Wednesday, March 10, 2021 / by Jenny Carroll
Hummingbirds, Butterflies, & Bees, Oh My!
Contributed By: Jami Carroll
Spring has sprung, and it’s time to provide for our seasonal native pollinators! Following the polar freeze that hit Central Texas last month, biologists and horticulturists have begun sounding the alarm over the storms’ negative impacts on our migratory species--including hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. As we begin the hard work of cleaning, reclaiming, and replacing our landscapes and gardens, it’s important to provide for the smallest members of our natural environment: the pollinators. Native species, wildflowers, annuals, and herbs make welcome additions to any garden while providing healthy food and habitats for our favorite pollinators.
Many homeowners look forward to the annual arrival of hummingbirds from mid-March to April. Returning from their South American holidays, Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, & Rufous hummingbirds seek the tender, Spring blooms of flowering plants, bushes, and succulents. Although their primary source of nutrition is naturally occurring nectar, hummingbirds also seek protein from insects and spiders. Unfortunately, this year, many of our garden plants have been lost--including cactus and succulents, lantana, trumpet vines, acanthus, and bottle & flame bushes. For this reason, Texas Audubon members and birders throughout the state are encouraging gardeners to set out their hummingbird feeders as soon as possible. Keep in mind that hummingbirds are attracted to red, but tend to avoid yellow; if your feeder has a yellow center, it can be easily covered with a coat of red nail polish.
Spring also marks the arrival of Monarch butterflies on their annual migration through Texas. Homeowners can help a range of butterfly species by providing a food & watering station, filled with fresh water and over-ripe fruit, such as strawberries, oranges, mangoes, and watermelon. You can even hang a butterfly house or nectar feeder. As we begin to replant flower beds, keep in mind that plant types and colors are important to butterflies that use their proboscises to sip nectar, preferring blossoms that are flat-topped or clustered with short flower tubes (such as milkweed). The best butterfly nectar source-flowers display purple, red, pink, or yellow blooms, and require full sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
The 4,000+ species of bees in the U.S. include honeybees, as well as native bees. While serving a valuable role in our ecosystem, bees of any type can be negatively affected by sub-freezing temperatures and high winds, such as we experienced in February. Bees produce internal heat by shivering their flight muscles—a process known as endothermy. For honeybees, clustering--or huddling together--also helps keep their body temperatures above freezing through most of the winter. Solitary bees, like the native mason bee, without a hive to protect them, will die if their body temperature falls below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. As we recover from the extreme cold, this is an ideal time to provide nourishment and protection for our bee populations. You can create a simple bee watering station by lining a shallow dish with pebbles, then filling with clean, fresh water (never feed bees sugar-water or honey). The best way to increase bee activity is to plant nectar and pollen-rich plants; flat or shallow blossoms, such as zinnias, daisies, asters, and Queen Anne’s Lace in purple, blue, or yellow will attract the largest variety of bees.
Gardeners.com provides additional information on attracting beneficial bees at:
Austin area Master Gardeners encourage the selection of Texas Native Plants that are specifically recommended for Zone 8B, while avoiding the use of chemical pesticides. Not only are native varieties better able to withstand the range of temperatures in Central Texas, they are more suited to our soil composition and water resources. Native plants also support the needs of our seasonal pollinators, who, in turn, replenish the plants and flowers that grow in and around Austin. Let’s do all we can to help the smallest members of our garden communities survive and thrive.