The Buzz

How to help pollinating insects well into fall

Goldenrod solider beetles mating on goldenrod.
Soldier beetles on goldenrod. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Each year around this time, life all around us begins to slow down. As the sun begins to set earlier and earlier and temperatures start to drop, the world suddenly seems less busy.

Although fall seems like a time to start packing it in for winter, it's actually an important time for pollinators. These insects are still busy buzzing around, but as flowers and other plants begin to die back, food and other resources become scarce.

As food sources become harder to come by, these essential insects — bees, beetles, butterflies, moths and flies — have to search farther and wider for food. With a little planning, though, your yard can become an important food source even after summer comes to a close.

One key step in providing for pollinators through fall is to plan your garden to include late-blooming native plants. These blooms will last well into fall, providing food and nectar long after summer blossoms have faded away. No matter your preference for flowers, you'll be able to find late-blooming native plants that fit into your landscape. 

Fall flowering plants native to Illinois include many asters, such as New England aster, hairy aster, smooth aster and willow aster; sunflowers like sawtooth sunflowers, stiff sunflowers, ashy sunflowers and false sunflowers; goldenrod; boneset; and vervain, among many others, according to the Illinois State Museum

In addition to planning your garden to include blooms that last from spring into fall, it's also a good idea to include plants with varied colors, shapes and scents, which will help attract many different insects and other wildlife, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Make sure to include native shrubs and trees as well. These types of plants can offer additional food sources in both spring and fall when many flowers are not yet in bloom.

And don't forget water. Late-flowering native plants will feed pollinators well into fall, but like all animals, they also need a good source of water. A shallow dish or bowl of water is sufficient, or you can add stones to a birdbath, giving the insects a place to perch while drinking, the conservation service advises. 

Another way to help pollinators at this time of year is by scaling back your yard work to a minimum. Instead of clearing away every fallen leaf and cutting back the stems of all your dying plants, leave it messy. Those withered stems and fallen leaves are providing food and shelter for all manner of insects. Instead of clearing everything away in the fall, leave it be until spring, the Penn State University Extension advises. By April, insects will have safely overwintered in your yard and will begin the season anew.

Here are a few more tips from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to make your yard pollinator-friendly all year long:

  • Reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides.
  • Leave dead trees and tree trunks in your yard, because they will provide shelter for insects that nest in wood.
  • Allow damaged plants to remain in your landscape. These plants provide important habitat for many pollinating insects. 

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