The Butterflies and the Bees (and a few Hummingbirds)
Who doesn’t love a pollinator? Some people with allergies might not at first share my sentiment but we owe them a lot. It’s estimated that one in every three bites of food you eat are made possible because of pollination. There are no tomatoes, peppers, blueberries, pumpkins (the list could go on for a while here) in our gardens without pollination. And to be honest, bees are just one of many pollinators. I have yet to find a person that has a problem with butterflies or hummingbirds. And there are others we won’t talk about today like ants, beetles, flies and things like the wind and water… because let’s be honest, they just aren’t as interesting to gardeners as bees, butterflies and birds.
Bees are the queens of the pollination game. They visit more flowers and spread more pollen than other pollinators. When we think of bees most people’s thought go immediately to honeybees.
Did you know that honeybees aren’t native to North America? Honeybees originate from Europe so caring for them is a form of agriculture (known as Apiculture). It’s pretty labour intensive and my hat goes off to all those beekeepers out there. But Apiculture might not be in the books for most homeowners any more than having a chicken coop in the back yard would be.
Lucky for us there are a wealth of bees out there that are native to our fair shores, more than 450 different species in BC alone. Bumblebees, Leaf cutters, miner bees, mason bees, sweat bees, hairy belly bees, squash bees… there is a lot going on out there that we aren’t aware of. And it would take a book to learn all there is about them. But here are few cool facts to take away:
Bumblebees – are big fuzzy bees that remind me of little flying teddy bears. This fuzz has its purpose, it keeps them warm, so these bees can get out and do their work when it’s cold. Also, they have a habit of buzzing or vibrating on certain flowers to pollinate them, blueberries and tomatoes in particular benefit from this. Bumblebees are social, they form colonies like honeybees complete with a queen. But unfortunately, what little honey they make they keep to themselves.
Leaf cutters – These are solitary bees (no social structure with queen and workers) that cut perfect little semi-circles out of leaves and use them to wrap their eggs, so if you have what look like a few bites taken out of the leaves of your rose bush, don’t panic, it’s a good thing.
Mason bees – another type of solitary bee that is active in the spring and a great pollinator. These bees that can be encouraged into your garden through bee houses, but more on that below. The blue orchard mason bee is an attractive blue/black colour. Bee cocoons can be purchased for release in your garden early in the spring.
Sweat bees – called that because they can be attracted to human sweat for the salt it contains. I’ve wowed a few school children by letting one land on my arm and watch it have a lick and leave. Some of them are the most amazing iridescent green colour.
Miner bees – given this name because each female digs a hole to lay her eggs. They tend to favour sandy soils so look for them in the spring on the edges of gravel fields.
While not at the top of the class for their efficiency as a pollinator, their delicate and ephemeral appearance makes them desirable in any garden. First thoughts of butterflies tend to fall to the mighty monarch. The monarch is an amazing butterfly and there is great work being done in their conservation (see below for more information). But they are not very common in BC. Monarchs fall into two distinct populations, one to the west of the Rockies and one to the east. In BC we are at the northern extreme of the smaller western population. So, monarchs are not commonplace here. But we have a plethora of beautiful butterflies. Some of the most common butterflies you might find in your garden are painted ladies, red admirals and the ever–present swallowtails, just to name a few.
Most people think mistakenly that moths are bad, and butterflies are good, not true. Moths can also be beautiful, the Polyphemus moth is a native silk moth that is a soft tan colour, with striking purple “eye-spots” and a 15cm wingspan. And lets not forget that the scourge of our brassicas, the cabbage white is actually a butterfly.
Attracting them to Your Space
There are two things pollinators need, food and a place to rest… actually, that is pretty much what everybody needs. But if you keep this in mind then you can successfully bring them into any gardening space.
Nectar plants are just what the sound like, plants that are a good source of nectar to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
If I were to list all the great nectar plant for pollinators it would be long, and boring. So, my suggestion is to head down to the garden centre and have a look. You will find a wealth of information, from the plant labels, signage and displays.
An important thing to try and keep in mind is find things that have a long bloom time and especially that boom in the early spring. The same things you want in a garden plant are the things a pollinator needs, variation in shapes, sizes, colours and a long bloom time. But I can’t resist naming a few of my favourites: Salvia, lavender, asters, canas, spirea, rudbeckia, ceanothus, ribes, allium, monarda and nepeta. See, it’s pretty easy to find something you like.
