Grow a Pollinator Sanctuary
By Amy Yarger, Butterfly Pavilion Horticulture Director
If you live in Colorado, I can almost guarantee that you won’t see a polar bear or humpback whale moseying across your backyard. But I can guarantee that you will come in contact with another important and imperiled group of animals – Pollinators.
Pollinators are animals that play cupid for flowering plants, carrying pollen from one plant to another. We rely on pollinators, such as bees and flies, for many of our favorite foods, but we also have pollinators to thank for some of our favorite Colorado landscapes, from mountain meadows to prairies and wetlands. Recent reports, such as the National Research Council’s Status of Pollinators in North America, have documented declines in some pollinator populations due to many factors, including loss of healthy habitats.
The good news is that everyone, no matter where they live, can improve this situation for pollinators. Pollinators are diverse, and found in every terrestrial ecosystem. Even if you live in a city, you’ll see bees, butterflies and other insects visiting park flower beds or hanging baskets. If you want to create your own pollinator sanctuary, all you need is some close observation, a little planning and the right plants.
Assess What You Have
The first step is to understand what pollinators are already in your area and what kinds of resources your personal habitat can provide for them. Walk around your neighborhood: are there many flowering plants in your neighborhood? If there is not very much outdoor space, do you have the opportunity to plant window boxes or pots with blooming plants? Are there community gardens in your neighborhood? Even if you aren’t an avid gardener, you can get some inspiration about easy changes you can make to your space. Look closely to identify what sorts of insects frequent your area. If a particular planting seems to have a lot of activity from bees and butterflies, ask around to find out where the plants are from. Finally, just as with any planting, get information about your local conditions: sunlight, access to water and soil, and base your plant selections upon what will do well in that situation.
When you begin to look at your surroundings through the eyes of a pollinator, you might notice that food and shelter can be hard to find in many urban and suburban landscapes. Although not the only part, blooming plants for pollen and nectar are a big part of any pollinator sanctuary. The overall goal is to add complexity and diversity to the landscape, instead of a monoculture (a single crop) of lawn surrounded by pavement. Ideally, your pollinator sanctuary would feature native plants: shrubs, perennials, grasses and annuals, to provide a buffet of flowers from early spring to late fall. If these blooms vary in height, shape, size and color, you will be able to serve up nourishment to everything from the tiniest sweat bee to the biggest swallowtail butterfly.
Beyond food for adult pollinators, though, there are many other resources pollinators need to thrive. A few well-placed trees, shrubs and vines can provide shelter from weather and hungry predators. The occasional boulder provides a warm-up spot on cool mornings for these flying creatures. For longer pollinator visits, encourage them to provide for the next generation of insects by installing nest boxes, planting larval food plants for caterpillars or even just leaving some bare earth for ground-nesting bees. If you are in a small space, don’t fear; even a few planters or window boxes will provide a “pit stop” for pollinators, connecting them from habitat to habitat.
A drive for absolute perfection isn’t healthy for anyone, and that includes pollinators. A pollinator sanctuary has different maintenance expectations than a putting green. Instead of focusing on the total eradication of every dandelion or slug, pollinator protectors choose an approach that maximizes the health of the plants in their habitats. By choosing tough, resilient plants that are well-suited to the environment, and then making sure they have the moisture, nutrients and light they need, less effort is needed to manage pests and weeds. When pests and weeds do threaten the health of your pollinator sanctuary, you still have effective tools in your toolbox, from physical barriers to beneficial predators.
A few flowerpots on the stoop or acres of restored prairie can each make a difference for pollinators. All together, these sanctuaries create a habitat network transforming sterile landscaping to productive, lively and appealing places where we can connect with nature. Not only is this vital for butterflies and bees, it is beneficial for humans as well. The researcher Stephen Kaplan has noted that spending time outdoors, among plants and animals, measurably improves physical, mental and social well-being. For this reason, Butterfly Pavilion is working with MCWHINNEY to create the first-ever Pollinator District in Broomfield. A Pollinator District is a development, including businesses, schools, public facilities and parks, designed, constructed and maintained in such a way that pollinator habitat demonstrates a net gain over the footprint of development. This is an exciting opportunity to engage all of the people who live, work and play in the Pollinator District in this vital conservation work. In doing this work together, we can all think of ourselves as vital resources who become citizen scientists, beekeepers, gardeners and stewards of the land.