As spring turns into summer, more and more plants begin bursting with color and providing food for pollinators like the vast population of bees and butterflies.
Bee researcher Heather Holm, who has turned her Minnetonka landscape into a living laboratory, understands just how important it is to create a healthy ecosystem that attracts pollinators of all kinds.
With two degrees in horticulture and biology, Holm specialized in bees and advocates on their behalf as their population becomes increasingly threatened by the loss of habitat and pesticide use.
“I look at it through a conservation lens,” Holm said. “We have these very intricate and specialized relationships between plants and pollinators and we really don’t have a good understanding of all those relationships. And if we don’t start doing things like this to support pollinators, we’re really going to be in trouble.”
Most of her work is pollinator conservation through public education. She has written two books “Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide” and “Pollinators of Native Plants.”
“I kind of feel like I’m the plant-pollinator bridge,” Holm said because she helps with pollinator research and also has a solid foundation of plants.
When most people think about bees, they tend to think of the domesticated honey bee, she said. However, Holm’s work focuses on the wild bee population, of which there are more than 450 species.
“For most people, they go largely unnoticed because some are super tiny,” Holm said.
Her work is on understanding how natural plant ecosystems support pollinators and how people can bring those ecosystems back into their own gardens and yards.
“I think there’s generally a disconnect now that people think nature is somewhere else,” Holm said, when nature can actually be a part of someone’s landscape.
“And when you do that, it’s just astounding how many pollinators and different kinds of bees you attract when you focus on the plant species they’ve co-evolved with,” Holm said.
That is what she has created within her yard, which she describes as a “medley of woodland wildflowers” and very little turf.
“It’s a living laboratory, in a sense,” she said.
To support pollinators from the impacts of lost habitats through the development and widespread pesticide use, Holm encourages other homeowners to create more pollinator-friendly yards.
Creating this habitat also provides more enjoyment “because you just have to go out your front door.”
She suggests starting with an assortment of native plants and making sure there is a succession of blooms throughout the spring, summer and fall.
When planning a garden, people often forget about the bookends of spring and fall, Holm said. However, it is important to provide pollinators with blooms throughout the growing season.
“With the 450 kinds of bees we have, each has their own seasonality,” she said.
Take the mason bee, which is now busy building a nest. It will only be active for about six weeks, according to Holm. Therefore, they need plants in bloom now. Other bees will need blooms later in the season.
“Fireworks in a sense,” Holm said, explaining how one plant blooms then fades, while another begins to bloom.
With more than 20 native plant nurseries across Minnesota, Holm said it’s pretty easy to find native plants for sale. These are plants that are grown without pesticides and neonicotinoids, the chemicals known to kill bee populations.
There are also many blooming trees and shrubs that attract bees.
“A lot of homeowners forget that trees and shrubs can also provide really good flowers for pollinators,” Holm said, explaining them as vertical gardens.
For example, the red maple is one of the first trees to bloom in the spring, attracting some of the first bees, like the bumblebee.
Part of her advocacy work is getting people to understand plant choices and to garden in a different way.
“If you look at my garden, it doesn’t look very typical,” she said.
While there is mulch along the pathways, “in the garden itself, you’ll see the remnants of leaf litter that I’ve left,” Holm said, explaining the term for leaves she didn’t rake or remove last fall.
“[Pollinators and insects] all need natural systems and processes to fulfill their lifecycle,” she said.
For example, there are moths that hibernate under the leaves in the winter. The leaves also provide critical material that pollinators eat, Holm explained.
Leaving leaves and plants also saves time and labor.
“Think of all the ways that homeowners spend a lot of time – what I call unnecessary disturbances, like raking leaves and cutting out plant material – that they could be spending doing something fun,” she said, noting that plant stems also provide nesting spaces for bees.
There are also plants that attract specific species of pollinators or have special relationships, Holm said, such as milkweed and butterflies.
Another example is the wild geranium. A particular bee species only collects pollen from that plant, Holm explained.
“Each plant kind of has its own suite of pollinators, depending on the flower shape, structure and color,” she said.
Bees typically won’t visit red plants since they can’t see the color red, however, hummingbirds can see red and love red plants, she said.
The whole rationale of bringing nature back to yards is helping to rebuild lost habitat, Holm said.
While non-native plants used in traditional gardens may be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, they don’t have the function of interacting with pollinators and, sometimes, other wildlife, Holm said.
The Golden Alexander, a native plant with a yellow bloom, provides multiple functions in the garden, she said. Not only does the plant attract bees for pollen, but it is also a caterpillar host plant for one of the swallowtail butterflies.
Steps to creating a pro-pollinator garden
One of the first steps to creating a pollinator-friendly garden is looking for a suitable area in the yard, including areas where the grass isn’t growing well or is difficult to mow, such as a hillside.
“Those would be good places to start,” for converting turf into a garden, Holm said.
She then suggests smothering the grass with cardboard and a thick layer of mulch.
Fall is the best time so that the ground is covered over winter and ready for planting in the spring.
As far as site and soil conditions, “there’s no need to change or amend the soil that you have. You simply just need to pick the plants that like the conditions you have,” she said.
A tool for detecting the soil condition is looking at what native plants grow nearby and then shopping accordingly.
Holm provided a list of native plants to consider planting to support pollinators.
Recommended plants for shade are wild geranium, native violet, big-leaf aster and zig-zag goldenrod.
Recommended plants for the sun are Golden Alexander, bee balm (wild bergamot) and mountain mint.
She also suggests the combination of the aster and golden rod, which bloom in the fall and are important for the migration of butterflies.
As far as flowering trees and shrubs, Holm suggests any viburnum, dogwood, red maple and American basswood.
Lastly, Holm recommends eliminating all pesticide use if possible and if mosquitos are an issue, build a screen porch.
For more information, visit Holm’s website at pollinatorsnativeplants.com.
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