Helping YOUR Local Pollinators: The Problem with Wildflower Mixes, and How to Move Beyond Them

The last month of winter has arrived! Though spring will not truly be sprung for some time yet, many of us are looking forward to the warm sunlight, longer days—and to planting new spring gardens. When the weather starts to change, a young man’s fancy may turn to thoughts of fresh tomatoes ripening on the vine, fruit trees blooming anew each day, or flowerbeds filling with daffodils, geraniums and lilacs.

If you’re passionate about pollinator-friendly gardening and “saving the bees,” you may be planning to fill your garden with a wildflower mix that purports to do just that. Countless online seed and gardening stores sell packets advertised as “bee friendly,” “pollinator friendly” and so on, and frequently tack the word “native” onto these packets as well. Even Cheerios joined in back in 2017, shipping out millions of free seed packets in cereal boxes as part of its “Bring Back the Bees” campaign. However, while these mixes are bought (and usually sold) with good intentions, once planted, they do not always have the intended effect and can even do harm in some cases.

The U.S. is a very large country, encompassing several biomes from tundra to tropical rainforest and containing countless types of habitats and ecosystems. It is therefore very rare for any plant that is native to the U.S. to be native to ALL of it. In some cases a plant species that is native to one region of the U.S. acts as an noxious weed in another. Fortunately this is rare, but it is quite common for U.S. species planted outside of their native range to either fare poorly or simply contribute nothing to the local ecosystem. When seed companies stick the word “native” onto their products, it looks appealing, but that word means nothing without reference as to where the seeds are native.

Another essential fact to remember: most pollinator species have a limited geographical range, as well as a limited number of flower species from which they are specially adapted to feed. For example, hawk moths and certain long-tongued bumble bees drink the nectar of deep, trumpet-shaped flowers, and many non-honey bee species specialize in flowers that require “buzz-pollination”–forceful buzzing to knock the pollen out. With the exception of the incredibly non-picky (and non-native) honey bees and a few select bumble bee and butterfly species, pollinators thrive on flowers that are native to the same area as them—flowers to which they are most adapted.

So, when gardeners plant random mixtures of seeds that are not native to their state or region of residence, the flowers often provide little to no benefit to native pollinators in that region. Widespread ignorance of this fact can result in extensive, expensive planting campaigns that ultimately do little to help. This is precisely what happened with Cheerios’ efforts—once the seed campaign began, journalists and biologists were quick to point out that some of the flower species included were only native to certain parts of the U.S., and some not native to the U.S. at all. The campaign also focused mainly on honey bees at that time, which, though suffering decline, are non-native livestock animals—not to mention that lack of floral resources does not seem to be a major contributor to their decline. Attention to bumble bees, mason bees, sweat bees and other pollinating bee species is sorely lacking in many of these campaigns.

Ultimately, it is crucial to understand what flowers and landscapes are most beneficial to YOUR local native pollinators. But how can one know that? Here’s how you can find out:

      • Research which bumble bee, solitary bee, wasp and butterfly species are native to your region or state, and, if the information is available, which plant species they rely on most for nectar and pollen. If you have a large garden or farm, you might even be able to provide nesting habitat for bees and wasps! Look up the nesting preferences and habits of your local species, and see if you might be able to provide the type of landscape that could support them. (See “Resources” below for easy routes to start this process.)

      • Reach out to local experts! If your state has a university with an entomology department, see if anyone there works in pollinator science and reach out to them for advice. They may be able to tell you which native pollinators are most crucial for the local environment and/or most in need of help, and what you can do to provide resources for these species. Your city or state may also have a native plant society or pollinator initiative group that could provide similar information.