Fall Food for Pollinators

Labor Day is considered the unofficial end to summer. Yet here we are seemingly melting in heat and humidity! Fortunately, cooler days are on the horizon for us and nature. My bees have spent a lot of these hot days bearding, driven from their abodes by mite treatments and hot, humid conditions. When they are foraging, I know they are struggling to find food. I’m grateful for some fall food sources in my landscape to keep them somewhat satiated.

Between a late mite treatment and rising mercury, the girls were driven from their hive.
Even the chickens are hot, sprawling out in the sun, giving me a quick fright when I first see them, but quickly relocating to the shade of brambles to take refuge from the heat and humidity.

The plentiful bright yellow dandelions and white Dutch clover of spring have been kept in check by the bunnies, perhaps a bit too much to my beekeeping liking at a time of year when each drop of nectar from those little blooms is desperately needed. My vegetable garden is on its last legs but for the herbs I’ve allowed to flower for pollinators. Basil, thyme, oregano, lemon balm, anise hyssop and garlic chives are providing food, not for my family as the quality of the herb decreases when allowed to bloom, but rather for bees and their kin, knowing that ultimately, they provide food for me and my kin.


When allowed to bloom, herbs like oregano provide food for bees.
Garlic chives are a much visited food source in fall.  Here a honey bee is sharing the bounty with tiny native bees.
Welcoming all pollinators to the table

My wildflower patch has seen better days too at this point. Bee balm and milkweed are mostly spent. Heavy sunflower heads are drooping, not looking like much to foragers or those driving by now but representing a cache of food for hungry birds and other wildlife. Yet, I see beauty in this patch for all that it has provided, splashes of bright colors from zinnias and cosmos still working hard despite the high temperatures, food for different life becoming prevalent in the form of seeds, ripe also in hope for the future.

A once vibrant wildflower patch that fed countless pollinators slowing down, energy now directed towards the next generation of life in the form of seeds.
Heavy sunflower head no longer able to support the weight of the seeds that will feed birds and perhaps lodge into the earth for the next generation.

Like many of you, I too have been entranced with the miracles of monarchs again this summer. Most years I let them mostly go on their own, bringing a few into my protected butterfly habitats to watch. Last year, I noted many chrysalides that were clear- dark, folded wings evident, indicating time to emerge, but they never did, victims of parasitic wasps and other predators. I recognize that it’s nature’s balance, yet I opted to collect a dozen or so to give them an advantage, placing them into a netted habitat with clipped milkweed to once again enjoy the miracle of metamorphosis up close. My favorite part of this process has always been the release, despite how amazing the natural manufacture of a cocoon can be or the seemingly quick work of emerging once the time arrives.

A new monarch caterpillar
Here, a tiny monarch caterpillar is eating the milkweed from which it gets its name, filling up on the needed food source before beginning metamorphosis.
These grown cats are looking for a spot from which to hang, investigating the location of one of its kin already in a chrysalis.
Emerged!  These three newly monarchs are hanging around, drying their wings for several hours before being released.

It is in the release that I’m once again struck by the importance of fall food sources for our pollinators. Many of the food sources our honey bees relish in September are also important to monarchs and other pollinators. Where many of my plants are fading, fall bloomers are taking over, and with each season, they stake out greater claims that have proven beneficial to many insects, making the investment in planting fall native food sources for pollinators visibly worthwhile.

IMG_3719 (2)
Once released, monarchs need food which is often hard to come by in late summer.  Coneflowers are helpful food sources to many pollinators.
Zinnias also provide food and tend to be prolific into late summer.  Here, heirloom Benary’s giant zinnias attract monarchs and a myriad of other pollinators.

Showy New England asters and draping goldenrod, mixed in with resilient coneflower, zinnia, black-eyed Susan, mountain mint, hyssop and Joe Pye weed in my pollinator patches provide rich food sources here in the late days of summer along with interest in an otherwise drab landscape. An additional water source and native bushes make for a rich habitat for wildlife. Sedums that spent the hot summer days soaking up sunshine and developing blooms are beginning to show their fall colors and welcoming pollinators to their nectar bounty. I’ve even moved two chairs over to watch the activity on the evenings I’m afforded the time, grateful for the effort in creating these habitats.

‘Fireworks’ goldenrod and aster make for a lovely fall presentation that feeds pollinators and our eyes.


Honey bee and skipper sharing the wealth of food offered by New England aster.
This girl is feasting on the tiny individual blooms of goldenrod.
Barely open for business, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum fills with pollinators this time of year, including my honey bees.
Desperate for food in late summer, this honey bee is working tiny Russian sage blossoms awaiting the neighboring goldenrod’s blooms.
The best of birthday gifts this year:  a new water source for birds and pollinators.  Rocks provide safe landing pads from which to drink for bees and butterflies.  This lovely shallow dish will later be plugged in to prevent freezing.  For now, squirrels and birds are perching on the edges, getting acquainted with this new, reliable water source, water splashing up and around as birds cool off on these hot, late summer days and I delight in viewing it.

What’s growing in your yard? Or rather, what’s not? As I take stock of my offerings to pollinators each season, I look for gaps. I’ve already ordered bulbs to plant when it cools off in anticipation of filling some openings I noticed in late winter and early spring before the flow began.

Plant it and they will come!
Common buckeye can become common in your landscape too with fall blooming plants.

As I take stock of my current fall offerings, I again see opportunities because as a beekeeper, I recognize the importance of fall food sources. As a monarch groupie, I also see the need to not just plant more milkweed, but to make sure I balance that with lots of food sources once they emerge and fill up for their long treks south. It’s this last point I try to drive home. This is an area in which we can all help with minimal effort.

Cosmos Rubinato open for business.
Newly released monarch on a zinnia sown earlier this year, filling up on nectar before journeying south, in turn, filling me with joy to be part of the process.
A rich bounty of pollen and nectar on a zinnia seen up close, not quite from a bees’ perspective, but close.

So, by the time you read this, I hope cooler temps have ushered in that urge to get outside again and explore. In so doing, take stock of your offerings and consider collecting seeds from spent plants that could work further in your landscape, planting something new, maybe even a tree that will benefit future generations, or considering where and what seeds to sow next spring that may feed the bees in fall. You will be richly rewarded with your efforts when you see bees and butterflies feasting at the banquet you have provided them. Welcome autumn!

Milkweed seed
Cosmos and seed
Zinnias and dried seed head

All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.  – Indian proverb

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