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Barbara Weatherford of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, often sits outside drinking coffee and gazing at her plants, noticing “how many insects there are crawling around in the petals.” While some people instinctively squash bugs, she says, “I want bugs in my garden.” Why? Because she knows that many of them are vital pollinators, not pests.
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Weatherford, 72, is part of a gardening trend focused on supporting local pollinators to counteract a declining insect population in the United States. Remember as a kid how your car’s windshield would be covered with dead insects after family road trips? That doesn’t happen anymore. The U.S. pollinator population has taken a serious hit from loss of habitat, pesticides, disease, and climate change, experts say.
But you can help reverse this decline by adding plants to your yard that nurture pollinators. “By supporting pollinators in your local community, you’re also going to be supporting birds, like songbirds, other insects, and larger mammals,” says Kelly Rourke, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership. Pollinators are vital to our food supply and ecosystems because plants can’t reproduce—or produce seeds and fruit—without pollination.
Plants “capture the energy from the sun and turn it into food that drives everything on the planet,” says Doug Tallamy, an entomology professor at the University of Delaware and the author of Nature’s Best Hope. “If we lost our pollinators, we’d lose 80 percent to 90 percent of the plants on the planet.”
What exactly is a pollinator?
Most people think of honeybees as the top pollinator, but scientists emphasize the importance of native bees, including bumblebees. (Honeybees were imported from Europe.) “The real pollinators doing most of the work are those native bees,” says Tallamy.
Find Native Plants for Pollinators
Enter your zip code into the National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder or the Pollinator Partnership’s ecoregional planting guide to find a list of native plants that will work best for your area and the pollinators they’ll attract.
The U.S. has almost 4,000 species of native bees, “most of which are in decline because we don’t have the plants they need to reproduce,” he says.
In the same way that monarch butterflies rely on milkweed plants as the sole food source for their larvae, a number of native insects reproduce only if they have access to a particular pollen. Without milkweed, we’d have no monarchs. Without Virginia creeper, the gorgeous sphinx moth wouldn’t exist.
Other vital pollinators include those that do their work at night such as bats, some beetles and moths. Even flies pollinate certain plants, like the fruit-producing pawpaw trees on the East Coast.