These pollinators aren’t winning any beauty contests

Recognized as the beauty queens of bugs, bees and butterflies have reached celebrity status in the world of pollination. But, while they get the limelight when it comes to pollination, they’re only a small portion of the over 200,000 species that help produce our crops.  Many of these less adorable species include beetles, ants, moths, wasps and even flies.  Combined, pollinators service over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1,200 crops, impacting nearly 1 out of every 3 bites of food and more than $20 billion worth of products annually in the U.S.

Awareness of the decline of the monarch butterfly and the honeybee has spurred communities across the country into action to ensure their survival.  But what about the less celebrated?  Let’s take a look at some of the underrated pollinators in our gardens.


Hover Flies

Hover Flies, also known as Syrphid Flies, are a large group of medium to large flies with black or brown bodies, yellow banded abdomens and two wings.  Resembling a bee or wasp, adults can be seen hovering above flowers, feeding on their nectar.  They can’t bite or sting but may try to steal some of your salty sweat from time to time.  The larvae play a beneficial role in gardens, consuming up to 30 aphids per day – a great natural pest control.  Hover flies feed on the same flowers preferred by bees, such as purple coneflowers, blanketflowers and sunflowers.

Black and yellow stripes don’t always belong to bees. Hover flies can easily be mistaken for bees but these petite pollinators don’t have stingers.

Hawk Moths

Experts at finding sweet-smelling flowers at night, hawk moths have the longest tongues of any moth or butterfly  – some up to 14” long!  These acrobatic fliers include sphinx and hummingbird moths, built with stout bullet-shaped bodies and long, narrow wings.  See them mostly at night hovering in place enjoying nectar from heavily fragranced flowers. While many tomato gardeners, admittedly, fear the larvae of the hawk moth (a.k.a. green hornworms), the adults are excellent  pollinators for your garden.

Hawk moths, including this Hummingbird Moth, have long tongues, or proboscis, to suck nectar from flowers, similar to a straw.

Soldier Beetles

Beetles present the greatest diversity of insects and pollinators, with more than 450,000 known species.  Regular flower visitors like the soldier beetle feed on pollen and even chew on flowers.  Solider beetles are one type of “mess and soil” pollinators, as they will defecate within flowers in the process of carrying pollen from one flower to another.  Soldier Beetles are commonly seen on flowers that are strongly fruity and open during the day such as marigolds, magnolias and many flowering herbs.    

Beetles have been pollinators for millions of years.  Based on fossil records, they were among the first insects to visit flowering plants as far back as 150 million years ago.

Ten Things You Can Do In Your Yard To Encourage Pollinators

1. Plant a pollinator garden—provide nectar and feeding plants (flowers and herbs).  Visit our website for more information on planting a pollinator garden or register your existing garden.

2. Provide a water source—place shallow dishes of water in sunny areas or create a muddy spot.

 3. Provide shelter and overwintering habitat (bee boxes, undisturbed soil areas, and piles of woody debris).

4. Stop using insecticides and reduce other pesticides.

5. Provide sunny areas out of the wind.

6. Use native plant species whenever possible—mimic local natural areas.

7. Grow flowers throughout season. Provide a variety of colors and shapes.

 8. Plant in clumps and layers. Use trees, shrub layers, with some low growing perennials and vines—intermix with flowering annuals.

9. Use compost instead of commercial fertilizers.  The Woodlands Township offers free compost classes October – March.  For more information, view this page.

 10. Look but do not touch.

Join Us In Celebrating National Pollinator Week

Monarchs on the move

The amazing monarch!

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Outweighed by a penny and powered by wings no wider than a toddler’s hand, the iconic monarch (Danaus plexippus) is right now embarking on the first stage of a migration that will cover upwards of 3000 miles, with some individuals traveling over 200 miles in a single day! They will wind their way across mountains, deserts, and cities, through multiple seasons and weather extremes, in a round-trip effort that will span five generations.

Monarchs in the United States are split into two populations, one east of the Rockies and the other west, along the Pacific Coast. The western monarchs spend their winter in California. Those to the east winter in the mountainous oyamel fir forests of southern Mexico.

It’s now in early spring when the eastern monarchs descend from the oyamel firs and move northward through Texas, allowing us to re-appreciate their beauty and marvel at their incredible stamina, navigational abilities, and the unique spectacle that is the monarch migration.

An epic journey

As temperatures warm and days lengthen, monarchs finish their development which was suspended over the winter, become reproductive and begin mating with fervor. Once mating completes, around February and March, the females leave the males behind in Mexico and head for the milkweed that is now sprouting across Texas.

And so the migration back to the United States and Canada begins.

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Used with the permission of the Xerces Society  https://xerces.org/monarchs/

The energy expended to complete this first leg of the journey is tremendous. After six weeks or so, now March and April, the female monarchs must find a milkweed leaf on which to deposit their eggs before they die. Once laid, four days will pass before the eggs hatch into voracious eating machines – baby monarch caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillars feast night and day on the leaves of their host plant and, incredibly, will gain 200 times their body weight in just two weeks. When the feasting ends they form their chrysalis and spend the next 10 days metamorphosing into an adult butterfly, vibrating with color and ready to renew the march north. This is generation 1, the offspring of the butterflies that overwintered in Mexico.

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Monarch chrysalis

Several more generations will live and die over the summer, travelling further afield, but just one generation will make the entire journey back to the oyamel firs beginning in October.

The fall migration is even more dramatic than the spring, after reproduction has bolstered the population, dozens and even hundreds can be spotted hourly.

Creating safe havens for pollinators in our yards and communities provides vital waystations during spring and fall migrations.

