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What to plant to help pollinators in Idaho

Moscow Idaho meadow plants pollinators through NRCS
Mace Vaughan
/
Xerces Society
The owner of this Moscow meadow contracts with the NRCS to plant pollinator-friendly plants.

The landscape of the Treasure Valley is changing as new development replaces farmland and other open spaces. That can make it tough for bees and butterflies and other pollinators to find the flowering plants they need to survive. As part of our series, 'No More Birds and Bees: Pollinator Decline in Idaho', we're taking a look at the problem and how you can be part of the solution.

So we've talked a lot about Pollinator Champions. Those are the folks who go above and beyond to help bees, birds and butterflies. But today we want to pivot and talk about pollinator weekend warriors. These are the folks who want to help but don't always have the time or maybe the resources to go all out for pollinators.

Mace Vaughan has been with the Xerces Society for 20 years. He is the co-director of their Pollinator Conservation and Agricultural Biodiversity Program. He's also a conservation entomologist and a partner biologist with the USDA and NRCS. And all those titles mean he and his team of 25 people work to help farmers and ranchers and others create and manage habitat for pollinators and other good insects.

Gemma Gaudette: Hey Mace, it's good to have you back on the program.

Mace Vaughan: Hey, it's great to be back. Thanks for having me.

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so I want to start with looking closely at Idaho and our habitat. So can we talk about some of the things people can plant in their yards that can actually help pollinators and then give back to humans as well? Like fruit trees?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. Oh, let's definitely start there. So I think the really fun thing about pollinator conservation is the weekend warrior can get out there and put something in the ground, give it a little bit of water and have some magic happen. So we could start off as you suggested, fruit trees are a great place to start. If you've got cherries or apples or things like that, you could plant one. Those flowers come in early in the springtime, and we've got early season bees that come out only in the spring that will use those flowers. Bumblebee queens are going to come out. They'll come visit your fruit tree. And at the same time, maybe you'll get some cherries and some other stuff from it as well.

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so what about things like berry bushes...I mean, we see those all over.

Mace Vaughan: Well, so that's another way you can go. If you just had time to plant one plant and you put a raspberry or a blackberry, or maybe you're given a little more care and put some blueberries or huckleberries out...they like these fruit bushes in this case when they come into flower... not only do they support pollinators, but they need pollinators to produce those raspberries you might want. And it's kind of fun as you begin to add these pieces together. Those fruit trees come out and bloom really early in the season. Those berry bushes come out and they're going to bloom a little bit later. You can almost imagine those fruit trees handing off the job of providing pollen and nectar to pollinators, to those berry shrubs that are going to come blooming right afterwards.

Gemma Gaudette: Mace a lot of folks have vegetable gardens, right? I mean, we see that every summer. So are there certain vegetables that maybe are better than others when it comes to helping pollinators?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. Oh, there are definitely some. Some of which sometimes people don't always think about. Take tomatoes, for example. They don't necessarily need a pollinator to put fruit on. But boy, if you get bumblebees visiting--and they will, and there are tiny little sweat bees that'll visit those flowers--it's amazing. The cherry tomato plants in and of itself will have all sorts of bees on it when it comes into bloom and the cherry tomatoes in particular will bloom for such a long time. You could support a whole bunch of bumblebees off of that.

You might have squash--like squash, melon, pumpkin, watermelon. Those are all plants that support pollinators. And in fact, those squash plants--those pumpkin and zucchini plants, for example--they even have some specialist pollinators. Squash bees need those squash plants specifically. So you could be supporting something kind of special out there. Those are a couple that come to mind. Peppers are going to be good. When it comes to vegetables, those are some of the heavy hitters. I think about that, 'oh, OK, great. I'm going to plant a zucchini.' And yeah, I'm going to have extra zucchini for my neighbor, but help some bees out along the way.

Gemma Gaudette: And we should talk about this year's Treasure Valley pollinator project, I mean, this gave people 64,000 flowering plants to put in their yard. But it also included a lot of herbs like sage and catmint. So I'm curious about what kind of herbs that maybe someone like me could grow. That's going to be easy. It's not going to take a lot of extra work, but it's going to help pollinators.

Mace Vaughan: Oh, actually, it's kind of amazing. Like, let's say you had even a pot--just a big gallon, two gallon pots on your back deck or your front porch--where it got some sun full of where you planted oregano into that, or maybe some mint or catmint, for example. If you let it go to flower, you will be astonished by how many bees--and there might just be little bees--but how many bees are visiting the mint, the oregano, the sage, the cat mint. It's amazing, and you can grow them in a pot on the porch, you can find a little corner of your garden. They tend to be low maintenance and just give them just the littlest bit of water and they'll take right off. And then you also can cook with them later. I mean, it's so funny. I guess people cook with them first and then the flowers come later. Right? Think of these things backwards.

I think the really fun thing about pollinator conservation is the weekend warrior can get out there and put something in the ground, give it a little bit of water and have some magic happen.
Mace Vaughan, Co-Director of the Xerces Society's Pollinator Conservation and Agricultural Biodiversity Program

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, let's move from food to flowers because there are a ton of flowers out there that folks can plant in their yards. But can you give us a short list of some of the flowers that are really good for pollinators, but that they also grow well in Idaho? And you know, you want them to look nice at your house, too? So I mean, these flowers have to do a lot, Mace.

Mace Vaughan: Oh, I know, I know. Well, you got to admit the nice thing about this is there are a lot of very pretty ornamental flowers that can do the job--some of them don't. To be clear, like those pansies out there, you know, the mums that people might plant, they're not supporting much of anything. But if you want a plant--let's take annuals, for example. You want to get a packet of cosmo seeds or sunflower seeds. Boy, you plant those...they tend to bloom middle to end of the summer. You give them a little bit of water to help them really jump up. But again, you will see them covered in bees and sometimes very specialist bees. You know, longhorn bees. Or there are specific sunflower bees and digger bees that you know much more than even just those honeybees. You all have bumblebees on those flowers. So the cosmos, the sunflowers, they're big. They're showy. You could even plant zinnias. Lacy phalaecia is one that if you planted that, you would be astonished by the variety of insects on it. One of my favorites really--it's even a native--but one that's really showy and that is commonly available are those Rocky Mountain bee plants. You know, they pop up pretty fast and easy. And again, just covered with all sorts of bees. So those would be some of the annuals, but there are perennials you can plant, too, that you don't have to replant.

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so let's talk about those...you recommend something called Bee Balm. So is that different from a Bee plant? I would assume it is, since it's a perennial.

Mace Vaughan: Oh, that's a good question. Yeah, so Rocky Mountain Bee plant is definitely different than Bee Balm. The Bee Balm is actually in the mint family and it is a perennial. And boy, you get Bee Balm started and yeah, once again you'll have bumblebees visiting it. All sorts of insects. I really like Blanket Flower. It's really drought tolerant and does well in gardens and flowers for a long time. It's pretty. A lot of the local groups out there are using it and in their plants that they offer people. So it's really nice. I really like Echinacea. It's just another easy to find, easy to get plant, to be able to put in the garden. But I want to make an important point actually about the Blanket Flower, the Echinacea and looking back at the cosmos of the sunflowers. When you choose those plants, yeah, you want one that's beautiful, of course. But look for those varieties where the flowers are as simple as possible. You don't want double petal varieties. You don't want weird, fancy puff balls of flowers. You want the nice, simple flower. Think what it might have looked like back before somebody tried to breed it into something really wild and weird. You just want simple flowers, because in that breeding, in creating double petals and things like that, you often lose a lot of the antlers that are producing pollen.

You want a flower that just looks like an old fashioned flower you would have drawn when you were in second grade.
Mace Vaughan, Conservation Entomologist, Partner Biologist, USDA-NRCS West National Technology Support Center

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so what about Sage? I mean, we've talked about that as an herb, but does it make a good pollinator flower? And I'm curious personally about that because we have sage at my house, so I want to know if I'm helping out here or not.

Mace Vaughan: You're good. You're good. And the challenge, I mean, one of the things that I have to admit is there are so many varieties of sage and I've planted it myself and just had it full of bees. I've seen honeybees all over it. Bumblebees come to visit it. So you will definitely have bees on it. There are some native sages in different parts of the country that are really good, but I think planting sage is going to do you right, both for the garden and for the bees and for cooking.

