For Backyard Biodiversity, Try Pollinating Your Yard

Insects that feast on pollen serve as food for many birds and other animals

04-01-1996 // Michael Lipske
THANKS TO PLENTIFUL POLLEN in the air, spring is the season to be sneezing for many of us. But needless to say, those annoying pollen grains have a higher purpose than spawning miserable masses of runny-nosed people.

Transported by wind or wildlife to other flowers of the same species, the sperm contained in pollen fuses with egg cells in the other plant to generate seeds. Voila, flowering-plant sexual reproduction occurs (not to mention production of many of the plant fruits that people enjoy eating).

Pollen also plays an important function for wildlife. "It's a really high-protein food for a lot of insects," says Craig Tufts, manager of the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program. "Even as we're sneezing our brains out in spring from pollen, those tiny nasty granules are feeding lots of critters."

Insects that feast on pollen are, of course, delectable food for many birds and other animals. "Putting plants out there that feed insects," says Tufts, "provides the base food in the chain of carnivory for other animals that we see in our backyard." Thus, he notes, one key to backyard biodiversity is ensuring that early in the growing season your garden is home to plants that produce pollen (as well as nectar, which is the energy-rich sugar reward that plants provide to their pollinators).

Plenty of pollen and nectar almost guarantees more insects, which means more birds should visit your yard. Also, the more insects that are pollinating your fruiting shrubs, the greater your output of berries that birds like to eat. Either way you win, even though your smiles of appreciation may be interrupted by sneezes.

In the Deep South, at least some garden plants are apt to bloom and produce pollen and nectar year-round. Elsewhere, the best the wildlife gardener can do is try to ensure a well-stocked pollen larder at the start of the growing season.

"I plant things specifically for early nectar," says Tufts, who gardens in Virginia. "I've found that mahonia, or grape hollies, are one of the first plants that attract the honeybees in my yard." The arum family also offers several very early bloomers, such as jack-in-the-pulpit, the aquatic plant called golden club and skunk cabbage, the stinky perfume of which draws pollinating flies. Lilacs and azaleas are early blooming shrubs that appeal to butterflies. Azaleas also provide early season nectar for hummingbirds, as do early wildflowers such as American columbine and Virginia bluebells.

Hummingbirds, along with orioles, do their share of plant pollinating while pursuing sugary flower nectar. In the Southwest, many species of bats that depend on nectar for food are important pollinators. A native Southwest flower attractive to bats and hummingbirds is agave.

Bees are the most obvious nectar-and-pollen collectors in the garden. Honeybees use flower nectar to manufacture honey in their hives, but they also store and eat protein-rich pollen. Grow pussy willows if you want to give bees an early spring boost. Red-buds and red maples also sprout early flowers good for bees.

Many trees are wind-pollinated, meaning they do not need insect go-betweens to help in reproduction (because trees are taller than other plants, they take better advantage of the wind as a pollen-mover). Trees are also some of the earliest blooming plants we can put in our gardens. Tufts recommends that backyard wildlife gardeners with space for trees consider alders as well as oaks, hickories, aspens and willows.

Although wind-pollinated trees do not need insect assistance, lots of bugs mob the trees anyway in search of nourishment. The presence of these "pollen robbers," says Tufts, is a boon to famished birds making their northward migration.

Flocks of songbirds frequently appear in North America at peak pollination times of native deciduous trees. Even after pollen production in the treetops slows down, some of those migrants that have been gorging on insects will probably stay in your yard for an extended visit. They stay, in part, to eat other insects that are now feeding on your garden's tender new leaves and twigs. Which means, if you're lucky, baiting insects with early pollen will have brought the birds that in summer eat garden pests. And that's nothing to sneeze at.

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