By planting native species, homeowners can provide a habitat for wildlife, birds and bees—and help save the planet
According to experts, two types of insects drive our ecosystems. “Pollinators keep the diversity of plants there and pollinate,” Tallamy explains, while insects in the food webs, including caterpillars, provide energy by becoming food for other animals, such as birds.
The alarming decline of honeybees (U.S. beekeepers lost 40% of their colonies in the winter of 2019 alone)—due to pesticides, the loss of habitats, parasites and climate change—gets a lot of press, but there are more than 400 other species of native bees in the region that will busily pollinate wherever we welcome them, experts say.
“Mason bees are really important pollinators, and they don’t sting,” says Arlington resident Nancy Striniste, author of Nature Play at Home. She specializes in designing natural play areas for children with native plantings, including Constitution Gardens Park, a public recreation area in Gaithersburg. “Attracting mason bees to your yard and having the opportunity to observe them is something that kids are naturally drawn to.”
While the plight of monarchs, with their striking orange-and-black coloring, is concerning, many other insects that aren’t as flashy also need to be nurtured, Tallamy says. “Butterflies are essentially day-flying moths that taste bad. They’re pretty and we love them, but it’s those ugly brown moths that are driving the food webs.” Many moths also pollinate at night and are rarely seen, he says.
To help the bird population rebound, experts say we need to grow more caterpillars. Raising just one clutch of six to eight chickadee chicks, for example, requires at least 6,000 caterpillars, according to the Audubon Naturalist Society, which is headquartered in Chevy Chase. “If you want to attract birds to your yard, you can do it in artificial ways, like putting [in] a bird feeder, or you can plant what they actually eat and what they feed to their young,” says Renee Grebe, a conservation advocate for Audubon. “That’s native seeds in the fall or oak trees that support over 500 species of caterpillars that they feed to their young.”
Migratory birds—including at-risk songbirds such as the golden-winged warbler, the Baltimore oriole and wood thrushes—also require feeding way stations as they travel. Productive native trees can help build the canopy of neighborhood ecosystems. “If you have property big enough to support one tree, and you make that a productive tree, you’ll support the migrating birds that desperately need that food,” Grebe says. Such trees include native oaks and some plum trees.