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Pollinators like monarch butterflies need your help, here’s what you can do

By Cindy Dampier/Chicago Tribune (TNS) • Mar 8, 2019 at 5:00 PM

On the ecological front, 2018 might not have seemed like a banner year — unless you were a monarch butterfly. Monarchs, the beloved, determined little flyers who trek from Mexico to Canada and back each summer, had a great year: The eastern migratory population (which is the contingent that visits Chicago every year) was up by more than 140 percent from 2017.

Favorable weather for the monarchs’ trek is believed to have been the main factor in the population growth, but other changes — including that pot of milkweed you might have planted on your balcony last year — could have played a part as well.

Recently, the National Pollinator Garden Network announced that its Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, launched in 2015 with an announcement by first lady Michelle Obama, has registered over a million pollinator gardens in North America over the past four years, surpassing its original goal.

The campaign, aimed at encouraging people to plant more flowers, trees and shrubs that attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, has now racked up 1,040,000 pollinator gardens and counting, including nearly 14,000 in the Chicago area — making Chicago one of the top five urban environments for pollinator gardens nationwide. Those urban pollinator oases can have a big impact, experts say. “Without those pots and balcony gardens, a lot of urban areas would be pollen deserts,” says Elizzabeth Kaufman, a Midwest pollinator habitat coordinator for the Pollinator Partnership, an organization dedicated to promoting the health of pollinators. “Every backyard garden, even flowerpots, help.”

That’s why the National Pollinator Garden Network hopes to build on the momentum of the million garden campaign with a call to expand those plantings — and encourage people to plan them now, before the growing season frenzy hits. “The new call is for people to plant at least three kinds of pollinator plants for each season,” says Seth Reed, co-founder of GrowIt! — a Chicago-based app for connecting with fellow gardeners.

Adding more kinds of pollinator-friendly plants, those that provide food, shelter and hosts for caterpillars or other larvae, helps support a wide variety of bees, moths, butterflies and other bugs that are “the center of biodiversity,” says Kaufman. “They really support and sustain all our lives, our quality of life and the quality and health of our ecosystem.” And planning for seasonality, Kaufman and Reed say, means extending that support for as much of the year as possible. The idea is particularly key in Chicago, where planting fall-blooming plants is important for pollinators such as the monarchs, which are migrating through the fall.

If you’re planning to welcome pollinators this year, here’s what you need to know:

• Choose plants with care. Native plants are best because they are easier on gardeners and great for pollinators. Having a variety of flower shapes is important, too, since pollinators have different methods of accessing pollen. Ideally, you’ll pick three varieties of pollinator habitat plants per season. Kaufman and Reed recommend stalwarts such as purple coneflower, upright sedums, penstemon and aster.

• Plan now. Garden centers are hip to the pollinator plant trend, so expect to see a lot of plants once garden shopping season hits. Online guides such as the one from Pollinator Partnership can tell you which plants work for your area, and which pollinators they support. Don’t forget to consider trees and shrubs, many of which are our earliest spring sources of pollen.

• Don’t forget shelter. Many pollinators depend on things like fallen sticks and grasses as homes for overwintering. “People in urban or suburban areas often get used to the idea of a really clean, manicured lawn,” says Kaufman, who recommends a late-spring yard cleanup, versus a fall one.

• Keep an eye out. The earliest pollinators to look for in Chicago include some species of bees, such as the rusty patch bumblebee, a native bee that was recently added to the endangered species list and needs a constant supply of diverse pollen from April through September.

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