Stuck at home in spring 2020 due to the pandemic, Lynn Nodgaard and a few of her Sullivan Drive neighbors decided to revamp the strip that borders their properties and the path at Sullivan Lake Park. For several years, the townhome association had tried to naturalize it with native grasses, but over time it had turned into a weed bed. They planted native flowers like coneflowers, black-eyed susans, goldenrod and blazing star, as well as non-native daffodils and lilies. Some were offered by passers-by and neighbors; some they bought at garden stores that specialize in native plants.
This summer, visitors came to the garden plot. Many of them were of the human kind. “One of the most amazing things about it are the people we’ve met,” Nodgaard said, adding that they’ve gotten to know a lot of people from the community. “I sit here on my four-season porch and watch the people walking by and stopping.” They take photos, she said. “It just makes you feel really good that people enjoy it so much.”
But not only members of the human species have gravitated toward the garden. The native and non-native plants have attracted bees and butterflies – as intended when one grows a pollinator garden. Nodgaard said she’s seen a tiger swallowtail, monarchs, “small white butterflies” and plenty of bees this summer.
Often what goes unnoticed, though, is the diversity of pollinators beyond the commonly recognized butterflies and honeybees, and the whole ecosystem that’s fostered when one grows a pollinator garden.
Many bee species
During 15 minutes of a morning in mid-August in Nodgaard’s garden at least five different bee species appeared: common eastern bumblebees, honeybees, black-and-gold bumblebees (huge bees with dark wings), at least one mason bee, and a two-spotted bumblebee. Many more bee species have probably visited, since there are between 400 and 450 species of bees in Minnesota, most of them native, according to James Wolfin, a sustainable land care manager with Metro Blooms.
Other bees one might find pollinating in local gardens include the tiny sweat bees, such as the iridescent metallic green sweat bee; and solitary, ground nesting bees (which is one reason to wear closed-toe shoes while in the garden) such as the long-horned bees. (“Long-horned” refers to the long antennae of males; females have long hairs on their legs that collect pollen and make them look like they’re wearing chaps.) There are also cavity-nesting and stem-nesting bees, including leaf cutter bees, which excise pieces of leaves with their jaws and use them to line their nests, and mason bees, which use mud and other mortar-like materials for their nests.
Bumblebees alone number 23 different bee species in Minnesota, according to the University of Minnesota Extension’s manual for volunteers involved in bumblebee surveys. All bumblebees are very hairy, although some fuzzy-appearing pollinators might be striped flies that mimic bumblebees. The flies have only one pair of wings and bumblebees, two. Most bumblebees collect pollen in a concave area on their hind legs called a basket.
One bumblebee to especially watch for is the rusty-patched bumblebee, said Wolfin. Those can be easily identified by their brown-orange patch on their back with yellow above and below the patch. It’s a species that used to be common across the Midwest and East, but its population has declined by almost 90% in the last 20 years. Minnesota is one hotspot for this endangered species. Wolfsin encourages gardeners to plant species that the rusty-patched particularly likes such as wild bergamot (also known as bee balm), anise hyssop, and Culver’s root. Rusty-patch and other bee sightings can be reported at BumbleeWatch.org. It is a citizen science effort to track and conserve North American bumblebees.
Beetles, flies and moths, also found in all of our gardens, are important pollinators. The many species of hoverflies feed on nectar and pollen. Many of them have striped bodies and coloration that mimics bees; their larvae aid in pest control by eating aphids. Most moths are nocturnal pollinators, so we don’t see them at work; but the large hummingbird moths, with their buzzing clear wings can be seen during the day, hovering over flowers in a hummingbird-like way as they feed.
On a sunny Sunday in August, the yellow coreopsis at Blooming Sunshine Gardens at Columbia Heights’ Łomianki Park was crawling with many soldier beetles that were dusted with pollen, their yellow-orange coloring blending well with both the pollen and the flowers. A hoverfly visited a flowering herb and a skipper, a relative of butterflies and moths that has two-part wings, one set at an angle when it rests, flew from zinnia to zinnia.
It’s important to have variety in the plants, to attract a wide range of pollinators, said Kat Audette-Luebke, who draws on her degree in horticulture to help coordinate the volunteer-run, HeightsNEXT-funded garden. The Blooming Sunshine garden includes a mix of vegetables and other edible plants, native wildflowers, and other flowers that are attractive to pollinators and are esthetically pleasing, she said.
Some of the choices, for example dill and fennel, are not native to Minnesota, but they are the plants of choice for the egg-laying Eastern swallowtail butterflies, Audette-
Luebke explained. Similar reasoning led to planting native pearly everlasting flowers. The plant was chosen because it’s where the larvae of painted lady butterflies feed.
Because pollinators have energy needs from when they emerge in early spring to when they go into dormant states in the fall, it’s important to have a garden that has food sources for them throughout the growing season, Audette-Luebke explained. Prairie smoke and a native anemone are two early bloomers, a consideration for the bees that need food when they first come out of hibernation. Late in the summer and early fall, goldenrod and asters can help nourish the bees for the rest of their season, she said.
Not only pollinators and humans benefit from a garden with variety. Several goldfinches feed on the seeds from coneflowers and bee balm at Nodgaard’s garden. Catbirds that nest in the brush on the other side of the path feed on juicy larvae and other insects. “Some species hold the value in providing what we call biological control,” Wolfsin explained, citing native lady beetles that eat a lot of pest insects, such as aphids. And pollinators themselves are food for species above them in the food chain, such as spiders, dragonflies, and even tiny ambush bugs that lurk on flowers then pounce to paralyze their prey. Those, in turn, are eaten by larger animals. “If you care about your small mammals and birds, and native reptiles and amphibians, then [a pollinator garden] is certainly something to think about,” he said.
Below: The ambush bug (pictured just above the Goldfinch below), and the green darner dragonfly, both at the Sullivan Lane garden, are two predators in the garden food web. A hummingbird moth on Boom Island. Yellow bumblebee on a false indigo plant. Note the basket for pollen, a concave area on the hind legs. Long-horned bees mating. They get their name from the long antennae of the males. The females have long hairs on their legs that collect pollen.
A soldier beetle on a coreopsis at Łomianki Park. The beetles’ yellow-orange color blends well with blooms and pollen. The interdependence of insects and plants has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Up the food chain. An ambush bug in Lynn Nodgaard’s garden. Ambush bugs lurk on flowers, then pounce to paralyze their often much larger insect prey. Goldfinches eat seeds from coneflowers. (Photos by Karen Kraco)