you can pull out a lawn chair and enjoy watching nature take its course.
What to Plant and Where
Pollinator gardens can be planted just about anywhere but an area that gets sun for most of the day is likely your best choice. Soil should be tilled as if for a vegetable or ornamental flower garden, and adding weed free compost is fine as a soil amendment. However, it is worth noting that our native wildflowers grow fine in our native soils, so fertilizer use should be according to the types of plants and soils.
In deciding what to plant, you should try for a mix of perennial and annual species that will provide blooms and nectar throughout the entire growing season. Ideally, you want to have nectar-bearing plants flowering from early April through early November—from the earliest blooming days till the last days before killing frosts.
A good pollinator garden should have native perennials as its core. There are a wide variety of excellent native perennials that are hardy and climate adapted for our part of Maryland. Don’t forget to plant herbs in your pollinator garden for a double benefit—for you and the pollinators. Some good perennial choices are:
- Milkweeds – (Asclepius sp.) These hardy wildflowers with fragment flowers support up to 12 native caterpillar species and are critical to the survival of monarch butterflies. Common milkweed will grow just about anywhere. Plant milkweed and you will be helping to save monarchs.
- Clustered mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) ) – 10 weeks of peak bloom and best plant overall for attracting a diversity pollinators.
- Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) –One of the best nectar sources for pollinators; supports 7 native caterpillar species.
- Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) – This well-behaved goldenrod species is only 1-3 feet tall and very attractive in garden settings. Contrary to popular belief, goldenrods do not cause allergies like ragweed and support up to 122 native caterpillars.
- Asters – support up to 109 native caterpillars, provide essential nectar resources in the fall.
- Joe-pye weed – (Eupatorium sp.) –supports up 40 species of native caterpillars and is an excellent plant for attracting pollinators
Visit plant nurseries that sell native wildflowers for more choices. Be sure to ask if plants have been treated with neonics and do not buy plants that have.
There are many species of annuals to choose from and it is fine to mix in old time favorites such as zinnias, petunias, black-eyed susans, and others.
Feel free to mix annuals and perennials freely, but be sure that you allow enough room for individual plants to grow to full size and maturity without crowding or over-shadowing other plants. Perennials will come back year after year with little or no care, but annuals must be planted annually unless they reseed themselves which they often do. Annuals can provide a wide palette of color in your pollinator garden. Here are some that are especially attractive to pollinators:
- Partidge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate) – This native annual legume support up to 7 native caterpillar species and provides nitigen fixation to improve garden soils.
- Common and native Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) – Support up to 73 native caterpillar species, provide valuable nectar resources for fall.
- Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) – This Southeastern US native features a gorgeous red and yellow flower and is a favorite nectar resource for beneficial bees.
- Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) – A butterfly magnet packed with nectar.
- Lantana – Fantastic, colorful long blooming nectar resource, a butterfly and hummingbird favorite
- Scarlet sage, (Salvia coccinea) – bright red hummingbird and butterfly magnet
We have a long growing season in Southern Maryland and there are a wide variety of pollinator-friendly plants to choose from. Flowering native trees are very important for pollinators as well as wildflowers. Don’t neglect to include them in larger pollinator habitats if you have sufficient room for both trees and flowers. Our native tulip poplar, cherries, and redbuds are especially valuable to butterflies and moths.
Someone once said “A weed is merely a wildflower misnamed.” Well, not always. There are some pernicious invasive and exotic weeds that have become established in Southern Maryland and these should not be allowed to flourish in your pollinator gardens. However, you should not hesitate to leave certain native plants that are sometimes called weeds that benefit pollinators as long as they don’t overtake other nectar-bearing species
Finally, if at all possible, try to involve kids in planting, maintaining, and observing your pollinator garden. It is a great activity for kids and pollinating insects are inherently interesting for kids of all ages. You will be surprised how interested kids will be and how willing they will be to talk to you about their discoveries.
Enjoy your Southern Maryland pollinator garden! You will be directly helping important species in need of conservation and you will be amazed at the amount of enjoyment you will receive.
Thanks to Michael Ellis, Non-native Invasive Plant Management Coordinator, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, for contributions to this article.
Rich Dolesh is a board member of the Black Swamp Creek Land Trust. He was former division chief of the Natural and Historical Resources Division of MNCPPC and currently is a VP of the National Recreation and Park Association.