Gemma Gaudette: So there are so many flowers out there, and we've just talked about a handful of them. But there are a couple of books from the Xerces Society that can help people if they really want to learn more about which flowers to plant?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. Over the last few years, we've put together a couple of books. One on 100 plants to feed the bees, another 100 plants to feed the monarchs. And preceding all of that, just our overarching book on how do you attract native pollinators. And all of these books have got great plant lists and much of what we've focused on and put extra attention to are native plants. Now, don't get me wrong, I love some cosmos. I love, you know, some easy non-native ornamental plants. I think those are great. They can be if you choose the right ones like we've been talking about--they're going to be feeding bees. But there are so many local natives that are produced, maybe by local nurseries all across Idaho that hit way above their weight when it comes not just to helping pollinators, but to helping biodiversity all throughout Idaho.

You watch a showy milkweed plant when it goes into flower--just try to count the number of different pollinator species of flies, wasps, bees, butterflies, moths that you might see visiting the flowers and you'll be pretty astonished.
Mace Vaughan, Co-Director, Pollinator Conservation and Agricultural Biodiversity Program, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so Mace, I have to tell you, the most popular group of flowers that the Treasure Valley Pollinator Project gave out this year were native plants. So why are native plants better than, let's just say, like your average flower that you could plant?

Mace Vaughan: Oh, great question. There are several reasons. I think first of all, if we're focused on declining birds and bees and pollinators, you know, it's our native plants that are going to be more often butterfly host plants for our declining butterflies. They produce a lot of seeds, fruits, nuts, other nesting materials that a lot of our birds have adapted to, and those natives, by supporting more insects, are also supporting more bird food. Then on top of that, I mean, as you all know, we're entering this time of greater drought. Water is maybe becoming less and less of an available resource. And so a lot of these native plants are more drought tolerant. So they're important for saving water and frankly, just helping us maintain some continuity and connection to our native habitats and our natural ecosystems.

Gemma Gaudette: Hmm. You know, we've talked about how bumblebees are struggling really all around the country and right here in Idaho. So what native plants can be put around our yard that would help bees out? Because we see, as you mentioned earlier, sunflowers. I mean, we see a lot of those around the area - is that a good pick?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. Interestingly, even that common sunflower is a fantastic bumblebee plant. It comes in late in the season when a lot of things have dried up and gone away. And we know from our Pacific Northwest Bumblebee Atlas-- this collaboration with Idaho Department of Fish and Game and other state wildlife agencies in the Pacific Northwest-- that believe that common sunflower is one of those species where we'll actually see our Morrison's bumblebee, for example -- one of our species of decline.

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so you're a big fan of native thistles. All I think of is a weed when you say that, but talk about these plants. But also give us any tips on where we should actually put these prickly plants in our yards.

Mace Vaughan: That's a fair question. When most people hear this, all they think of is Canada, Thistle or some of these other invasive species that tend to be a real problem and cause real trouble for farmers and for cities and all sorts of people. But we have native thistles that, not only do they not pose a problem, but they are some of the most important plants for butterflies and bumblebees in the whole country. Idaho has its own suite of native thistles. And so if you're worried about bringing a little more prickly plants into your landscape, you know, maybe you've got some places where the neighborhood kids are getting in a little bit too much. Just maybe you could plant a patch of native thistles there where you want to kind of, you know, keep some of the neighbor kids away. Or maybe you've got like a watering feature for birds and you want to make it just that much harder for the cats to get there. You could plant native thistles around a bird bath and at the same time, once they go to seed, those birds are going to have all sorts of thistle seed to feed on, which is also a great thing.

But let's say you don't want to put a prickly plant in your yard. There are so many other native species that are really valuable. You know, lupine is a plant that there's a lot of ornamental varieties, but there are native varieties too that are really important to choose. The bumblebees love them. The lupine come out early in the season, early in the spring. And so those queens that are coming out to start their new nest, the lupine is a great plant for them. You might also plant hyssop. Some people call it agusta. The hyssop are another plant in the mint family and again covered in bumblebees, and it's going to bloom more summertime.

