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Hold off on Spring Garden Cleanup! Pollinators Need that Debris

Apr 07, 2022


  • More than Monarchs
  • Monarch Conservation Spotlight

The spring equinox is behind us, which means days are getting longer and mammals, birds, and plants are emerging from winter routines into the new season. You may be eyeing your rakes and shovels, antsy to prepare your garden for new plantings, but one of the best things you can do to protect pollinators this time of year is…nothing! 

In the fall, winter, and spring, pollinators and other insects rely on the shelter provided by last year’s plant stalks, fallen leaves, brush piles, and sticks. In climate zones where temperatures are not yet consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, garden debris is crucial habitat. And even if you live in a warmer region, leaving those leaves and stalks creates valuable all-around habitat and attracts new pollinators. 

With bee, monarch butterfly, and other pollinator populations in decline across the continent (and the globe), holding off on cleanup can make a big difference. And what you do for pollinators helps many other organisms along the way. We all thrive in healthy ecosystems, so what are you waiting for? Oh yeah, this topic is all about waiting. Here’s why leaving the leaves and debris helps make your spring backyard a haven for pollinators:

Last year’s growth is this year’s shelter 

On cold nights, plant debris can provide enough protection to keep beneficial insects alive. 30% of native bee species in the U.S. nest in cavities like hollow stems or cracks and holes in fallen branches. These species include carpenter and leaf cutter bees, among others. Fallen leaves and brush piles also provide shelter for a lot of other insects, including native bumble bee species, ladybugs, wasps, beetles and others. For example, the endangered rusty-patched bumble bee as well as the western bumble bee nest in existing holes or old bird nests that have fallen to the ground.

In addition, many butterfly and moth species use fallen leaves to protect their eggs and chrysalises for the winter. Unlike monarchs that migrate to escape cold northern temperatures, there are many non-migratory species that go into diapause (suspending their development) throughout the winter. For example, the endangered karner blue butterfly overwinters as an egg on vegetation beneath the snow,  and emerges as a caterpillar in the spring.

As a bonus, by letting the leaves decompose where they fell, you’re adding valuable nutrients to the most important part of your garden: the soil.

Even bare patches help pollinators

By leaving some bare, open ground, you’re inviting native bees to make themselves at home. 70% of native bee species are ground nesting, so bare ground truly is good pollinator habitat. For example, miner bees (family Andrenidae) are important pollinators worldwide with approximately 3,000 individual species. Miner bees excavate long tunnels underground that can be a foot or more in length! At the end of these tunnels, the bees dig safe burrows for their eggs and larvae to develop.

There’s plenty more you can do (and not do) throughout spring and summer to support pollinators

  1. Make sure you plant host plants! For the monarch butterfly, milkweeds are the only host plant for eggs, and the only food source for caterpillars. If you live in the monarch’s range, plant a regionally appropriate native milkweed in your garden. Find out which milkweed is right for your region here, and check out more MJV resources for creating healthy pollinator habitat.
  2. Plant a variety of native nectar plants that bloom from early spring, through summer, and late into fall. This gives pollinators important food stability through the seasons. Check out the MJV Milkweed and Wildflower Vendor Map to find native, non-pesticide-treated nectar plants near you.
  3. Provide a year-round water source for your backyard ecosystem. You’ll be surprised how many different insects, birds and more show up for a drink. Use a shallow container with sloped sides, so insects can safely walk to the edge of the water (instead of steep-sided containers, where insects can fall into the water and become stuck).
  4. Reduce or eliminate pesticide use. