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Pollinators need our help and here's why you should take action

Many of our food and drinks are dependent on the work of pollinators.
A viceroy butterfly, with its orange and black coloring, rests on a yellow flower.
A viceroy butterfly (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Imagine, if you will, a world without chocolate. Or a world without avocados. We can certainly live without these two foods with such an abundance of others, but they would be missed. So, too, would bananas, almonds and even coffee. 


These foods that we know we can reliably find on any given trip to the grocery store or farmers market are there thanks to the work of pollinators – the insects and animals required to keep plants and, in turn, food plentiful on our planet. The crucial role they play in the ecosystem and in our food supply is why it is essential that we take the necessary steps to protect them.  


Across the world, many of our favorite foods and drinks are dependent on pollinators for their continued availability. In North America, 99% of pollinators are insects, primarily bees. In Will County and across Illinois, insects are the primary pollinators, along with some species of birds. 


However, the pollinator population is in decline in Illinois and across the world. While the precise reasons for the population decline are not fully known, several factors are believed to be contributing, including habitat loss, pesticide use, competition from nonnative plants, the presence of mites and diseases affecting pollinators. 


As the pollinator population dwindles, the number of viable seeds in the plants they pollinate also decreases. This leads to fewer plants as well as less pollen and nectar for the pollinating animals.


How you can help 

You can do your part to help the pollinator population thrive in our area by planting and maintaining a garden with pollination in mind. The key to attracting pollinators to your yard or garden is planting native plants, said Bob Bryerton, a program coordinator for the Forest Preserve. 


Because native plants are designed to thrive specifically in our climate, planting them strengthens the entire ecosystem. 


“Native plants are important because that’s what the critters are used to here,” Bryerton said. “The more native stuff you have, the healthier the system is and the more resilient it is.” 


Native plants also attract pollinating birds and insects to your yard.


This includes hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, two species many people want to see around their homes. Although bats are not typically pollinators in Illinois, they are a critical part of the ecosystem, so having a garden rife with native plants helps ensure a healthy habitat for them as well. 


“If you have a good pollinator garden, you’ll get butterflies, you’ll get bees, you’ll get hummingbirds,” Bryerton said. 


One benefit for gardeners who want to dedicate space for a pollinating garden is that many native plants are perennials, which means they will return year after year. They also require very little upkeep to thrive, Bryerton said. And with a healthy garden, you’ll attract a multitude of pollinators and more — birds, bees, bats, butterflies and other insects. This, in turn, helps ensure both the animal and plant species will thrive locally.  

  

Case studies 

In our area, butterflies are plant-dependent. If the plants butterflies use as hosts are not pollinated, those species will go extinct. One example is the Karner blue butterfly. These butterflies, which were once found in significant numbers in and around the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Northwest Indiana, are dependent on the nectar from wild lupine. In addition, their caterpillars feed on the lupine leaves. However, in 2012, during an unusually warm and early spring season, the caterpillars emerged from their cocoons before the lupine plants had grown, causing the butterfly population to drop in the dunes area. 


The dwindling bee population has garnered a lot of headlines in recent years, and for good reason. Bees are one of the world’s primary pollinators, and their numbers have been in steep decline over the past several years. 


In Illinois and the Midwest, the rusty patched bumble bee has historically been a well-populated and broadly distributed species. These bees helps pollinate tomatoes, apples, cranberries and more. In 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee was placed on the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Over the past 20 years, the bumble bee’s population has declined by an astounding 87%, and today it is present in only 0.1% of its historical range. 


Experts believe the rusty patched bumblebee’s population decline is caused by several factors, including intensive farming and the use of pesticides. 


The examples of the Karner blue butterfly and the rusty patched bumble bee illustrate the important symbiotic relationship between native plant and native animal species and how they create a healthier environment for all species, including us. 


Abuzz with activity 

To contribute to a thriving natural habitat, be mindful of the plants you put in your yard and garden and make an effort to plant native species. One of the benefits of this will be the wealth of critters you attract to your yard, including butterflies, hummingbirds and other songbirds and a multitude of insects, including the bees that are so critical to our existence. 


“It’s like a living laboratory out there,” Bryerton said. 


Here’s a look at some of the plants you should consider planting in your own yard to contribute to a healthy habitat for pollination. 

 

Trees 

Many of our neighborhood trees are cultivated and not native to our area, Bryerton said. If you are looking to plant a new tree in your yard, native species such as oak trees will host more insects and other organisms than nonnative species. These trees will also attract more caterpillars, and more caterpillars means more birds, which eat the caterpillars.  


The Morton Arboretum maintains a lengthy list of trees suitable for growing in the Will County area in its Northern Illinois Tree Species List, which includes information about particular species’ site requirements and ideal planting locations. Many of the trees listed are native to Illinois, including a variety of birch, hickory, maple, oak and pine trees. 


Shrubs 

Many insects, birds and small mammals use shrubs for shelter and privacy, Bryerton said. Among the shrubs he recommends planting in a pollinator garden are arrowwood viburnum, spicebush and American hazelnut. 


Hummingbirds are among the pollinating animals that like shrubbery, because they like open, partially wooded areas, he said. 


Flowers 

Many people prefer the pop of color flowers provide in home landscapes, and many native flowering plants will give you a colorful garden while also attracting pollinating insects. Some good choices for planting in Will County are black-eyed Susan, brown-eyed Susan, coneflower, coreopsis, goldenrod, ironweed, spiderwort and wild bergamot, Bryerton said. 


A few species are of special interest in attracting particular pollinators. For example, milkweed is the host plant for monarch butterflies. Without milkweed there will not be monarch butterflies in a particular area. 


He said milkweed used to be more common in Will County and northern Illinois, but its prevalence has fallen recently. As a result, the monarch population has also decreased. Two examples of milkweed species native to our area that are easy to plant and maintain in a garden are common milkweed and swamp milkweed. Bryerton said they have had success attracting monarch butterflies to their milkweed plants in the native garden at Plum Creek Nature Center. 


Another perennial wildflower that attracts butterflies is Joe Pye weed. Bryerton said Joe Pye weed is a good alternative to butterfly bush, which is popular for attracting insects but is best avoided locally because it’s not native to Illinois.  


Sticking with native plants is best not just for the plants and the butterflies you hope to attract, but for the health of the entire ecosystem. 


“Native plants help control nuisance insects and garden pests,” Bryerton said. “Having a more diverse habitat helps control nuisance on its own.” 


Where to find native plants 

Garden centers become a hotbed of activity each spring, full of flowers, shrubs and trees just waiting to be planted. But the garden centers that pop up each year at local home improvement and big-box stores are not necessarily the best place to buy native plants. 

Instead, look to native plant nurseries for native plants. In addition, The Nature Foundation of Will County hosts several native plant sales each year, sourcing plants from a reputable native plant nursery.  

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