The Wild Truth: Trouble in Pollinator Paradise

Ironweed attracts birds and butterflies. Photo by Jen Knight

By Jen Knight

Pollinators, the critters that spread pollen between plants allowing them to reproduce, are in trouble. Habitat loss, widespread pesticide use and climate change all contribute to the global downward trend of pollinator populations. These animals, mostly insects, are considered keystone species meaning they provide an essential service that supports the rest of the ecosystem. Most plants, including two-thirds of human food crops, depend on pollinators to grow fruit and reproduce. A quarter of the bird and mammal species depend on those plants for food. Without pollinators, the world starves.

According to the Xerces Society, a nonprofit dedicated to invertebrate conservation and research, the path to pollinator recovery is long but simple: grow pollinator-friendly plants, provide nesting habitat and reduce the use of pesticides. Every yard, roadside and parking lot median can contribute to available habitat if planted with pollinator-friendly species. So, what makes a plant pollinator-friendly?

Kim Bailey owns Milkweed Meadows Farm just outside Asheville and is an environmental educator and pollinator conservation volunteer. She says the answer lies in providing habitat, the essentials for life, “whether it’s food in the form of pollen or nectar or a place to reproduce such as the leaves butterflies need to lay their eggs or hollow stems native bees use to create their nests.” Fortunately for gardeners, these plants are as attractive to the human eye as they are to the pollinator palate.

Joe Pye Weed. Photo by Jen Knight

To get the most habitat bang for your horticultural buck, environmentally minded gardeners should look to native species for the most ecological impact. Flowers, trees and shrubs that naturally occur in your area are best adapted to local weather and soil conditions and are often hardier as a result. They are also more likely to provide native pollinators with their specific habitat needs. By planning a backyard garden with staggered bloom times, you can ensure pollinators have the food they need all season long.

Need some suggestions to get started? Bailey admits she is biased—after all her farm is called “Milkweed Meadows”—but milkweeds truly are a standout group with showy fragrant blooms. “For smaller gardens, I recommend growing butterfly weed,” she says. “It’s an outstanding nectar source for bees and other pollinators, plus serves as a host plant for monarch butterflies.” She also recommends the hot pink swamp milkweed, blue mistflower and golden zizia for limited urban plots.

Those who plant for pollinators will see the ecological cascade that comes from supporting these tiny titans. “We think of pollinator gardens as being full of blossoms,” says Bailey. “Once the flowers have been pollinated, the blooms will fade, but seeds will then start forming. The pollinator garden will then support many additional wildlife species.”

Gardeners can be on the lookout for birds, chipmunks, even frogs and lizards, coming to take advantage of the food sources (berry and bug alike) provided by the new habitat.

Organizations like the Xerces Society and Bee City USA provide detailed online guides identifying the best native plants for your area as well as information on pesticide alternatives and other habitat improvements. The effort is well worth it. Bailey reminds everyone to “look beyond the blooms and notice all the other benefits your pollinator garden is providing to wildlife.” It’s food for the bees and for the soul.

Jen Knight serves on the development committee of the Appalachian Wildlife Refuge ( and is the co-education director and senior naturalist at the Balsam Mountain Trust (

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