Skip Navigation

The Birds and the Bees…and Moths and Butterflies

Crocus blooms with beeAll seed bearing plants require pollination to reproduce. Pollination is the transfer of pollen cells from the male reproductive structure to the female reproductive structure of another plant. Seeds can only be produced when pollen is transferred between plants of the same species. Pollen can be carried by the wind, water, animals, or insects.

The human race simply cannot survive without pollination. Roughly 80% of the world’s major food crops either require or benefit from animal and insect pollination. More than 150 food crops in the United States alone depend on pollinators and the USDA estimates that those crops are worth more than $10 billion annually.

Primary pollinators in Wisconsin include bees, moths, wasps, flies, butterflies, beetles, ants, hummingbirds, and birds. Bees pollinate more species of plants than any other pollinator. Their fuzzy bodies are well suited for pollen transfer. They carry an electrostatic charge that attracts the pollen and have pollen carrying structures on either their hind legs or abdomen. Most people think of the non-native honey bee or the bumble bee when they think of bees in general. However, Wisconsin has about 400 species of native bees. Declines have been widely recognized in the colonies of honeybees. However, the native bees, the majority of which are solitary and do not live in hives, are also declining.

Other pollinators transfer less overall pollen than bees, but are important for different reasons. Some are more active in a specific season, such as wasps in the fall. Some, such as bats and moths, pollinate night flowering plants. And, some may be the only pollinator for a specific plant. Although not native to Wisconsin, midges in the genus Forcipomyia are the primary pollinators for the flowers of the cacao tree. Without these little fly-like insects, there would be no chocolate!

To attract pollinators to a landscape, use a wide variety of plants that bloom from early spring until late fall. Use native plants when possible and plant in clumps rather than single stems for better foraging. Do not forget to plant some plants that bloom at night. To attract a wide variety of pollinators, avoid “double bloom” type flowers as are too deep for some species. Open flowers that have easier access will attract species with smaller bodies and shorter tongues, including flies and beetles.

Eliminate pesticides as much as possible. If you must use one, use the least toxic one available for the shortest time possible and use it in the evening when most pollinators are less active. Read and follow label directions carefully.

Butterflies will prosper if host plants for their larva are included. These plants will be consumed, so put them where their ragged leaves will not be an eye-sore for the rest of the landscape. And, accept that others may consider these plant “weeds”. In addition, create a damp spot on bare ground and add some sea salt or wood ash. This creates a salt lick for butterflies and bees. Butterflies are also attracted to rotting fruit. Putting out an overripe banana, orange, or apple on a sponge in a dish of lightly salted water will be a tasty treat for these beautiful pollinators.

A haven for bees can be created by leaving an occasional dead limb, as long as it is not a hazard to the humans. Alternatively, a “bee condo” can be created by drilling holes of varying sizes; 3 to 5 inches deep into a scrap piece of lumber and mounting it to a post. In addition, avoid using weed barrier cloth and heavy mulch since a large percentage of the native species nest underground.

Hummingbirds specialize on nectar feeding and play an important role in pollination. Put out and maintain a hummingbird feeder. Hummingbird-pollinated flowers are often bright red and tubular. So, include those in the landscape as well.

Pollination is essential to the food source of humans. However, pollinators are on the decline, primarily due to loss of habitat. Each backyard friendly to pollinators can make a difference.

Carol Shirk
Certified Master Gardener

Sharing is Caring - Click Below to Share