Posts tagged ‘pollinators’

Pollinator Houses

Gardens are not only places for flowers, trees, and vegetation to grow. Insects such as ladybugs, bees, and butterflies, have an important role in our garden as well. These pollinators propagate flowers and vegetables to keep our gardens flourishing. They are so important to the survival of plants that gardeners have been known to create “homes” for these critters. Bees and wasps use insect houses to keep prey for eggs that have been deposited, while butterflies and ladybugs use them as a place to hibernate.

Grosse Pointe Lighthouse Wildflower Trail Park, Evanston, Illinois, 2007. Mary Ann Grumman, photog. Archives of American Gardens.

Grosse Pointe Lighthouse Wildflower Trail Park, Evanston, Illinois, 2007. Mary Ann Grumman, photog. Archives of American Gardens.

The Archives of American Gardens includes terrific images of insect homes. The style and size of insect houses vary just like the houses in which we live. The design of a house depends on the type of bug a gardener may want in his or her garden. For example, the size of the nesting holes drilled into the walls of an insect house influence the type of bug likely to dwell inside. The butterfly houses shown here were constructed in an elongated shape with vertical slits running up and down the sides. Butterflies must fold up their delicate delicate wings in order to fit into these narrow openings. Once inside the insect house provides the butterflies with excellent protection from wind, weather, and predators.

 Aspen Farms Community Garden, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1996. Ira Beckoff, photog. Archives of American Gardens

Aspen Farms Community Garden, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1996. Ira Beckoff, photog. Archives of American Gardens.

It is immediately apparent how the holes in this bee house vary greatly from those used by butterflies. Round holes provide bees easy entrance to the house. Unlike bee hives, bee houses are meant to attract solitary bees, such as the Mason Bee (Osmia rufa). This explains why there are multiple holes created in the house rather than one large opening like a bee hive would have.

Giltinan Garden in Charleston, West Virginia, 1997. Jean Allsopp, photog. Archives of American Gardens.

Giltinan Garden in Charleston, West Virginia, 1997. Jean Allsopp, photog. Archives of American Gardens.

To learn more about pollinators, attend the upcoming Pollination Party at the Smithsonian Gardens Butterfly Habitat Garden on Tuesday, June 16. The Pollinator Party will highlight the Pollinator Partnership’s mission to promote the health of pollinators–which are critical to food and ecosystems–through conservation, education, and research. Click here for more information about Smithsonian Gardens’ Pollinator Party.

– Melinda Allen, Archives of American Gardens intern

June 10, 2015 at 10:18 am Leave a comment

The Butterfly Garden: A Haven for Wild Bees

A bumble bee (bombus sp) foraging

A bumble bee (Bombus sp) foraging.

In major urban landscape such as Washington, D.C., a place like the Smithsonian Institution’s Butterfly Habitat Garden serves a valuable purpose as a rich and rewarding refuge, not only for butterflies, but also for bees. With so many flowers in bloom at the end of July, it’s easy to see that bees are very important for pollination. A bee moves from flower to flower searching for nutrient-rich nectar, which it laps up with its hairy tongue. In this process, pollen will collect on the bee’s body and be transferred from one flower to another, providing for the production of the seeds that sustain many gardens and wild-flower populations. On the hind legs of some bees, there are corbiculae, or pollen baskets.  These serve a function similar to suitcases, allowing the bees to pack lots of pollen into the baskets for the flight back home to their colony where they share their newfound resource with many others.  Solitary bees do not have pollen baskets, but species like leaf-cutter bees have very hairy abdomens, which collect a large amount of pollen.  Recently the Butterfly Habitat Garden was abuzz with a large number of bee species, including bumble-, leaf-cutter, honey, and sweat bees, all collecting resources and pollinating flowers.

-Lisa Horth is a Smithsonian Gardens Enid A. Haupt Fellow and an Associate Professor of Biology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where she studies plant-pollinator interactions.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa)

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa) with full pollen baskets.

Bumble bee (bombus pennsylvanicus)

Bumble bee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) foraging.

Bumble bee (Bombus sp)

Bumble bee (Bombus sp) foraging.

Bumble bee foraging

Bumble bee foraging.

A sweat bee (Augochlorellaa)

A sweat bee (Augochlorellaa).

Honeybee (Apis mellifera)

Honeybee (Apis mellifera).


July 30, 2014 at 3:00 pm 3 comments

Protecting Pollinators

Did you know that this week is National Pollinator Week? Every year organizations devoted to conservation celebrate pollinators and address the urgent issue of declining pollinator and plant populations. Pollination is the process of moving pollen within flowers or from flower to flower, allowing the plants to fertilize and reproduce. This movement can be done by wind, water, or a variety of animals, known as pollinators. Animal pollinators assist about 90% of all flowering plants in their pollination needs.

The Pollinator Cycle (

This year’s focus is on native orchids, which depend on a variety of animals for pollination. What is particularly interesting about the relationships between orchids and their pollinators is that while many insects and animals may visit orchid flowers, each orchid species often has a “preferred” pollinator. Unfortunately, if pollinator populations continue to decline, many species of orchids could be at risk.

This is true too for many of our own food sources, including coffee, bananas, and a variety of tree nuts. These plants are truly dependent on their pollinators and in turn, so are we. According to, “worldwide, approximately 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend. In the United States, pollination by honeybees and other insects produces $40 billion worth of products annually.” However, the loss of habitat, chemical misuse, invasive plant and animal species, and various diseases have severely affected pollinator species around the world. Unfortunately, the true scope of damage and the status of pollinators is still unknown, which is why it is so important to work to conserve pollinator species, even the seemingly non-desirable insects, such as flies.


