I love early mornings in the summer. The bees are out and busy in the vegetable garden. The butterflies flutter around the multicolored zinnias in the flower garden and hummingbirds zip around the backyard. The outdoor world is dynamic and greeting the day’s arrival with energy and enthusiasm. All of these creatures are busy feeding themselves as well as pollinating the flowers, trees, grasses and plants.

Birds, butterflies, moths, beetles, bats, wasps, flies and bees are considered pollinators and important factors in our natural environment. Sadly, the presence of pollinators has been dwindling. The decline of bees over the last 10 years is alarming. The honey bee numbers have been decreasing due to disease, loss of habitat and pests. Our native bees have been disappearing as well. The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee was added to the list of endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January 2017. This bumble bee is a native of the Upper Midwest and eastern United States, including Virginia. Bees are a “Keystone Species” meaning that they are a foundation species for a healthy ecosystem. The National Agriculture Service Statistics estimate that 85 percent of the plant species in the world depends on pollinators, which averages about 52 percent of the produce in our local grocery store. It is estimated that every third bite of food that we eat is produced with the help of these small creatures. Insect pollination has an economic value at an estimated $217 billion globally.

We can be proactive to help pollinators. One of the best ways is to incorporate a natural habitat for these animals in our landscapes. Pollinators need flowering plants for food as well as plants for shelter. Native plants are the best to use, because our native species of bees, butterflies and moths have adapted to these plants. If we supply mostly non-native plants, other species will compete with our native species and there may not be enough for all of them to eat and nest. One theory behind the loss of the Hawaiian Yellow Faced Bee, which was placed on the Endangered Species list in October 2016, is that when non-native plants and animals were introduced to Hawaii, this species of bee could not survive due to the loss of its native food source and the competition of new non-native species of insects. Planting native Virginian landscape plants such as phlox, black-eyed Susan’s, and coneflower would be good choices, and these are just a few examples as the list is extensive.

When searching for these plants in a nursery, always use their scientific name so you know that you are buying the correct plant. When deciding the landscape design of your pollinator garden, design it in a natural “meadow” style or in a way that you would see in nature. Many garden plants are varieties of native plants and would be good choices to use to encourage pollinators. They can be used as a supplement to native plants if needed. Herbs such as lavender, basil, catnip and rosemary are good choices. You can create a “natural landscape” from container gardening if needed. When planning your landscape do not get discouraged if you have limited space. A small area for pollinators is better for our environment than “No Area” for our pollinators.

Colors and flower shape are important when planning a pollinator garden. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are attracted to bright colors. Bees seek colors in the UV spectrum. They like yellow, blue and violet. Butterflies seek bright colors and have good vision but have a weak sense of smell, so fragrance is not as important as color when planning a butterfly garden. Butterflies need flowers that are platform shaped so they can rest while they eat. Hummingbirds like bright colors such as reds and orange. Bats and moths are attracted to white flowers, since they are most visible at night and both are attracted to fragrant flowers.

Butterfly gardens can be very rewarding. Butterflies need shelter from the wind so provide plants of varying heights. Providing rocks for resting is a good idea, too. Butterflies sip salts and minerals from water puddles so you may want to include one in the garden. To ensure that butterflies will live in your garden, include host plants that will be larval food. Butterflies will seek out plants to lie their eggs on that are preferred by the caterpillar. Milkweeds, fennel parsley, and dill would be good choices as host plants. Nectar plants such as black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed, aster, and purple coneflower are great choices. Do not grow butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.) however. It provides nectar, but biologists have discovered that it is invasive and can outcompete other native species.

Providing natural habitats for pollinators can be rewarding not only for gardeners but for our ecosystem. Always use pesticides cautiously, choose mostly native plants and provide diversity and shelter for these amazing, beneficial creatures. For more information about bees and other pollinators, search the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov/pollinators) and the Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org).

• Jennifer Mason, is a Virginia Master Gardener intern with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Prince George County office. Virginia Master Gardeners are volunteer educators who work within their communities to encourage and promote environmentally sound horticulture practices through sustainable landscape management education and training. Virginia Master Gardeners bring the resources of Virginia’s land-universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University to the people of the commonwealth.