Let’s take a moment to talk about the birds and the bees.
You heard right — the birds and the bees. Now before you get your head too far into the gutter, let me clarify. We are literally talking about birds and bees and other pollinators.
And it’s a great time to talk about pollinators, since this coming week is celebrated as National Pollinator Week.
Organizations that work toward pollinator conservation and public education use this week to increase appreciation of pollinators.
The Pollinator Partnership is a national nonprofit organization that provides information on food and habitat for pollinators.
The Xerces Society is a national nonprofit that focuses on wildlife conservation, with a big focus on pollinators.
And, of course, the Extension Service and local beekeeping associations also focus on preserving pollinators.
What is a pollinator?
Basically speaking, a pollinator is an insect or animal that moves pollen from one flower to another.
Pollinators can be bees, butterflies, moths, birds and even bats.
While you may not think about it, those pollinators are responsible for well over one-third of the food we eat.
Fruits like apples and peaches, nuts like almonds, vegetables like lettuce and spinach, all require pollinators.
Without pollinators, we would lose lots of the food that we eat.
I’m sure you have heard lots about the loss of a great deal of our honeybee population to Colony Collapse Disorder.
A specific cause has not been pinpointed, so reducing losses have been difficult. That’s why it is important that we care for our native pollinators.
Caring for pollinators includes providing food, shelter and water for our hard-working pollen-moving friends.
A water source for pollinators would be simply a shallow pool of water where bees, butterflies and the like can get a quick drink.
Shelter can simply be grasses and shrubs where they can land and rest, and can be as involved as a bee box with holes in it for solitary bees (most bees other than honeybees do not live in hives).
Food is where things get different. Planting a pollinator garden or incorporating pollinator plants in your garden is the best way to make sure that our winged friends get plenty of food to eat.
But bees eat from different plants than butterflies and hummingbirds do, so you need to know what pollinators you want to focus on and what they like to eat.
Bees eat both nectar (as a carbohydrate source) and pollen (as a protein source) so they need plants that produce both.
They also need flowers that have places for them to land so they can rest while they eat.
Bees are especially attracted to blue, white and yellow flowers or flowers with these colors as part of their color makeup (such as purple, orange or even green).
They are not, however, attracted to the color red.
Basswood, tulip poplar, maple, willow and fruit trees are excellent forage for bees.
Flowers such as aster, bee balm, goldenrod, coneflower, goldenrod and phlox also provide a great food source for bees.
Many of the herbs, such as sage, rosemary and basil are also great food for bees.
The white clover many people try to eliminate from their lawns are also great food for bees.
Butterflies, on the other hand, eat only nectar and tend to prefer long, tubular flowers that their tongues can probe into.
Unlike bees though, butterflies are attracted to the color red.
Great choices for butterfly forage include beebalm, milkweed (especially the butterfly milkweed Asclepias tuberosa), columbine, honeysuckle, butterfly bush and violets.
Hummingbirds also feed only on nectar and like tubular flowers in multiple colors, especially red. Add to the garden list for them trumpet creeper, lobelia and many of the others that bees and butterflies like.
Beetles are common pollinators in our area too and are attracted to pollen as a food source. They’re attracted to many of the plants that attract bees.
Finding more information
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of plants for pollinators. The Pollinator Partnership has many great resources to plan your pollinator garden at their website pollinator.org. You can enter your ZIP code and download a 24-page guide with plants specific to our region.
They also have an app for your smartphone (both for Android and Apple) called BeeSmart that helps you pick plants by pollinator type, flower color, sunlight needs, soil type and plant type.
If you are interested in learning about beekeeping or becoming a beekeeper, I would suggest you connect with your local beekeepers association. Here in the Charleston area, that is the Kanawha Valley Beekeepers (kanawhavalleybeekeepers.org and on Facebook). Through the rest of the state, you can find your beekeeper association information from the West Virginia Beekeepers Association at wvbeekeepers.org or on their Facebook page.