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It's National Pollinator Week: Could native plant gardening help save the bees?

A monarch butterfly feeds on ironweed, a plant that is common across North Carolina.
Hannah Breisinger
A monarch butterfly feeds on ironweed, a plant that is common across North Carolina.

National Pollinator Week is a celebration of bees, wasps, butterflies, moths — and yes, even flies. These indispensable little insects are vital to agriculture, the economy, and essentially human existence. But pollinator populations have been declining for decades. Fortunately, you can help these key players in our planet’s ecosystems — and all you need is a patio or a yard.

Pollinators are declining worldwide, due to factors like loss of habitat, pesticides, climate change, and disease. Non-native species are another cause. That’s because these beautiful, but foreign plants generally don’t provide pollinators with the nutrients they need — as native plants and wildflowers do.

“There are lots of butterflies starting to cruise around. So temperature-wise, this is when things are really starting to get moving for butterflies.”

That’s Alyssa Taylor, the Environmental Education Coordinator at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington. She’s giving me a tour of the garden’s pollinator section, which includes native plants like milkweed and purple disk sunflowers.

“Always try to include natives in your plantings, usually at least 60% native in your landscaping. And that's going to provide for a lot of these insects, it’s going to provide for a lot of these pollinators. The other thing it's going to do is provide for basically all of your other wildlife.”

Taylor tells me that she’s seeing more interest in native plant gardening, as people begin to learn about its benefits. Still, many others don’t know where to start. Taylor’s suggestion is to start small — grow a native or two on your balcony, or in a small section of your yard. The best place to purchase native plants, she says, is your local nursery, or arboretum. And there are resources online, too.

“Natives are built for our climate, they are built for our soil conditions, they are built for our ever-waning droughts and heavy rains that we've been experiencing. They're just plants that are made to be here. And plants that are made to be here also support animals that are made to be here.”
Alyssa Taylor

Native Plant FAQs

What exactly are native plants?

The term 'native plants' is self-explanatory.

Native plants are plants that are local to a specific region, and thus play a vital role in that region's ecosystems. To learn which plants are native in your zip code, click here.

Non-native plants are plants that have been introduced by humans to a particular region. Some may still be beneficial to certain species, but not to the same degree as natives. In some instances, invasive non-natives can be detrimental to plant, insect, or animal communities. Not all non-natives are invasive, but be cautious, and if you would like to plant a non-native in your garden, make sure the plant is not invasive. A list of plants that are invasive to the NC Coastal Plain is here.

Why are pollinators so important?

According to the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pollinators are not only vital to the human race, but all of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Out of all crops grown globally, almost 80% require pollination. So, pollinators not only sustain crops — but also help them grow larger fruits and higher crop yields. In the United States, the pollination of agricultural crops is valued at $10 billion annually. Globally, pollination is likely worth more than $3 trillion.

Pollinators typically include insects like bees, wasps, butterflies, and moths. But there are also some atypical pollinators here in North Carolina. Learn more about those oddballs here.

How do native plants impact pollinators?

Pollinators, along with native plants, have evolved with a region and have adapted to the local climate, season, and soils. Therefore, pollinators rely on native plants — and vice versa. Non-native plants do not provide the same resources and nutrients to native insect species.

Additionally, most pollinators rely on not just any native plant, but specific ones. For example, monarchs rely solely on milkweed for laying eggs, because milkweed helps the young caterpillars fend off predators. And hummingbirds rely on nectar from tubular flowers because of how their long, needle-like beaks are shaped. The loss of specific native plant species could be devastating to these insect and animal populations. On the flipside, planting more of these species can help these populations thrive.

What do I need to know about planting a native garden?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service have provided tips for native planting on their website. Main points include:

1. Know that it takes time for native plants to get established. Native plantings may not look attractive right off the bat.

2. Gain an understanding of the native plant communities in your area. Identify the climate, landscape, and soil conditions.

3. Understand local regulations affecting the use and ongoing management of natural landscaping. While butterflies and bees may love the meadow in your backyard, some homeowner's associations may not. However, moderate decorative landscaping consisting of native plants doesn't have to mean a meadow.

4. Get to know your site. What is the soil like? How much sun does your yard get? Which plants are already established? Is there proper drainage? Native species may be more tolerant of these factors than non-natives, but some are still picky. Also, identify which insects or animals you would like to attract, if applicable.

5. Consider your budget. The cost of using native plants for landscaping is often lower than the cost of using non-native plants, when factored over a period of time. But native planting is a long-term investment. Identify what type of gardening equipment you will need.

6. Know that "low maintenance" does not mean "no maintenance." The first few growing seasons especially may require maintenance, especially with younger, newly established plants.

View the full list of tips here.

Hannah Breisinger

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.