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Spring Blooming Bulbs For Pollinators

By: Sandra Nelson

I have always planted bulbs like daffodils and tulips strictly for the joy they give me in the early spring. There is nothing like finding that first green leaf tip poking up through the bare ground or seeing a burst of bright yellow out the kitchen window when everything else is still either brown or blanketed in snow. To me, they reassure me that spring is truly on its way and I have made it through yet another bleak and dreary winter..(Can you tell that winter is not my favorite season here in the Midwest?)



It absolutely has never occurred to me that my early spring blooms are not just pretty, but are actually part of a larger environmental picture, and that what I choose to plant can make a significant difference to the health of the planet. It took a session at the Perennial Plant Association Symposium led by experts in the field to open my eyes to the big picture.



To understand why choosing the right fall planted/ spring blooming bulbs is so important, it is necessary to first understand a few facts about the earliest appearing pollinators, bees.



As we’ve noted before, bees are critical pollinators. One out of every three bites of food Americans eat are pollinated by honey bees, bumblebees and native bees. That accounts for $15 billion agricultural dollars each year. (See our Secret Life of Bees series for more information.) Without a healthy supply of all types of bees, agriculture suffers  — yields decrease and prices at the grocery store increase. 



Many types of bees, for example honey bees, spend the winter months protecting their queen by clustering together within their hives and surviving on stored nectar and honey. 



By February, when the stores of food within the hive have been depleted, some of the bees must begin gathering nectar and pollen to support themselves and the hatching eggs. At the same time, solitary bee queens, like those of the familiar bumblebee, also search for energy supplying nectar. Without it, bumblebee queens can die.



Research has determined that bees use their sense of sight to locate potential food sources.



Bees, like humans, are trichromatic, which means that there are three receptors in their retinas that perceive color.  For bees, their photoreceptors recognize blue, green and ultraviolet light but not red,



which appears as black to their eyes. It is believed that they can see yellow and orange, but purple, blue and white seem to be their favorite colors.  



Here in the United States, daffodils and tulips are the most popular bulbs, with literally hundreds of thousands purchased and planted each year. Both give glorious displays and due to years of hybridization, both species are available in an enormous array of colors, shapes and sizes.



Paradoxically however, the same process that has given human beings such beauty has also changed and even in some cases eliminated some characteristics that are crucial to pollinators. 



Breeders have prioritized bloom size, shape and color, leaving many varieties essentially sterile and without scent.


Flowers with little or no nectar and pollen are useless to pollinators. Those without scent leave aroma-sensing pollinators with no road map to food at the time when food sources are naturally limited. Multi-petaled flowers, those sold as doubles and triples, cause problems for pollinators too since the extra petals obstruct a clear path to the flower’s nectar. 



For those of us who love our early spring bloomers but are also concerned about the health of early pollinators too, there are solutions. One is to search out and purchase non-hybridized species. In response to environmental concerns, several of the major bulb suppliers now list heirloom or species varieties of daffodils and tulips in their catalogs. 





Another option is to expand your plantings to include a variety of the types of imported bulbs that attract early pollinators. For example,



-- sun or part shade  -- purples, white, yellow  --  some varieties fragrant  

— sun or part shade  — purples, white, yellow  —   fragrant


Grape Hyacinth 

 -- sun -purple  -- fragrant  

— sun   — fragrant  


Winter Aconite 

 -- sun -- yellow

— sun 



— sun



— shade


Blooming a bit later:




 — sun




— moist shade



In addition to a wide selection of imported bulbs, some nurseries are beginning to include selections of propagated native bulbs (the term  bulb is used in the familiar sense here to include bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes)  that are appropriate for the region. These plants, which used to be a common sight in our woodlands and meadows, have significantly declined in the wild. They are however, making a comeback  because of the efforts of concerned individuals who realize their importance to the environment and their natural beauty. 


Among the natives*** are:


Spring Beauty

(Claytonia virginica)



Trout Lily

(Erythronium americanum)




(Sanguinaria canadensis)


White trillium

(Trillium grandiflorum)


Dutchman’s breeches 

(Dicentra cucullaria)


***In a side note, please be aware that several states have declared these plants to be protected species and have levied significant fines for disturbing them. Do not dig them yourself; always purchase them from reputable nurseries.



Before you place your order or head to the nursery to buy your bulbs, I’d like to offer just a few final things to consider as you plan your early spring garden with pollinators in mind.


Pay attention to pollinator color preferences.

Although masses of red tulips are striking to the human eye, bees see them as black — and ignore them.



Instead, try large swaths of purples and blues (especially crocus) whites, yellows and oranges. 




 Conserve pollinator’s energy. 


Plant in large drifts (4 feet or more) so they don’t have to expend unnecessary energy.



Keep bulbs close together because groups of flowers are easier for pollinators to see from a distance.


Plan for a variety of bloom times so that nectar will be available until the summer flowers blossom.



Choose planting locations carefully. 


Pollinators like the warmth of the sun. 



They need some protection from strong winds. 



Even insects get thirsty! Give them access to water.



Make sure that your plantings give you a great view.




Early spring gardens feed the soul after a long winter — now they can feed the pollinators too!