Planning for Pollinators

Bumblebees buzzing amongst the white clover on the front lawn is a childhood memory that many of us share. Today, children have another memory that will follow them into adulthood. They hear the scientific data that warn bumblebees and other native pollinators are becoming scarce, and this year, a once common bumblebee known as the “Rusty Patch” is now listed as an endangered species. Not exactly the type of childhood memory we like to leave as a legacy.

May is a good month to educate yourself about our native pollinators such as bees, wasps, butterflies and many other insects. It is also a good month to do something to help them through gardening. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Focus on Natives. This is true of both plants and pollinators. We often read stories about the plight of honeybees. While honeybees are important pollinators, especially in agricultural settings, we need to remember that honeybees are not native to North America. Establishing a hive really doesn’t do much to improve the plight of our native pollinators, and in some cases, honeybees can outcompete native bumblebees for nectar. Honeybees can be described as “generalists” in the pollination world. They have a wide range of food plants that they can gather nectar from. Bumblebees are more of a “specialist.” There are over 250 species of bumblebees in the Americas, and each species has its favorite foraging plants. So their conservation involves planting a variety of flowering plants that are native to the specific region. So if you are building a pollinator garden in Central Illinois, plant flowers native to Central Illinois.

Full Season of Flowers. Establish gardens that have a variety of plants that bloom at different times throughout the growing season. Early-blooming native plants such as Virginia bluebells, woodland phlox and Virginia waterleaf are good for early nectar production. This can be augmented by allowing lawns to be populated by dandelions and white clover. While these two are not native species, they do provide a good nectar source in the early spring. Mid-summer blooming plants are more numerous. Partridge pea, wild bergamot, mountain mint, yellow coneflower and black-eyed Susan are all easily grown and offer lots of nectar for native bees. You can also add several milkweeds to the mix. Common milkweed, butterfly milkweed and purple milkweed all add to the pollinator pallet and also enhance habitat for the monarch butterfly which exclusively feeds on the leaves in its larval stage. Finally, don’t forget to have fall flowers such as showy goldenrod, stiff goldenrod and New England aster. These are the plants that our native pollinators know best. They are also the plants that know our climate and can grow without being pampered, unlike some of the non-native ornamentals you might find at the big-box stores. If you do buy plants from the big-box store, make sure they have not been treated with pesticides such as neonicotinoides. These plants can actually produce nectar that will poison the pollinators you are trying to help. Many stores are labeling plants that are “neonic free” to highlight that they are pollinator friendly.

Grow your Own. Since when did gardening become a shake-n-bake proposition? Many native species of plants are available by seed through numerous native plant suppliers. Experience the true joy of gardening by establishing some seed plots, planting native seeds and learning how they grow. A great place to explore is Prairie Moon Nursery’s website ( You can purchase native seeds, seed mixes and plant trays from that nursery. Alternatively, you can also become involved with some local efforts. The Peoria Park District’s Forest Park Nature Center and Tawny Oaks Field Station offer several seed collection workdays in the late summer and fall. They also host a “Native Seed Exchange” in the fall where you can pick up a huge variety of native plant seeds. Tawny Oaks also has a late summer plant sale that will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 26. Check out the Peoria Park District website ( to find out more about these local events.

Now is a good time to start planning the location for your pollinator garden. We can make sure the buzzing sound of the bumblebee is a sound that doesn’t end with our generation. For more info on pollinators, check out the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s pollinator homepage (

Mike Miller

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