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Love butterflies? Great. But don’t plant a butterfly bush.While butterflies will sip on the flowers’ nectar, the plant isn’t really good for butterflies, monarchs in particular, because they can’t lay their eggs on them. They’re not native and in some states they’re considered invasive.
Milkweed is the way to go.
Local gardeners and others who care about butterflies, bees and other pollinators say the best way to encourage and protect them is to reduce the size of your lawn and plant native perennials. Make your yard part of the Pollinator Pathway so migratory birds will know where to stop.
And there are specific things to think about when going about welcoming bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and birds.
Start small. Go native. Ban pesticides. Make sure your garden blooms all season long.
“Lawns benefit nothing. They’re sterile,” said Trish Helm of Westville, a member of the Garden Club of New Haven and a graduate of the University of Connecticut’s Master Gardener Program. “If it promotes the insects, then it feeds the birds, which gardens should be doing,” she said.
Why is that important? The loss of pollinator habitat means fewer caterpillars and other larvae, meaning fewer butterflies and bees to pollinate our crops. “It’s a dire situation,” said Lisa Lovejoy, club president. “If we lose our pollinators, we lose our food,” with up to 75 percent of crops at risk. “It’s a critical thing,” she said.
Birds, too, need pollinators to survive. “Baby birds need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars when they’re young,” Lovejoy said.
Helm no longer has a lawn. Pathways wind through flowering plants and trees on her property.
“In the beginning, I just wanted to eliminate lawn and have a garden,” Helm said. “As time went by and as I learned more, then I have increased the number of natives that attract insects and birds … so at this point I have a pretty pollinator-friendly garden.”
Helm suggested, “One of the ways to think about reducing lawn is, let’s say if you have several trees in your lawn. You might consider linking the trees with a sweep of a flower bed, including perennials and including shrubs.”
Rather than digging out the grass, she suggests smothering it with layers of newspaper, so the ground stays level.
Replacing grass with perennial plants has other benefits, as well, according to Jay Petrow of PetrowGardens Landscape Design in Westport.
“Lawns are a big source of water use and fertilizers and, obviously, weekly mowing, whereas if you have a pollinator meadow or pollinator garden, it basically requires no water and no fertilizer,” he said. “They only require one yearly cutback, which is usually done late winter or early spring.”
Replacing even a small section of lawn with pollinator plants will attract bees and butterflies, Petrow said. “I’ve taken plants out of my truck that I’m going to plant somewhere, and the bees find it coming off my truck,” he said.
Petrow will give a seminar on replacing lawns with sustainable landscaping at 10 a.m. May 8, sponsored by state Rep. Stephanie Thomas, D-Norwalk. Registration is available at https://tinyurl.com/ymn9sfv4.
Among Helm’s plantings are native redbuds, pink viburnum, serviceberries and yellow ninebark, which she said bees love. “Just today I saw yellow finches on the seed stalks of black-eyed Susans,” she said.
But she has no butterfly bushes. The Asian shrub spreads quickly, taking up space from native species. And its large nectar production draws pollinators away from other flowers that need the insects to thrive, according to the University of Maryland.
Now that the butterfly bush myth has been busted, here’s another. The honeybee die-off. It isn’t happening. It’s just not true that we are losing our honeybees, according to Bill Hesbach of Cheshire, president of the Connecticut Beekeepers Association.
“There’s about 370 species of bees in the state of Connecticut,” Hesbach said. “Honeybees especially are not in danger of dying off.” While there was a dramatic decline in 2005, he said, that is no longer the case.
“The No. 1 thing that people can do to help native pollinators or honeybees … is not to douse their lawns to kill dandelions, not to use pesticides of any kind,” Hesbach said.
Kimberly Stoner, agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, specializes in bees. “We still have about the same number of honeybee colonies in the United States that we had 25 years ago,” she said. “It’s harder for beekeepers to keep bees because we have this parasitic mite” that transmits viruses. “Beekeepers have to do a lot to manage that problem, but even so we still have plenty of honeybee colonies in the U.S.”