Fireweed is a plant that a lot of people don't think about adding to their landscape, and it can be kind of--if it gets water at once--it'll want to increase the space that it's in. But my goodness, it grows tall in the sun. It flowers over weeks and weeks and just provides these huge, abundant splashes of flower in the yard. And you can put that right next to some goldenrod, Canada goldenrod, giant goldenrod--bigger goldenrods that will kind of compete for that same size in the garden, take up a lot of space or take up the space that you want him to take up and have late season beautiful yellow flowers. And I would lay on top of all of this--don't forget your milkweed. Maybe it's not as pretty as a goldenrod or the fireweed or the lupines, but boy...not only is it that host plant for the monarch butterfly, and it's so sorely needed for that species, but those flowers attract a greater diversity of pollinators than almost any other wildflower we have growing up here in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest.

Gemma Gaudette: Really? Ok, so we really should be looking into milkweed because it seems to also have a couple of things that it can do.

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. Oh, totally. You watch a showy milkweed plant when it goes into flower--just try to count the number of different pollinator species of flies, wasps, bees, butterflies, moths that you might see visiting the flowers and you'll be pretty astonished.

Here are Mace's picks for native plants that help pollinators:

  1. Lupine (Lupinus)
  2. Native thistles (Cirsium)
  3. Spirea (Spiraea)
  4. Hyssops (Agastache)
  5. Fireweed (Chamaenerion)
  6. Goldenrod (Solidago)
  7. Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
  8. Milkweed (Asclepias)

Gemma Gaudette: I want to talk about farmers and ranchers or frankly, anybody that has some acreage because you don't necessarily have to be a farmer or a rancher in Idaho to maybe have an acre or two. So can you tell us how they're working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help pollinators?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah. I mean, one of the frankly biggest honors of my career has been working closely with NRCS and their close collaboration with farmers and ranchers all across the country--and it's no different in Idaho. So we work together to kind of develop the guidance and the specifications to help farmers and ranchers know what to put in the ground. And the agency has already over the last five years worked with the farm community to get 15,000 acres of pollinator and monarch butterfly habitat in the ground, and they've helped plant over 30,000 feet of pollinator hedgerows across the state. It's just an amazing resource for farmers and ranchers to get technical assistance and even financial assistance to be able to do this really important work.

Idaho farm grows pollinator-friendly plants
Mace Vaughan
This hedgerow of mixed shrubs and large wildflowers grows on an organic farm in the Treasure Valley area.

Gemma Gaudette: ...I was just going to say, so can we talk about the financial part of it? Because the NRCS does have both financial and technical support, but aren't the deadlines coming up for folks pretty quickly?

Mace Vaughan: Yeah, and I don't know the exact dates, but I'm pretty sure sometime in early November, we'll see one of the first contracting deadlines or like an important contracting and application deadline. The financial assistance is something that is contracted at certain times during the year, and so it's important to be talking, going into your local NRCS office. Usually there are county service centers where you can learn more and see what you need to do. But even outside of that financial assistance, those folks and those offices are able to provide technical assistance and help you just think about a project or think about what you're doing, and maybe they even call me in to provide some help.

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, so before we leave, if folks here in Idaho want to do more than just maybe plant some flowers and some berries around their yard...what else can folks do? Because it seems like we have a growing number of really great conservation efforts taking place around our state.

Mace Vaughan: Oh, I can't deny that. I mean, Idaho has great work going on. So yeah, we talked today...we really focus on all these really interesting--I think--interesting and beautiful plants you can put in the ground. If you've got, you know, beekeepers in the area, you can have say that bird bath out there that's maybe got a few rocks in it. So you might have some honeybees come and gather some clean water. You can make sure to reduce the use of pesticides in your yard. If you're planting those natives, maybe you're getting butterfly larva on them and they're chewing on those plants and maybe just accept a little more plant damage and not worry too much. If you see, you know, a little bit of chew in here and there-- just recognizing that that's all part of you helping to support nature.

Gemma Gaudette: Well, I love it, I've learned so much in the time we've chatted with you, it's been great talking with you. I really appreciate it.

Mace Vaughan: Oh, thanks for having me. I appreciate it too. Enjoy.

Samantha Wright is a news reporter and producer for Idaho Matters.