Backyard Landscape Best Practices for Pollinators

butterfly backyard pollinator habitat
Backyard habitat with red admiral butterfly, 2018 Schneider

Lately, more people have become interested in transforming their backyards from a turf-centric lawn into mini ecosystems of diversity with colorful blooms and nesting areas to attract wildlife, birds and pollinators. People prefer to live in communities with healthy land and water, which also increases property values  This website provides how-to instructions along with plant lists and helpful links.

BACKYARD BIODIVERSITY FOR POLLINATORS

pollinator flower garden backyard butterflyPhoto: Backyard Landscape, 2019 Schneider

Pollinators are essential for ecosystems and food systems.  Just like us, pollinators need a nutritious diet and healthy places to nest and raise their young.  A healthy backyard ecosystem supports soil and plant health for natural control of pests and disease.  A landscape rich with diversity of flowering plants is both beautiful and supports thousands of species of bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators.

Reducing pesticides is a key ingredient in creating pollinator friendly habitat. Household choices have direct effects on species and ecosystems, such as habitat loss and pesticide contamination. Most pollinators only forage a few yards from their nesting areas which makes backyards important habitats.

Pollinators include wild native bees, honey bees,  butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds, wasps, moths, bats and more. There are more than 450 species of wild native bees in Minnesota.
 
Photos: Mining bee on plum, 2017 Schneider | Painted lady and honey bee on sedum, 2017 Schneider

female mining bee on plum treeFritallary butterfly, honeybee on sedum

 

 

 

POLLINATORS NEED:  FOOD, WATER AND SHELTER
pollinator habitat backyardPhoto:  Minnesota Native Landscapes, 2017

HABITAT: It's easy to support biodiversity by supplying staples pollinators need:

  • clean water
  • pesticide-free food
  • shelter for nesting and overwintering

Backyard habitats are crucial to holding together an increasingly fragmented natural landscape for pollinators.  Creating pollinator islands in adjacent backyards contributes to a neighborhood habitat corridor. Introducing native plants presents many benefits; beauty, resilience and appeal to birds and pollinators. Because of the deep roots system, they act like a sponge and filter to help water soak down into the soil and filter out excess nutrients and pollutants.

SHELTER:  Many butterflies are specialists, meaning they require a host plant in their life cycle. Successful habitat provides host plants for larvae and nectar sources for adults It includes planning appropriate habitats for a diversity of bees and pollinators with shelter to feed and raise their young. Open areas in the soil allow for ground nesting bees, and a mud puddle encourages butterfly puddling for minerals.  Brush, leaf and mulch piles, logs, and overgrown areas provide safe places to overwinter or hibernate. 

LEAVE YOUR GARDENS UP OVER WINTER for hibernating bees and pollinators; wait until late spring (May) to clean backyard gardens. Pollinators overwinter in leaf litter, mulch piles, old wood and stiff plant stems.

FOOD:  Plant diverse flowers that bloom from early spring through fall.  Pollinators collect nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants including native plants, heirloom garden plants, trees, weeds and crops. In your yard, plant heirloom and native species such salvia and milkweed, shrubs like ninebark and pussy willow, and flowering trees like basswood and plum. A row of shrubs or trees make a dual purpose windbreak and some also provide food. Avoid buying plants that have been treated with systemic insecticides such as neonicotinoids. Also, many garden annuals have been bred for longevity, not to provide nectar or pollen, so consult a pollinator-friendly plant list before purchasing.

PLANT LISTS: When purchasing pollinator-friendly plants, ask if plants were treated with neonicotinoids before buying.