Bee on a Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) in the Butterfly Habitat Garden

When we think of pollinators, we typically think of the glamorous ones: bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. However, many plants are pollinated by other animals and insects such as bats, beetles, moths, and even flies; each one has its own distinct attraction to flowers. For example, bees, birds, and butterflies prefer brightly colored flowers, while flies and moths prefer pale or dark colored plants. A diverse selection of native plants in your garden can help to support pollinator populations in your area and maintain botanical biodiversity. has handy regional guides on what plants are native to your area and attractive to the different pollinators in your eco-system.

So what can we do to protect and encourage pollinator communities? In the Butterfly Habitat Garden, Smithsonian Gardens has committed to planting pollinator-attracting plants free of chemical-based pesticides. In all of our gardens too, an Integrated Pest Management approach is used, meaning that we monitor insect behavior and can then attempt to control insect populations rather than eradicate them. This method can better allow for pollinators to do their jobs, as they are not exterminated by chemical-based pesticides.


Smithsonian Gardens’ Butterfly Habitat Garden outside the National Museum of Natural History

Even if you cannot devote a whole habitat to pollinating critters, you can provide a refuge or food source with even one plant. James Gagliardi, horticulturist in the Butterfly Habitat Garden provided a list of some of his favorite plants in the garden that are frequently visited by pollinators:

Hummingbird Mint (Agastache spp)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Bee Balm (Monarda spp)
Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)
Salvia (Salvia spp)
Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa spp)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp)
Verbena (Verbena spp, especially Verbena bonariensis)
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

Elizabeth Chenevey, Smithsonian Gardens Education & Outreach Intern

June 17, 2014 at 8:31 am Leave a comment

Winter Interest in the Garden

Just because it is winter does not mean that our gardeners or gardens get a rest.  Smithsonian Gardens welcomes visitors year-round.  These visitors include many tourists but also wildlife, as our gardens serve as an important urban habitat for birds, insects, and mammals.

Within our gardens you will find many plants that add winter interest beyond our impressive annual displays of pansies, violas, and kale.  Important garden features in this bleaker season include berries, grasses, seedheads, stems, bark, evergreens, and even some flowers.

Fruit and berries are a great way to brighten up a winter landscape and many serve as an important food source for birds.

Winter berries

Berries you will find in our gardens include (clockwise from upper left) Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia); American Holly (Ilex opaca); Firethorn (Pyracantha ‘Mohave’); Southern Bayberry (Morella cerifera); Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma); Carmine Crabapple (Malus x atrosanguinea); and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

When selecting plants for winter berries note whether they are deciduous or evergreen.  The pointed rich green leaves of the American Holly above create a great contrast to the bright red berries while the Winterberry (Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’) below looks better with a solid backdrop like an evergreen to best stand out.

Winter berries

Winterberry (Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’)

Grasses and sedges add texture to our gardens in winter and some add great color as well.  Many of the grasses also provide seeds for birds in winter and nesting materials come spring.

Winter grasses

Some of the grasses and sedges you will find on our gardens include (clockwise from upper left) Leather leaf sedge (Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’); Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’) [close-up and full plant]; Orange New Zealand Sedge (Carex testacea); and Pink Muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) [pictured in November and January]

Seedheads create interest with varying shapes and textures and make a dynamic feature in winter as they mature and disperse.


Seedheads and pods that draw attention in our gardens include (clockwise from upper left) False Indigo (Baptisia australis); Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea); Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus); Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Goldenrod (Solidago spp.); Whitehair Leather Flower (Clematis albicoma); and Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca)

Remember these seedheads are the result of earlier flowers from plants that have multiple seasons of interest.  Some of these seeds are now food sources for birds,  but their flowers were nectar sources, or some had foliage that fed caterpillars, in earlier seasons.  Take the Wild Senna (Senna marilandica) below, for example. It is a wonder native plant with nectar-providing pea-like flowers and is a host plant for sulfur butterflies in the summer.

Wild Senna (Senna marilandica)

Wild Senna (Senna marilandica)

Differing barks and branches also play a significant role in enhancing our gardens in winter.  Peeling barks of birches, brightly-stemmed twig dogwoods, and the towering dry stems of perennials can all become dominant features in the winter.

Bark and Branches

Some of our most striking stems in the gardens are seen with (clockwise from upper left) Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera ‘Renci’); River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’); Hollow Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum); Tatarian Dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Bud’s Yellow’); Coral Bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’); Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia ssp.); Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’); and Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)

Evergreens are a key element to add structure in gardens during the winter.  There are a variety of evergreens available with a myriad of shapes, textures, and even colors.  Evergreens can be needled conifers but also broadleaf trees and shrubs and even some perennials hold their foliage in the winter months.  They also provide important cover and shelter for many species in winter.

Evergreen Perennials

A small sampling of our many needled evergreens include (clockwise from upper left) Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana ‘Burkii’); Umbrella Pine (Sciadopitys verticillata); Irish Yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’); Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica); and Scotch Pine (Pinus Sylvestris ‘Burghfield’)

Broadleaf Evergreens

Some of the more dominate broadleaf evergreens in our gardens are (clockwise from upper left) Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora); Lantanaphyllum Viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides); Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana); English Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’); Common Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens); and Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium)

Lastly we can’t forget about winter flowers.  There is not much that blooms at this time but those flowers that do truly give us reason to celebrate.  They are also important nectar source for late and earl- season pollinators.

Winter Flowers

Blooms you can spot in Smithsonian Gardens in winter are (clockwise from upper left) Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus); Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana); Sasanqua Camellia (Camellia sasanqua ‘Jean May’); Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha); Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus); and Beale’s Mahonia (Berberis bealei)

I encourage you to take a walk through our gardens on a nice winter day and see what interesting plants you spot.

-James Gagliardi, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

January 7, 2014 at 7:30 am 2 comments

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