Bring Out the Good Bugs With Native Plants

Picture a spring when mosquitoes and blackflies are free of predators. Swarms of biting bugs take over campsites and patios, unfettered by swooping swallows or dive-bombing bats because there are none.

Chances are you’ve had a perfectly good camping trip or backyard picnic spoiled by bugs before but, in the absence of natural predators, they could have been way worse. Thankfully we have birds and bats to keep them in check, plus one other weapon in this war against “bad” bugs that sounds like a page taken from a hippie handbook of 1960s Americana: planting wildflowers.

Flowering plants that are native to Michigan have the power to attract “good” bugs like butterflies, bees and beetles — professionals at pollinating fruit trees and wild berry shrubs as they move from blossom to blossom collecting nectar. Native plants depend on native pollinators for this need and, in turn, pollinating insects thrive in landscapes dominated by native plants. It’s as much a give-and-take relationship as they come.

This influx of insects also draws creatures whose diets are built on eating bugs, including birds and bats but also toads, salamanders and snakes. More predators means fewer bugs, especially the swarming kind like mosquitoes and blackflies. These same predators go after seriously bad bugs like gypsy moths, an invasive species whose caterpillar stage is responsible for defoliating and killing millions of hardwood trees throughout Michigan and the Northeastern U.S.

A good example of what’s possible with wildflower gardens are those growing at Jordan River National Fish Hatchery near Elmira in Antrim County. Operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the hatchery raises millions of lake trout and cisco annually to support native fish populations in lakes Michigan and Huron.

Roger Gordon is hatchery manager and a hobby beekeeper who began the facility’s wildflower-garden project in 2011 as a way to address the declining population of monarch butterflies in North and Central America. That first year, his Youth Conservation Corps team installed just one small garden — a decade later, the streamside hatchery is home to 3 acres of wildflowers across several lush gardens.

“It’s amazing,” Gordon said. “What we had before was a marginal grass lawn and our soil doesn’t support grass well. Since we went to native herbaceous plants suited for this environment, the insect, small mammal and amphibian populations have just exploded.”

About 37 different plant species make up the hatchery’s gardens including blazing star, goldenrod, native sunflowers and bee balm. Gordon’s project succeeded in attracting all kinds of butterflies, including monarchs, but also lots of other pollinators.

“What you notice the most are the bumblebees,” he said. “We really start to notice them in late July when our goldenrod are inundated with bumblebees and the flowerbeds are just vibrating.”

Gordon recommended starting a garden by planting seedlings then adding seed to the soil once the plants have established themselves. It can take a few years to really get going but starting with plants offers the best chance at having blossoms the following year, he said.

Jen Klemm, a Huron Pines AmeriCorps member and botany enthusiast, echoed Gordon’s advice and said native-plant gardens have many other advantages.

“These plants are well acclimated to our climate and soils,” Klemm said. “They know our harsh winters and summers, our state soil — which is Kalkaska sand — and help maintain soil health with root structures designed to capture and hold water and prevent erosion.”

For areas of full sun, Klemm recommends blazing star, black-eyed Susan and aster. Wild columbine and geranium, coral bells and blue flag iris do well in partial sun. Native ferns and wintergreen thrive in shady spots. Michigan State University Extension offers a comprehensive list of 26 native plant species detailing when they bloom and their attractiveness to native pollinators.

Klemm, alongside Huron Pines Environmental Education Coordinator Emily Vogelgesang, led a live online lesson April 9 titled, Intro to Gardening With Native Plants. A recording of that session and links to future lessons in our Connecting to Nature series can be found here.

By Chris Engle

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