Monarchs puddling for nutrients, moisture and minerals, Mexico 2019 SchneiderMonarchs puddling for nutrients, moisture and minerals: Mexico, 2019 Schneider
 
BACKYARD LANDSCAPE DESIGN
backyard pollinator habitat prairie
Photo: Minnesota Native Landscapes, 2019

When considering a landscape design, be sure to choose an area for pollinator habitat away from pesticides.  In addition to considering shady and sunny locations, consider the audience.  Butterflies like to bask on their favorite wildflowers in full or partial sun with some protection from the wind for instance. A landscape design should compliment your lifestyle and activities. Instead of a large turf lawn, create a mini-ecosystem of sorts with a hedgerow and perennials to provide habitat with visual interest. Place tall plants and shrubs at the back and sides of the garden for wind and sun protection, and to create an appealing visual border.

Pollinator Backyards can include:

  • Hedgerows, shrubs
  • Flowering trees
  • Pollinator flower garden
  • Veggie and herb gardens
  • Pond, water features
  • Bird and bee houses
  • Pathways
  • Patio, benches
  • Flowering pollinator lawn
  • Mulch, wood chip, leaf or pine needle piles, and beetle banks

Traditional turf lawns dominate urban landscapes, deplete the soil and provide no food for pollinators. A pollinator lawn or low mow lawn is a flowering carpet of native plants and grasses that requires no pesticide, herbicide or weed and feed treatments, needs very little mowing, can take foot traffic and feeds pollinators. Use fescue grasses such as fine or chewings fescue with white dutch clover and other low growing plants such as lanceleaf coreopsis, blanket flower, and pussy toes.

 

 

GALLERY OF BACKYARD HABITAT

pollinator lawn thomforde

Pollinator Lawn, Bloomington by Steve Thomforde

 

Native pollinator plantings curbside

 Curbside native plantings by Shoreview Natives
 
backyard pollinator habitat
Backyard native habitat by Shoreview Natives

Backyard pollinator plantings

Backyard native plantings by Minnesota Native Landscapes

 

STEPS TO A BIODIVERSE BACKYARD HABITAT:

1)  Assess the site and set objectives: Research as much as you can about your backyard first: sun exposure, quality of soil, moisture, erosion, what grows well or not well, size of planting area. (length x width = square feet). Do a simple soil test.

2)  Plan your backyard habitat: What are your anticipated daily use and your objectives. "If you are planting a native plant community, you'll want to emulate the high diversity of interdependent species found in thriving natural ecosystems", (Prairie Moon). Designers suggest looking at a backyard like rooms of a home. Consider how the space will be used, for example; allow a space for a patio, another area for a flower garden, and veggie garden.  Consult a native landscape expert if needed for an onsite evaluation and design.  See a list of suppliers and native landscape professionals here. The design should include a variety of natural elements to support a variety of wildlife from the tiny sweat bee to humming birds. Choose plants, shrubs and other natural elements that provide nesting areas, and nectar or pollen for pollinators (Xerces Society).

3)  Backyard Plant/Seed Order & Design:  Develop an installation schedule based on growth and maintenance for plants and seed. Plugs (plants) will grow and provide results faster than seed.  Choose a plant supplier that does not treat with systemic insecticides or pesticides that are harmful to pollinators.  If you are ordering many plants, you may need to order them in advance so the supplier can grow them.  Native plants are more resilient and offer more benefit to native pollinators. Perennials will come back and usually require less maintenance.  It can be a fun and creative challenge to choose a variety of colors and shapes for continual blooms throughout the growing season.  Bunch groups of blooms together. Pollinators can more easily find clusters of the same flowers.  For seed, be sure to know your zone to choose the appropriate seed for your area. Select seed for very earlyy, early, mid, and late bloom periods.

4)  Site Prep-Remove Unwanted Plants:  Clear the area of unwanted plants by shovel, sod cutter and/or handpulling. For medium sized areas for flower gardens, a weed suppression matt will keep competition weeds at bay. If there are large areas try chemical-free practices such as smothering, solarization with re-useable black or clear plastic or cardboard, or scalp mow followed by white vinegar burn are options. Consider using a cover crop such as buckwheat or clover to smother plants in the seed bed. Cover crops can also improve the nutrient value of the soil before planting and seeding. If there are already native species present, you may want to enhance rather than removing all vegetation, by transplanting plants and inter-seeding.

