Drought Gardening Tips to Protect Pollinators

Monarch Butterfly on Desert Lavender

An often overlooked problem stemming from the California drought is its threat to our local pollinators like bees, butterflies, and birds. The scarcity of water means that the state’s overall plantscape of farms, forests and wild land is less abundant as grasses and native plants are going dormant or dying. This means that not only are wildlife displaced, but our pollinators are suffering from lack of a food source.

Pollinators require flower nectar as their primary food source. In the process of gathering food, they help us maintain productive plant communities in the wild on on farms. It’s estimated that one out of three bites we take in America is pollinated by honeybees (California alone has a population of 1200-1500 native bee species).

What does this mean for homeowners? Yes, it’s still important to replace your lawn with artificial turf and transition to a water-wise plants. It is important now, more than ever, to garden the space you have thoughtfully and even small plantable spaces can yield gorgeous gardens that can help sustain our region’s birds, bees and butterflies. Here is how you do it.


Provide Year-Round Source of Food


While some migratory birds, butterflies and bees make seasonal appearances, honey bees (among many other pollinators) need year-round food sources. With advance planning, it’s possible to have a portion of your garden blooming at all times. Blooms during spring and summer are easy to grow, through there are a handful of natives that bloom during fall and winter.

For more variety when it comes to winter blooms, consider water-wise plants native to the Southwest or herbs. Bees adore the flowers of mint, oregano and thyme which all can bloom late in the year. Bees and butterflies are a great reason to quit cutting flowers on herbs (or do so only on the plants you eat from). For more information, see how to have year-round color using native plants.


Eliminate Pesticides


Pollinators are already struggling, so limiting the use of pesticides and other chemicals around the yard that they might ingest will help ensure their survival. The EPA has identified exposure to pesticides negatively impacting the health of pollinators.

Try plant-based or natural pest control methods instead, but be mindful of using a few techniques that can actually be harmful to pollinators. A popular DIY recipe using chili pepper, onion and garlic to ward off leaf-eating pests is actually harmful to bees while most natural insecticidal soaps are not. The bottom line is that you’ll need to make sure that even natural or organic pesticides and fertilizers are safe to use.


Plant in Clumps


Group native plants in clumps for pollinators

A pollinator flying overhead is more likely to see a group of appealing flowers than just one plant. Plant groups of the same plants throughout your yard. This is also because bees tend to feed on more than one flower. They have a lot of choice when multiple plants are blooming. Shoot for clumps at least 4 feet in diameter or more. Butterflies, especially, are near-sighted.


Choose Color Carefully


Think about who you would like to attract. Color is different to bees than it is to humans because they see in ultraviolet which helps them  to identify flower patterns. This means that purple, blue, violet, white, and yellow are usually the best flower colors to plant while they can’t see red because it appears black to them.

On the other hand, hummingbirds and butterflies adore red. Butterflies have a wide range of color preferences (they also love white, pink, purple, orange, and yellow) but they do not seem to gravitate toward blue and green flowers as much.


Opt for Various Shapes and Sizes


Please a variety of pollinators (there are too many different types to mention) by offering the best of all worlds. What works for one may not for another. Butterflies need to be able to access the nectar with big wings on their back so they prefer flowers with short, shallow nectar tubes and strong fragrances. Bees and butterflies need flowers that provide sturdy landing platforms while hummingbirds do not. Diversity of plants also helps resist disease and pests as well.


Wind and Light Considerations


You can use the most appealing plants to pollinators but if the surrounding conditions aren’t right, they won’t be able to take advantage of them. If the area is too windy, consider a hedge of native plants to provide a windbreak. Better yet, use a native blooming hedge like coyote bush that can add to your pollinator-friendly garden.

If you’re starting a new year-round blooming garden, allocate space in your yard that receives maximum sunlight as this is the growing conditions preferred by most flowering plants. Also, make sure that your blooming garden can be seen by whatever is flying above. Don’t tuck it under a shade structure, for example.


Provide Water


Leave water for pollinators in the garden

Yes, even bees need water to help dissolve crystalized honey, keep them cool on a hot day and to drink. Birds need it as do butterflies. A well-rounded pollinator garden should have clean water available.


Monarch Butterflies Need Milkweed


The only flower that will attract the struggling Monarch butterfly is milkweed and its disappearance (herbicides are largely to blame) is harming local populations. They lay eggs on milkweed and its the only plant that their caterpillars will eat. However, it is incredibly important to plant milkweed that is native to your area because planting the wrong species can cause the Monarchs to become infected with parasites. A great resource for finding specific varieties is The Xerces Society. Milkweed is readily available by seed but also note its potential height and spread as it can overwhelm a garden.


What About Wingless Pollinators?


Beetles aren’t nearly as effective as winged pollinators but they do pollinate plants as they move from flower to flower feeding on nectar and petals. In fact, they are considered the very first garden pollinators, dating back millions of years. Do you want beetles in your garden? It depends on what kind they are. Lady bugs and rove beetles feed on pests. Mexican bean beetles that destroy your vegetable plants… not so much.


Your Turn…


How do your gardening techniques help pollinators?


Photo credits: top, Flickr/dballentine; natives in clumps, Flickr/briweldon; bird bath, Flickr/pazzani