5 Weekend Pollinator Projects for Southwest Gardeners

The Southwest U.S. boasts its share of pollinators—native butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and other insects or mammals to balance nature, despite our dry and harsh conditions. For example, Texas reportedly has the most butterfly species (495) of any state. Beneficial insects that pollinate plants and crops need a little help in the dry Southwest.

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Here are 5 quick and easy ways to help pollinators.

Build a Butterfly “Puddle”

Butterflies need moisture and the minerals water contains. They can’t use the bird bath, which is too large and deep. You can use a large shallow “dish” like a container saucer, old bird bath or pie pan. First, add a layer of sand to the bottom so that if rain saturates the tray, only about one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch remain.

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Butterflies can get moisture from wet soil, and a butterfly puddle makes it easier.

Add nutrients like composted manure to the sand. Make a shallow low spot in the middle to form a puddle. Replenish the water every few days (every day in the Southwest,  most likely). You can continue to just refill the existing soil for about a month before needing to build a new soil and manure base. Here’s a video with steps from The Arbor Gate.

Plant Host Plants for Pollinators’ Caterpillars

Chemical cues signal to female butterflies (and male butterflies seeking “companionship”) that a plant will host their eggs. All those plants that attract them with nectar help replenish the energy butterflies exhaust as they seek egg-laying spots. Larval host plants provide a place to lay eggs and feed caterpillars. Add a few of these to your landscapes or kitchen container gardens (plant enough of the edible herbs so you can share with the caterpillars) to help pollinators.

swallowtail caterfpillar on dill
The dill leaves on one plant are gone, but it was worth it to feed these Swallowtail caterpillars.

Swallowtails are the giants of the butterfly world and easy to attract. Eastern Swallowtails love dill and fennel. Tiger swallowtails use several trees, including cherry, ash, willow, and birch. See a helpful list of swallowtail larval host plants and nectar hosts in this helpful post from American Meadows. Plant dill in spring in cooler Southwest climates and between October and January in the low desert and watch for butterflies in March. Plant fennel in spring after the last frost in cooler climates and in October through April in the low desert.

Milkweed plants also host the beloved pollinators — Monarch butterflies. In the high desert, I grow common milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca) as a perennial or butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). There are hundreds of native varieties. The Desert Botanical Garden lists Arizona varieties and here’s an article from High Country Gardens about the nontropical species that fare best in the dry Southwest.

Add a Bee Home

You can create bee habitat by purchasing or making a cute bee/pollinator hotel. Bees like to nest in dead trees and snags, so leave some tree limbs tucked away in a corner of your backyard. One project is to cross a cleaning chore off your list by leaving some natural spots, like dead but hollow branches, for bee nests.

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This is an old bee house that needs some work. But it shows the tiny holes in most bee houses or of hollow plant stems.

About 70 percent of native bees nest in the ground in burrows. So, this weekend, make sure you have a few spots where these super pollinators can access bare soil. Another 30 percent use cavities like the little holes in bee houses. You can gather the kids to build a bee house, using the advice of pollinator and wildlife experts. That advice can help you prevent designing or buying a bee house with the wrong materials or so large that it attract lots of bees, making them a target. Most bees actually are solitary critters. Also know that bee nesting houses require some maintenance.

And don’t forget the role some wasps play as pollinators. They are a little harder to take when set up near a house, but solitary wasps spotted in your yard can be a good sign. They eat some helpful insects but also kill harmful ones and their larvae. Pollen wasps don’t sting but do seek flowers for pollen. if you grow tomatoes, help out Braconid wasps, which prey on tomato hornworm eggs. Both types are solitary wasps and non-stingers. That is a wasp I can get behind!

Add Some Native Plants for Pollinators

When replacing a tired shrub or filling any empty spot in the landscape, consider native plants first. You have to select what you like, what fits the area or the color combination first. But there just might be a native plant that gives you as much joy as it does the pollinators. Because native pollinators have adapted along with local, native plants, these are the best bets to help bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Look for a plant that attracts or hosts beneficial insects. If you’re not sure which natives help native pollinators in your area and appeal to you as a perennial in your garden, see last week’s post by Jacqueline Soule. You also can check with local nurseries, cooperative extension offices, native plant societies or master gardeners.

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Blanket flowers (Gaillardia) are native wildflowers that grow well and re-seed in our dry climate. Bees and butterflies love them.

Then, this weekend, put together a fun native buffet for pollinators. Choose a bare area of a garden bed or lawn, a median strip or a few large and colorful containers. A diverse selection is most effective, but you can keep it simple by repeating some of your favorite plants; this looks great to you and fly-by pollinators. For example, yarrow is stunning when several plants appear together, especially bordered by something red or orange like scarlet gilia. If you can’t plant now, you can observe and record information for next year. Watch to see when bees, butterflies and hummingbirds appear and match it to garden plants that host or feed them. Try extending the season so they have food, shelter or host spots for as much of the year as possible.

Help Local Lizards

Lizards are the fun and less scary representatives of reptiles in the garden, like butterflies are to insects! And helping them is a fun project for kids. Although lizards are less likely to pollinate plants in the Southwest than they are on tropical islands, they still are beneficial reptiles. Lizards eat slugs, for example. Those living in your Southwest garden most likely are native to your area, so supplying them with native plants, especially groundcovers, and piles of rocks where they can quickly hide helps them thrive. They need a combination of shade and sun so they can move back and forth based on temperatures.

lizard-on-pot-rim-beneficial
One of our lizards is out for a stroll on a broken pot we planted for seeds. Can you see him on the rim?

This weekend, set up a lizard-friendly habitat in your garden by making sure you have a few large and piled rocks near low, bushy shrubs or groundcovers. Add some mulch around a few plants that like it cooler or damper,  and provide water near where you see lizards. Fill a small bowl or tray with assorted rocks and sticks that lizards can use to cross to a cool drink. And you might have to set up a few safe spots for lizards away from your pooches. Catching lizards is a natural instinct for many of our furry friends.

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Plant a variety of plants, including some native plants to your area. But have fun with any plants that attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.

Keeping those native plants healthy helps the pollinators, as does avoiding use of pesticides whenever possible.

Teresa Odle, Southwest Gardening contributor

Teresa Odle is the editor of African Violet Magazine, a freelance editor for BobVila.com, and author of a blog on low-water gardening in the Southwest.  Teresa trained as a Master Gardener in Albuquerque, N.M. She grew up in the Phoenix area, and has lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Teresa and her husband now attempt to manage four acres of land in zone 6B of southeastern New Mexico. The land includes a large xeric garden, herbs and vegetables, and a small orchard that borders the Rio Ruidoso in Lincoln County. Teresa’s blog, Gardening in a Drought, won a 2016 national award for best writing in digital media from the Association for Garden Communicators.

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