Hummingbird and Agastache flowerHummingbird and Agastache flower

Natural Nectar For Hummingbirds & Pollinators In Your Waterwise Landscape

“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden”
Elizabeth Lawrence, garden designer and author  (1904 – 1985)

What do we mean by natural nectar? “Natural nectar” refers to the nectar that flowers supply, versus a hummingbird feeder. Hummingbird feeders are useful, but when comparing sugar water to natural nectar, it’s like the difference between a soda and an organic fruit smoothie and in the diet of a hummingbird. I want to emphasize using natural nectar as the focus of feeding hummingbirds – with the benefit that they also feed other pollinators as well.

Our Gardens & Landscapes MUST Be More Than Just Beautiful.

There was a time when garden design was just planting a beautiful garden. It didn’t matter if the plants were native or old world, we just wanted something pretty. But these days, staring down the barrel of climate disruption, as well as the declining population of pollinators and songbirds, we need to take a second look at our gardens and landscapes. Our gardens are a powerful tool for us to combat climate disruption.

  • Living soil and woody plants absorb Carbon dioxide from the air. Living soil converts living matter to humus and humic acids, which stores carbon in the soil.
  • Gardens can help buffer the loss of wild lands from the development of towns, neighborhoods, cities, parking lots, and commercial agriculture. We need to bring back the plants!
  • Choosing low-water and xeric plants helps to protect and conserve our precious water resources.

Let your enthusiasm for gardening be a benefit to the planet and to pollinators. Make your yard a destination and a sanctuary for songbirds, hummingbirds, and insect pollinators. Together, we can all make a difference.

Bee on Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot).Bee on Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot).
Bee on Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot). Photo by our customer, Leslie M.

How To Combine Native Plants & Old World Plants To Help Pollinators

Native Plants For Butterfly & Moth Caterpillars

Native plants are essential food plants for moth and butterfly caterpillars. It’s just about impossible for our local caterpillars to eat the foliage of plants from outside the continent. Without sufficient populations of native trees, shrubs, and forbs (non-grass annual and perennial plants), moths and butterflies don’t have food sources for their caterpillars.

Butterfly and moth larvae need native plants to feed on foliage. For example, Monarch caterpillars need to eat Milkweed leaves and many caterpillars eat the foliage of native grasses. Adult butterflies and moths need nectar-rich flowers to survive, and they need plenty of food sources, which are often different from those that the caterpillar will eat.

Remember – don’t kill the caterpillars in your butterfly garden!

 

Native Plants For Native Bees, Old World Plants For Honeybees

Much less research has been done on native bees and their use of Old World and native plants as nectar and pollen sources. It’s highly likely that native bees and other insect pollinators are closely associated with the native plants in their habitats.

The North American ecosystems in our communities and agricultural lands have been permanently altered. We depend on many Old World fruit, grain, and vegetable plants for food, and their primary pollinators – honeybees – which are not native to North America! Honeybee species, native to the Old World (Europe, Asia, Africa) live in hives. Many native bees are solitary. This means that the huge numbers of Honeybees can make them highly competitive with native bees when feeding on the same flowers.

So how can we use native plants and Old World plants to strike a balance between feeding native pollinators and honeybees? Old World plants are not just valuable to humans for food – they also have tremendous value as a nectar source for the honeybees that now live in North America, as well as native bees and hummingbirds. Old World annuals, perennials, flowering shrubs and trees are often the first choice of honeybees, so including Old World plants in your garden may help to leave more nectar for native bees, which depend on or prefer native plant species.

 

A Mix of Native & Old World Plants Creates An Ideal Habitat Garden

Currently, most landscapes are predominantly composed of Old World plant species and cultivars. To create a habitat-friendly garden that supports native insects and songbirds, we need to greatly increase the number of native plants. I recommend using a ratio of 70-30% or 80-20% Natives to Old World species.

Liatris and Painted Lady Butterfly.Liatris and Painted Lady Butterfly.
Liatris and Painted Lady Butterfly. Photo by our customer, Leslie M.

Pollinator Habitat In Your Garden

Providing food, water and shelter are key to bringing bees, hummingbirds, birds, and other pollinators into your garden

  • Food – flowers that provide nectar, pollen, small insects
  • Water - Birdbaths, dripping fountains, ponds, mud puddles, streams
  • Shelter - Trees, shrubs, tall grasses, brush piles, rock walls, rock piles, hollow logs, snags
  • Space - Corridors, quiet space, open space

Did you know? Solitary native bees like bumblebees will burrow into bare soil – so you can leave areas without mulch and without landscape fabric, so that bees can access the soil to create a safe home.

How To Keep Pollinators In Your Yard For The Whole Growing Season 

To make sure your garden has food sources that last all season, plant woody and herbaceous flowering plants that bloom from early spring into the fall. Choose native species first, and use Old World plants when there is no native equivalent.

Early and mid-spring blooming plants help to feed hungry bees as they come out of hibernation and build their populations. Summer and Fall blooming plants are especially important to keep pollinating insects and hummingbirds around your yard and garden and aid migrating monarchs and hummingbirds. (Planting only spring blooms only is like serving breakfast, but forgetting lunch and dinner!)

  • Tip: Look for single-flowered plants, where the center of the flower (the anthers and pistils) are visible, rather than double flowers where the center is covered. This indicates to bees, butterflies, and other insects that there is nectar and pollen available to collect.
  • Flat-topped umbels, daisies, and ball-shaped flowers are favorite perches for butterflies

Read on for recommended plants from spring through fall.

Penstemon eatonii and Hummingbird. Penstemon eatonii and Hummingbird.
Penstemon eatonii and Hummingbird. Photo by our customer, Laurie C.

Natural Nectar In Spring

Shrubs & Trees

Native and Old World Flowering Trees are a wonderful source of pollen and nectar for feeding pollinators in spring.  Not only are these native plants the best source of food for caterpillars, pollinators, and birds – they also can tolerate the harsh weather of the American West!

  • Cercis canadensis (Native Redbud)
  • Native Prunus trees and shrubs are invaluable for providing moth and butterfly caterpillars with foliage for food.
  • Ribes odoratum ‘Crandall’ – when Ribes blooms, the April hummingbirds have arrived
  • Fernbush (Chamaebatiera millifolium) – a Great Basin native that performs well in the Front Range) – the flowers are alive with insect pollinators, offering enormous value from blooms in flower before many other plants

Native Ornamental Grasses

Though they don't supply nectar to adult butterflies, native grasses are essential for pollinator gardens - because they provide food for caterpillars. Of course, you can't have butterflies without caterpillars! 

Early Blooming Bulbs

  • Crocus
  • Muscari (Grape Hyacinth)
  • Species Tulips

Dandelions

There may be no more important food source for bumblebees than dandelions! This early season food source is important for the first meals of the season for pollinators.

 

Early To Mid-Spring Flowering Cacti

  • Beaver Tail cacti (Opuntia basilaris) – native bees!
  • Opuntia basilaris from near Zion National Park, UT
  • Opuntia basilaris v. heilii from UT

Mid-Spring Flowering Cacti Feed Bees and Hummingbirds

  • Echinocereus coccineus (Needle Spined Claret Cup)
  • Echinocereus reichenbachii v. albispinus (White Spined Hedgehog)

Cold Hardy Succulents

Cold Hardy Succulents for are Moth Pollinated – moths are drawn to white, fragrant flowers. We often don’t see them, as they pollinate at night.

  • Yucca baccata (Banana Yucca)
  • Yucca harrimaniae (Spanish Bayonet)

Natural Nectar In Late Spring To Early Summer


Favorite Pollinator-Friendly Perennials For Spring & Early Summer


Natural Nectar In Summer

Old World Flowering shrubs are superb, low-maintenance plants for honeybees.

Plant a succession of early-, mid-, and late-flowering species for season-long blooms. Many native shrubs are the best for early and mid-spring flowers, and many Old World shrubs are particularly important for summer and late summer flowers.

Natural Nectar In Fall


Favorite Perennials For Natural Nectar In Summer & Fall


Additional Resources

This article was originally presented by David Salman, High Country Gardens Chief Horticulturist, in an online course in partnership with Audubon Rockies. Watch the video, including a question & answer session with David Salman, here on YouTube.