The migration in crisis

Once 700 million strong, monarch populations have now crashed. It’s estimated the eastern population has plummeted by more than 85% while the western population is suffering even more – only 28,000 were counted this winter. Multiple issues are to blame:

Habitat loss and fragmentation. Over 160 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost to development since 1996.  Illegal logging of the overwintering sites in Mexico is also taking a toll.

Climate change. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events can devastate migrating populations. Because of the incredible density of monarchs in the overwintering grounds, severe freezes there are catastrophic.

Pesticides and herbicides. Milkweed used to grow throughout corn and soybean crops across the south and midwest. But herbicides have driven milkweed to near extinction in these agricultural landscapes and depleted monarch populations along the way.  Monarchs are also being impacted by neonicotinoids, a new class of insecticides that spread their toxins through the plant’s tissues. Caterpillars that dine on these plants quickly perish.

OE. Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) is a parasite that infects monarchs, causing them to die in the pupal stage or emerge deformed. Milder infections result in shorter life spans and an inability to fly properly. OE pervades in our area as non-native tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) continues to grow through the cooler months, after native milkweeds have died back. Follow these important steps if you choose to grow tropical milkweed.

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Monarchs overwintering in the oyamel fir forest of Mexico

What You Can Do

Join The Woodlands Township Plant for Pollinators Program. Through this program you can…

Learn

  • Get notified of upcoming lectures, classes and workshops by signing up for the Township’s Environmental Services blog and calendar updates. These free events focus on pollinators, native plants, invasives removal, organic gardening, no-chemical pest control and more.
  • Ask for a presentation on the Plant for Pollinators program and how to create habitat from the Township’s team of Environmental Education Specialists.
  • Follow the monarch migration with Journey North, check out the Pollinator Partnership’s Million Garden Challenge and more with these partner links.

Grow

Choose a sunny spot

Volunteer

  • Volunteers are needed for larger community planting projects. Help to weed, seed and spread habitat for all types of pollinators. Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov if you or your group can lend a hand.

Observe

  • Download the easy-to-use iNaturalist app on your phone and monitor your habitat for monarchs and other pollinators. Your findings will support the Plant for Pollinators Project. It’s also a great way to learn more about nature!

 

Plant for pollinators this spring!

At first glance, a pollinator garden may look like any other pretty flower garden. But for a garden to be a haven for native bees, butterflies, and moths, it needs to meet their needs for all life stages. And the most important ingredient are plants rich in nectar and pollen to feed adult pollinators and host plants specific to butterfly species. Here are simple guidelines for creating a pollinator garden that will reward you with three seasons of garden visitors and help protect these vulnerable insects.

Choose a sunny spot.

Most blooming plants require sun. Four hours of sun is ideal, but a minimum of two to three hours will work too. Some great nectar and pollen plants thrive in part shade (two hours of sun with dappled shade the rest of the day).

Plant natives.

Native plants support more than 29 times the number of insect species than non-native plants. Aim for at least 70% of native plants in your garden. (Print the PDF for recommended plant list.)

Plant host plants.

Host plants are where the female butterfly will lay her eggs and her young caterpillars will feed. Some butterfly species—like the monarch and some swallowtails—only have one host plant. It is vital, therefore, to include some of these plants to support these species. Most of our host plants are native, but some are non-natives well adapted to our area. By including these host plants, you’ll welcome more diversity into your garden. (Print the PDF at the bottom for recommended plant list.)

Plant variety.

Adult bees and butterflies like some variety in their diet, just like us. By including different varieties of plants, your garden will attract a diverse assortment of pollinators.

Plant for three seasons.

Pollinators that overwinter in our area start emerging as the weather warms, and that could be late February to early March. As the weather turns cool, bees and butterflies go into hiding. As a general rule, they can’t fly when temperatures fall to 55 degrees. Bumblebees and some solitary bees will hibernate underground; other solitary bees will hibernate in nests they create in rock crevices and dead wood tunnels . Honey bees don’t hibernate, but buzz all winter keeping the hive warm—only the queen hibernates.  The monarch butterfly is the only migrating butterfly in North America and usually leaves its overwintering site in central Mexico in March, returning in November. You can track their migration each season at journeynorth.org.

With pollinators active and needing food spring through fall, it’s important that your garden provide blooms each season. (Print the PDF at the bottom for recommended plant list.)

Plant in dense color blocks.

Avoid planting different plant varieties singly. Go bold! Group a minimum of five to seven of the same plant to create large swaths of color in your garden. This helps pollinators find them. A dense planting has another advantage. When host plants especially, are planted densely, the young caterpillars have a better chance of survival by hiding from predators.

Include a puddle.

If there’s a low area that holds water after a rain in or near your pollinator garden, leave it! These “puddling” areas are great for providing certain butterfly species (like male common buckeyes) with necessary minerals and nutrients. You can create your own puddle by filling a shallow pan or plate with soil, some rocks, and pieces of a kitchen sponge and keeping it wet.

puddler

A simple butterfly “puddler” is easy to add to a garden.

Provide shelter.

Shelter can take various forms, from a nearby fence or trellis, dense shrubbery, or a man-made bee house for solitary bees. It can also be as simple as leaving a pile of fallen leaves and pine needles in a nearby spot. Shelter provides safe places for caterpillars to pupate, and for overwintering pollinators.

Use no pesticides.

In your garden or near it. Period.

 Print a PDF of these tips and recommended plants.

Register your garden!

Register your pollinator garden with The Woodlands Township as part of the Plant for Pollinators program and receive a window cling for recognition and appreciation.

window cling.FINAL

Learn more about registering your pollinator garden.

Important note about tropical milkweed

If you already have tropical milkweed in your garden, be sure to cut it to four to six inches of the ground every October to prevent the spread of OE and interference with normal migratory behavior. Consider planting native varieties of milkweed. Learn more about OE and tropical milkweed, and native milkweed species for our area in our recent blog post.