Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies

by Eric Mader et al. of the Xerces Society (Storey Publishing, 2011, 372 pgs.)

Because they happen to have the potential to sting us, sometimes bees and wasps can be intimidating when they show up in our gardens. Flies and moths are also often seen as unwelcome guests. And we tend to think of beetles as potential pests. We save most of our insect love for butterflies, those fleeting summer guests. However, native bees and wasps, as well as many types of flies, moths, and beetles, are just the types of insect guests we should be encouraging in our gardens, not only because of their unique ability to pollinate our plants but also because they are beautiful and fleeting in their own right.

The Xerces Society is a 40-year-old nonprofit organization devoted to the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. With Attracting Native Pollinators, it has updated the concept of butterfly gardening with a new level of inclusiveness. Not only does the book provide in-depth information on attracting butterflies, it also introduces us to a wide variety of other beneficial native insects, particularly native bees. These are not the honeybees we’ve been hearing so much about lately, which are not native insects. According to the authors, “scientists learn more each year about the importance of native bees to ecosystems and agriculture, making the story of these vital pollinators even more compelling.”

Attracting Native Pollinators is divided into four parts, with color photos throughout. Part 1 covers pollinators and the pollination process. After briefly discussing how pollination works and why it is important, the authors introduce a wide array of pollinating insects, many of which also play a role in pest control. For example, some types of fly larvae eat aphids and some wasps prey on plant-munching caterpillars. Here we meet a cast of garden characters that includes a surprisingly varied array of native bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles.

Part 2, called “Taking Action,” provides in-depth strategies for helping our native pollinators flourish, whether it is in a back yard, a farm, a school garden, or even a golf course. These strategies include protecting pollinator habitat; providing a new habitat, such as a perennial garden that incorporates grasses and sedges; offering nesting, egg-laying, and overwintering sites; and avoiding the use of detrimental chemicals. The chapter on nesting and egg-laying sites includes a lot of innovative and easy ways to provide artificial nesting sites, ranging from hanging a bundle of hollow bamboo stems to creating a wooden nesting block with holes of a specific size drilled in it. There are also simple plans for building a bumble bee house. These would be fun projects for older children. A helpful list of regional plants for pollinator gardens is also included.

Part 3 provides a comprehensive look at the bees that are native to North America. Each type of bee is identified with a large color photo. This fascinating guide will have you scrutinizing each bee you come across in your yard. Ever wondered about those bright green bees on your asters? They’re probably green sweat bees, so-named although they’re not actually attracted to human sweat. They nest in the ground and pollinate a wide variety of native flowers. And did you know that bumble bees are important pollinators for tomatoes?

Part 4 focuses on providing a pollinator-friendly landscape. It is chock full of suggested garden and landscape layouts and illustrated lists of plants that attract pollinators. These include native wildflowers, such as liatris and gaillardia; native trees and shrubs, such as magnolia, redbud, and blueberry; and other garden plants, including lavender, sedum, basil, and more. There is also an extensive list of host plants for butterflies, arranged by butterfly, with photos. Want to attract more black swallowtails to your yard? Try planting angelica and dill, or choose from the list of 15 other plants they like.

Perhaps you don’t want to focus solely on pollinators when you plan your next garden bed. Maybe you don’t want to think about sweat bees, aphid-eating larvae, and predatory wasps while you’re perusing the aisles of the garden center. Even if this is the case, using this guide in conjunction with more traditional guides to landscaping and garden planning can help you incorporate some pollinator preservation into your everyday gardening endeavors. I suspect you will be surprised by how easy it is to help our little insect friends, and thus help our gardens and the environment, without much effort or expense.

Reviewed by Andrea Kingston, RCGC library volunteer, November 2011.