Home gardeners can witness the beautiful and beneficial interactions between plants and animals, like we see at the Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird garden. The Capital and Northern Virginia regions are rich with butterfly, bee and hummingbird activity and are home to many beautiful species. Maintaining these gardens is easy and planting for season long activity rewarding. A few tips are important, depending on what you want to attract. Native species to our region allow for a variety of food sources that support nature, and also do better in our climate. Native species are, however, not the only plants that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Resources are listed below, and there are plenty of clubs of enthusiasts in our region that can provide additional information.
When trying to attract butterflies to your garden it is important to provide food sources for the larval stages. This will attract greater varieties of butterflies and in larger numbers. They prefer to lay their eggs on the host plant preferred by the caterpillar. Their eggs can be tiny, and often hard to see. In your garden, it is recommended that you don’t be “too tidy”, and leave plants that can harbor the chrysalises and eggs as they overwinter. It is very important to NOT USE pesticides and herbicides in your yard or gardens. (they will kill the pollinators). Provide a sunny, protected area, and plant nectar flowers for adults and host plants for caterpillars. Also provide a source of water and rocks and/or bare soil for butterflies to sun themselves.
A few lists of plants and the type of butterflies they attract for our area:
Bees are incredibly important pollinators not only for agricultural crops, fruit trees and ornamentals, but also an important part of any ecosystem. Native bees are divided into two groups: Generalists that make up 80% of the total population and Specialists that make up the remaining 20%.
Generalists feed on many plants we consider to be “weeds”, such as dandelion. They are more numerous and have continuous broods throughout the season. These include the imported European Honey bee that is used to pollinate our crops. Generalists have higher population numbers and can handle disturbed sites. The nuns at the Monastery keep honey bees and they are managed with MG’s Bill Willis and Louise Edsall. They can be seen foraging throughout the Teaching Garden.
Specialists only feed on 1 -3 plant species that are rich in the nutrients they need. They have a lower population number, only one brood, and spend the rest of the season underground. These include the solitary bees. Specialist bees visit spring ephemerals in vernal woodlands such as spring beauty, trout lily and violets. Each of these have their own specialist bee pollinator. Plants families that attract solitary bees (as well and honey bees) include Solidago (goldenrods), Symphyotrichum (asters), Helianthus (sunflowers), Ericaceae (heaths). Most of the native bees in the Capital region and Northern Virginia are solitary bees and need a variety of food sources. As with the colonial honey bee, our solitary bee populations are declining. It is likely that pesticide use and loss of habitat are the one of the major reasons for decline in all bee populations.
When planting for bees, plant flowers in clumps and plan to have something in bloom all season. An example of progression of blooms: Early spring bluebells -> late spring coneflowers -> midsummer milk weeds ->fall blooming asters and goldenrod
Hummingbirds are the area’s smallest birds. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species that breeds in the eastern United States. Other hummingbirds seen in this area are the black-chinned hummingbird and the rufous hummingbird. Most ruby throated hummingbirds overwinter in Mexico and northern Panama. They arrive in the Washington DC and northern Virginia area as early as late March. By mid-September all resident hummingbirds have left. A few will overwinter in the Outer Banks, NC, south Florida, and along the Gulf of Mexico. Ruby throated are recognized by emerald green feathers and a white breast. Only the males have the ruby throat feathers.
As nectar feeders, hummingbirds pollinate plants as they feed. They need a lot of high quality food and feed 1-12 times per hour. A female hummingbird may capture up to 2,000 insects per day. Hummingbirds are especially attracted to red, tubular flowers such as bee balm, trumpet creeper and cardinal flowers. They are also attracted to other colors such as the pink flowers of ruby spice summersweet. Hummingbirds are known to feed on insects, spiders and sap from sapsucker drilled holes. When planning your garden, provide understory trees and shrubs where they can perch. They also love to line their nests with cinnamon fern fuzz, pussy willow, and spider web silk. Grow a diversity of plants that bloom at different times.
Native plants that attract these birds include buttonbush, summersweet, (C. alnifolic “Ruby Spice), Rhododendron species, trumpet creeper, trumpet honeysuckle, wild columbine, milkweed, bleeding heart, bee balm,white turtlehead, rose mallow, Liatrus, cardinal flower, white Penstemon, Echinacea, and Salvia.