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GardenSMART :: Pollinators Depend on Early Spring Flowers

Pollinators Depend on Early Spring Flowers

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

As we shed heavy coats and gloves for lighter jackets, and revel in the warmth of spring sunlight, it may not occur to us to think about the other creatures also venturing out. Early spring is a time when hive bees, solitary bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and other pollinators are waking up. They're hungry and heading out in chilly temperatures looking for a meal.

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It takes a lot of energy, i.e., food, to keep those tiny wings moving. Since this is a time when not much is blooming compared to later in the season, little pollen or nectar is available to fortify pollinators until more flowers appear. Where decades ago there might have been plenty, destruction of habitat, pesticide use, lawns instead of gardens and just fewer people planting flowers have cut the availability of pollen and nectar sources considerably. Experts say it contributes to the "pollinator crisis" in this country, as insects, birds and other creatures that pollinate plants are disappearing.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some cultivated plants we humans love don't produce pollen or nectar, produce too little to be helpful, or even produce pollen and nectar that's toxic. Your garden may look like Eden to you, but to pollinators it could be a desert.

You can help these creatures by choosing the spring bulbs, native flowers and early-blooming perennials that yield the largest amounts of nectar and pollen. Also by allowing some weeds – especially broadleaved lawn weeds – to bloom, instead of pulling them out or applying weed killer.

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Early Bloomers That Are Good Food Sources

Dandelions. If you need a reason to put off mowing, this is it. The despised dandelion is a reliable, plentiful early nectar source for pollinators. If you do nothing else but leave the season's first crop of dandelions on your lawn, you'll have provided pollinators an early spring meal when it's most needed.

Snowdrops. We can't ask them, but it's probably a toss-up as to who is more excited to see snowdrops, pollinators or winter-weary humans. Along with hellebores, these tiny white flowers that poke up through the melting snow are among insects' earliest food sources.

Natives. Having evolved together, native plants are vital to our native insect species. We often think to use natives in summer, but all over the country there are many lovely species that appear in spring. Check with your local wildflower society or Cooperative Extension Service for lists of early blooming native plants that are right for your region.

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Early Food-Source Flowers To Grow Include

Ornamental onion (Allium), including the weeds wild onion and wild garlic

Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

Bugle (Ajuga)

Creeping phlox (Phlox)

Crocus (Crocus)

Forsythia (Forsythia)

Grape hyacinth (Muscari)

Hellebore (Helleborus orientalis)

Lungwort (Pulmonaria)

Siberian squill (Scilla siberica)

Snowdrops (Galanthus)

Tulips (Tulipa)

Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis)

Early Bloomers That Aren't Good Food Sources

Most flowering plants have evolved to attract at least one pollinator, but there are a few that don't, for a variety of reasons. Some plants are pollinated by wind. Their flowers are usually inconspicuous because they don't need to advertise with color or fragrance to pollinate and set seed.

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A beautiful early-blooming plant that we might adore for its aesthetics can be a poor source of pollen or nectar: the pollen isn't easy to access, as with double-flowered hybrid varieties, the pollen is toxic, the plants are hybrids that produce little pollen or nectar, or the plants are completely sterile. These four types of plants, while lovely, lack features that attract pollinators:



Daffodils (Narcissus), except for wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus


Find more information about the plants and habitats pollinators need at the Xerces Society,, and the Pollinator Partnership website,



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