If hummingbirds are what you are after then I have a plant for you, Cuphea ‘Vermillionaire’ otherwise known as the firecracker plant or as I call it the “hummingbird magnet.” Literally, if you plant this they will come. It’s amazing and it works every time. Put one in a pot on your deck or in the garden and it won’t take long. *This plant is not currently available at our Penticton location*
Planting nectar plants also has the bonus of proving food and attracting butterflies into the garden. But something else that is fun to do, especially on a deck or patio is to make a puddling bath. Butterflies need to drink water and they do it by slurping water out of wet muddy/sandy puddles. By repurposing a birdbath or large plant saucer and filling it with sand, pebbles and then water you create a perfect spot for the butterflies to land and have a drink. If you also have some nectar plants near by then you are in business and once word gets out, you will soon have a butterfly party on your hands. This is also a great project for kids to get involved in.
Something to keep in mind is that in order to have butterflies you need to have caterpillars, which need to eat too. Luckily most of the butterflies we love aren’t voracious eaters and tend to eat things like thistles and nettles (which grow wild), tree leaves (which you barley notice because trees usually have a lot of leaves) or parsley, dill, and fennel (which you should plant and share with the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars). So just remember to have a close look if something is nibbling at the leaves of your plant and don’t immediately assume you need to start squishing the culprit.
If you want to go one step further and have your own hive (in a sense) then you should consider installing a mason bee house. These little houses are readily available at the garden centre and they come in all shapes and sizes. Be sure to get one with a removable insert (where the bees laid their cocoons) this will allow you to clean the house in case you get mites or disease. If you need more information on how to properly care for the house be sure to ask at the garden centre or check out some of the great online resources. Then be sure to hang your house in the garden at eye level and ideally where it will have morning sun shining on it.
I often hear the rallying cry, Save the bees! I couldn’t agree more, but let’s show a little love to the butterflies and hummingbirds too while we’re at it. The number one threat to our native bees is loss of habitat and as it happens as gardeners… we can help with that. Whether you have a backyard or a balcony everyone can help. Mobilize the gardeners and plant a nectar plant, all the pollinators will thank you.
Not all bugs are bad. As gardeners we have a black and white view of the creatures we find in our space. Some help and some hinder. I call these the “squish-ables” and the “un-squish-ables.” This primitive control method… your foot, pruners or fingers, is by far the best way to deal with an unwanted pest because it is going to have the smallest side effect on everything else in your garden. It’s like a targeted attack. Here are two examples of some insects that you really want to have in your garden, they are on your team and so belong to the “un-squish-ables.”
Everyone knows what a ladybug looks like. I’ve seen them in everything from commercials for cell phones to children’s rain boots. Everybody loves them, it’s good luck if one lands on you, and most people know they are good for the garden because the eat the dreaded aphid. But did you know that they are bit like the ugly duckling? “Baby” lady bugs, called larva, are not so cute. In fact, they are somewhat alarming looking. They look like a red and black cross between an alligator and an alien. You will never find a picture of them on children’s clothing. But as gardeners we should learn to identify them and give them a little love because they eat a lot more aphids than the adult beetles do and they don’t have the annoying habit of flying away to eat your neighbours aphids instead.
Another great insect to have in the garden that doesn’t really look the part are ground beetles. They are a bit shy and like to hang out under rocks and in mulch/leaf litter. They are generally large (up to 25mm) black/brown beetles (although there are a few that have lovely iridescent colouring) and they have big scary looking mandibles (chewing mouthparts). They look quite frightening, but they are not. They don’t bite and you can pick them up to have a closer look… if you can catch them. But sometimes when working in the garden and disturbing mulch and leaf litter you can uncover them, they have the alarming habit of running out and scaring the you-know-what out of you… because they are big and fast. But they have a lovely habit of eating a lot of garden pests such as slugs, ants, and wood bugs. So, learn to love the ground beetles, even if they scare you everyone in a while… just try to remember how scary you must seem to them.
Resources for more information on Pollinators:
The Pollination Lab for Ecology at SFU: https://www.sfu.ca/content/dam/sfu/people/eelle/elle_bee_info/Bees_and_Gardens.pdf
Feed the Bees: https://feedthebees.ca/
Xerces Society: https://www.xerces.org/
The Butterfly Project: https://davidsuzuki.org/take-action/act-locally/butterflyway/
Written by: Ingrid Hoff