5)  Site Prep-Enrich soil:  Soil chemistry test may be helpful.  If the soil is depleted, you will want to add nutrients before planting.  Adding a thick layer of compost first before installing plants and seeds will insure better success especially for areas that were previously turf or treated. Healthy soil makes healthy plants.

6)  Installation:  Once plants, plugs and seed is acquired, it's time to begin planting. For larger areas, trees, shrubs and/or seeds are fitting.  Seeded areas may benefit from a light covering of seedless straw.  Sloped areas might require a weed suppression or erosion blanket (made of compostable material like coconut fiber or recycled paper fibers). Water generously the first 2 weeks, and as needed after the second week. 

7) Maintenance Like with any landscape project, pollinator habitat requires tending. The difference is pesticides are avoided in a pollinator landscape.  Weed control is critical the first few years so be sure to allow for extra maintenance for removal of unwanted plants.  Hand pull, weed wack or mow unwanted plants as they arrive. After the landscape is established in 2-3 years, time and maintenance will reduce greatly. After establishment, native plants require little or no irrigation, fertilizer, pruning or mowing.  See links below for pesticide-free alternatives for IPM and landscape maintenance.

WEED AND INSECT CONTROL (INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT, IPM)
Integrated Pest ManagementMonitoring for pests, 2016 Schneider


Pesticides are harmful to pollinators. Healthy urban landscapes can be maintained with little or no pesticide use. Pesticides should not be used in or around nesting and forage sites:

  • Insecticides are toxic and harm bees.
  • Herbicides can kill the plants that bees use for food and shelter.
  • Fungicides can be toxic to bees.
  • Some additives and inert ingredients used in pesticides can be toxic to bees.
  • Combining pesticides, additives and inert ingredients has synergistic effects that can increase toxicity

Integrated Pest Managment (IPM) is an approach that employs monitoring of plants, pests and weather to project ahead and plan. IPM addresses the source of pest problems, whereas pesticides simply respond to the pest. IPM approach strives to avoid chemicals that are harmful to pollinators and toxic to the environment. The first step is to accept that plants can handle some pest and disease pressure. If a pesticide must be used, only spot treat in the evening and do not treat open blooms.

Regenerative practices such as composting can be used to improve soil and plant health.  Healthy soil makes healthy plants that can tolerate some damage. A naturally diverse landscape discourages outbreaks of disease or pest insects and also attracts beneficial insects that prey on pest insects.

Inspect and monitor your plants' health on a regular basis, before problems are out of control. Instead of routinely spraying for insects, spot treat only when necessary with soft pesticides such as soaps and oils. Consider companion planting with marigolds for pest beetles, mint for cabbage moth and nasturtium for aphids.  If a plant species is struggling, remove it and plant a naturally resistant plant instead.  To help control some pests, use beneficial insects such as parasitoids, nematodes and predatory insects.

What are systemic insecticides?  A systemic chemical is absorbed into the plant's vascular system, leaving the entire plant toxic to both target and non-target species. Systemic insecticides affect the central nervous system of insects resulting in paralysis and death. The class of insecticides, neonicotinoids, is particularly harmful to bees and pollinators as accumulated neonicotinoids are consumed by adults or stored, concentrated, and fed to developing young.  Neonicotinoids insecticides are used by greenhouses and found in backyard spray chemicals.  Neonicotinoid compounds include imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran. Pesticides including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and inert ingredients can all be harmful to pollinators especially when combined.

 

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Dr. Vera Krischik Bumble BeeDr. Vera Krischik, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, University of Minnesota, krisc001@umn.edu, performs research on landscape, nursery and greenhouse crops, nontarget effects of insecticides, Integrated pest management (IPM) and Best practices for pollinators.

This website is the product of the NCIPM Consumer Horticulture Working Group and three Minnesota LCMMR Grants.