Some bees specialize on particular flowers while honeybees, which are not natives, are generalists, she said. Honeybees are not choosy where they will gather pollen, enjoying white clover in the spring, goldenrod and New England aster in the fall.
“Honeybees … are active for a really long season, pretty much as soon as it gets above 55 degrees” until the temperature falls back below that mark, she said.
Red clover is too deep a flower for a honeybee, but attracts bumblebees, Stoner said. “For bumblebees, just the queens overwinter,” she said. “They have to stoke up … on nectar and on pollen when they come out. … Once the queens have established the nest, then they need a lot of pollen for the development of their larvae.”
Among the plants that attract bumblebees are bee balm, Joe Pye weed, goldenrod and anise hyssop, a native herb. “Overall, you want to make sure that you have at least three different things flowering from the beginning to the end of the season,” Stoner said.
It’s not just flowering plants and shrubs that pollinators need. Trees are vital: dogwoods, Eastern redbuds and especially oaks.
“Oak trees support hundreds of different kinds of pollinators and, importantly, different kinds of caterpillars,” said Susan Anton of Woodbridge, incoming president of the New Haven Garden Club and also a Master Gardener. “Caterpillars are critically important, and oaks are our most important tree.”
Anton has blossoms in her garden throughout the year. Now, Golden Alexander is blooming, along with bleeding heart and trout lily.
“It’s what we call an ephemeral,” Anton said. “It will disappear by June, and it’s an important group of pollinator plants because the bees wake up when the temperature tells them to.”
The key is to plant “some very early things, some very late things and a sequence of something blossoming at all times,” Anton said. Among the tenants in her garden are primroses, swamp azalea, vibernum and the one that is critical to attracting monarch butterflies.
“Monarch butterflies … can only lay their eggs on one kind of plant and that’s called butterfly weed or Asclepias,” better known as milkweed, Anton said. “Even if there are a lot of flowers around and the adult butterfly can sip the nectar, they won’t be able to have babies without that plant.”
Native plants are important because plants, insects, birds and other animals evolved as part of the same ecosystem. If you want the butterflies in your yard to flourish, “you need the plants that evolved over millions of years alongside the insects,” Anton said.
What plants you should choose depends on your environment. “If you have full sun, it would be a whole different palate of plants,” Anton said. Similarly, “sandy, dry” soil will welcome different flowers than “moist, rich loam,” she said. Anton has a lot of trees, and plants yellow and white foliage because it “tends to light up shady places.”
One rule for Anton and many other gardeners is an absolute refusal to use pesticides. “I use no poison in the yard,” she said. It’s “not only fully organic but ecologically wise. If the bugs are there, I’ll let them be there.”
There are insect exceptions, though. Red lily leaf beetles “devour lilies wholesale,” Anton said. When she finds them, she drowns them in soapy water.
The New Haven Garden Club has been caretaker of Phelps Triangle Park at Trumbull Street, Temple Street and Whitney Avenue since 1951. Now the members are working to create pollinator meadows, through the Garden Club of America’s Partners for Plants program. One is in the Quinnipiac Meadows Preserve, working with Gather New Haven. The club also is cooperating with the Edgerton Park Conservancy to replace invasive mugworts in that park with pollinators.
Mugwort is “a very terrible weed that just threatens everything,” Lovejoy said. “One of the things you have to do to get ahead of the mugwort is to mow.
Keeping yards and fields full of flowering plants brings the butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars feed the birds. “The bird population in the U.S. has declined by 30 percent since the ’90s,” Anton said, because of “a lack of appropriate food, breaking up of their stopping areas on their migratory flights.”
David Carr of West Haven leads that city’s Pollinator Pathway group and has raised $2,600, which is used to put pollinator-friendly plants in public spaces, such as a park off the Boston Post Road and at South Street beach.
“I work with other people in my community and we’re trying to get them installed publicly so people can see them and enjoy them,” Carr said.
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