The Pollinator Puzzle


Everywhere you turn you can’t help but hear the buzz about butterflies and pollinators.

In particular, there has been a lot of attention about creating habitats and gardens to help the Monarch butterfly, whose population has decreased more than 80 percent. This decline is primarily attributed to a loss of habitat, and especially a decline in milkweed plant species, which is a required plant for the survival of the Monarch caterpillar. As a part of this, NCWF is supporting the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge and we encourage you to create a new or enhancing an existing pollinator garden in your yard that includes native milkweed and other native flowering plants.

It’s critical to protect our pollinators because most plants, including a majority of our fruits and vegetables, require pollinators to carry pollen from one plant to another. For example, if your cucumber flowers don’t get pollen from another cucumber plant, they will either produce tiny inedible cucumbers or won’t produce any at all.

Even though it is now mid-summer there are still many ways you can ensure your yard, patio or container garden is friendly for Monarchs and other pollinators. By making your yard a safe and welcoming space for pollinators you in turn make it a safe space for all wildlife.


Chemical pesticides may seem like the easiest approach to killing wasps, evicting fire ants or ridding your yard of poison oak. For most of these there are safer, pesticide-free alternatives. All insecticides are non-selective and even if you only mean to kill a wasp you could end up killing beneficial insects such as butterflies and bees. Roundup and other herbicides can also affect pollinators by killing off essential nectar plants such as clover.

If fire ants have invaded your yard, pour hot water over the mound. The water does not have to be boiling hot and it may take 3 to 4 applications to kill the colony, using 3 to 4 gallons per application. Warning: Hot water may cause severe burns if spilled and it will also kill any nearby grass or shrubs.

Having trouble with mosquitos? Try planting mosquito repelling plants around your outdoor living space such as garlic, citronella, basil, rosemary and catnip. These work great in containers and some even attract pollinators.

Both poison oak and ivy spread by seed and through an underground root system. The most effective way to remove the infestation is by pulling out the plants roots and all. You can also starve the root system by cutting plants that are climbing trees at the base. It may take several rounds but eventually the roots will die. You can also smother them by covering the area with a thick plastic sheet that is anchored by dirt along the edges. Make sure to use plastic that won’t break down through exposure to sunlight.


It’s not too late to plant flowers for the fall. You can directly plant seeds of quick-growing native flowering annuals like cosmos, sunflowers and daisies to add an extra bit of color to your fall garden. These plants also provide late-season pollen and nectar sources. Bringing native plants to the garden is especially important because they are specifically designed to support wildlife native to the same region. Ornamental exotic plants may not be able to provide enough nectar or pollen or may even be inedible to caterpillars.


Even if you don’t have a lot of space, you can always plant a container herb garden. Ignore kitchen wisdom and let basil and other herbs go to flower. It is amazing how many pollinators one or two flowering herb plants can bring. Other good choices are oregano, lavender, cilantro and thyme. All of these can be grown from seeds planted directly in soil.


You can help keep watch on our native pollinators through several citizen science projects. Bumble Bee Watch ( asks participants to photograph bumble bees and upload the photos to their website. The Monarch Larva Monitoring Program ( asks volunteers to collect data on Monarch populations and milkweed habitats.


A messy garden is the best habitat for native pollinators. Many bee species are solitary ground-nesters and dig their nests in bare soil, which can be difficult to get to f mulch is in the way. Ground nesting native bees are not aggressive and are beneficial insects to have in your yard. Even the more aggressive social insects such as yellow jacket wasps are important pollinators that also prey on other insects in our gardens keeping nature in balance. For species that like to nest in cavities, leave dead trees and fallen logs for nest sites and minimize pruning of pithy shrubs such as hydrangea. You can also buy or build bee houses and shelters to add to your garden.


Make a butterfly spa. Butterflies love water but they only want it deep enough to wade in like a shallow puddle. They are also attracted to certain minerals such as those found in sand. To make a butterfly spa, take an old plate, pie dish or shallow ceramic bowl and sink the dish into the ground in a sunny spot in your garden or place it on your patio. Add sand or dirt to the bottom with enough water to make a small mud puddle. Place marbles or flat stones in the dish for the butterflies to land on. Add water daily to keep the sand or dirt constantly damp.


Fall is the best time to add trees and flowering shrubs to your garden. While your garden is in bloom it is also the best time to start planning what you want to add next year. This way you can visualize where to bring in perennials to diversify your garden as well as spot good places for annuals and new trees and shrubs. This is also a perfect time to start seeds for perennials for next spring. You can transplant the seedlings in the fall to overwinter and create a bright and colorful spring to attract early pollinators. Pick native wildflowers because they are better adapted to the North Carolina climate than exotic plant species. They require less maintenance and are more attractive to native pollinators.


Researchers have found a possible link between neonicotinoid insecticides and the decline in honey bee populations. The longterm effects of this class of pesticides is still unknown but it is currently recommended to avoid using plants treated with neonicotinoids in butterfly and wildlife gardens. Many commercial nurseries use these to control pests in their greenhouses so ask before you buy. Home Depot has agreed to label all plants treated with neonicotinoids. Their labels are typically found behind the plant identification stake.


Despite its name, the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) is a nonnative invasive species imported from China. It can spread in your garden, pushing out important native species that are an essential part of the food chain. Butterfly bush may provide some nectar for butterflies but it doesn’t support other native species. Consider replacing them with plants that can host caterpillars such as spice bush, oak trees or Joe Pye Weed.


Follow these tips and you’re most of the way there! All of the components of creating a certified wildlife habitat (food, shelter, water and a place to raise young) are also important to making your yard a safe and welcoming space for pollinators.

For more information on NCWF’s pollinators program, contact Angel Hjarding at [email protected]; (704) 332-5696.

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