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What can you plant in the garden to attract pollinators?

Bee searching for pollen on flower
A bee searches for pollen on a flower during a sunny spring day in Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, April 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Spring has sprung in Central Virginia, flowers are blooming and insects are buzzing with excitement. 

VPM’s Morning Edition Host Phil Liles spoke with Dr. Art Evans, an entomologist and host of VPM’s “ What’s Bugging You?,” to find out what pollinators are native to Virginia and what we can do to attract them in our gardens. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and originally aired on the VPM Daily Newscast, a daily news podcast produced by the VPM News Team.  

PHIL LILES, VPM NEWS MORNING EDITION HOST: What are some of the pollinators that we need native to Virginia that we can attract for our gardens?

DR. ART EVANS, ENTOMOLOGIST: Well, bees topped the list. And most of the bees that we have here that are native to Virginia are solitary bees. So those are the ones that you want to encourage by planting native plants and leaving patches of bare ground where they nest in the ground. Don't confuse these bees with European honeybees that live in hives. Those were brought in by the colonists years ago to pollinate European plant crops. But the native bees that we have here are critical for pollinating native plants. Bumble bees are also familiar pollinators around here. We have several species in the Central Virginia area and all of them are native too. 

LILES: How have changes in climate and weather patterns in Virginia impacted these insects?

EVANS: Well, this is something that's the studies are ongoing. The sad truth is we don't know because we haven't been giving insects the attention they need, especially here in Virginia. One of the big concerns is, is that there'll be a mismatch between when the flowering plants come out, and when the pollinators are available to pollinate them. We're seeing that some plants are blooming earlier and earlier, but the pollinators aren't necessarily always there, ready to pollinate those plants. But again, these are studies that we bet are badly needed here in the state. 

LILES: What can we do to make sure pollinators are thriving in our neighborhoods, what kind of plants can attract and support them during the spring and summer? 

EVANS: The best thing to do is plant native plants that are indigenous to your particular region, and the Virginia Native Plant Society has a series of regional guides to help you select just the right plants for your particular area. And also soil type makes a difference.  

One thing to keep in mind is that we need to stop using pesticides of any kind outdoors and minimize the amount of fertilizers that we're using. One of the ways to do that is get rid of the lawn. I've always been talking about is lose the lawn, leave the leaves. Every year, we rake up all the leaves and throw them away, which is just nonsense. They make a good soil cover. They keep the moisture in the soil. They provide hiding places and egg laying places for insects and other wildlife. So, it's a great idea to consider minimizing the lawn at the very least and always leave the leaves on the ground. 

LILES: Are there any insects you want to avoid having in your garden or around your plants during the spring? 

EVANS: That's an interesting question. I can't think of any insects that I like to avoid. In my own yard, I prefer not to have Yellowjackets nesting in the yard and that's usually luck of the draw. If they find an abandoned burrow or a gap in the soil, they can certainly start a nest there we had a Yellow Jacket nest once in our yard and it was pretty exciting. But once we knew it was there we learned to avoid it. They didn't bother us we didn't bother them.  

But I can't say there are any insects that you would want to avoid -- save for now that I'm thinking about it. You don't need mosquitoes in your yard and the best way to avoid that is to remove all sources of standing water. So, any children's toys, flowerpots stopped up rain gutters, that stack of tires that you have in your yard. Anything that serves as a water receptacle. You want to deal with that to make sure that you don't have mosquitoes breeding in those water tanks and that'll make your working in your garden much more pleasant too, because the adults won't be out there nibbling on you every time you step out. 

Here are some additional garden resources: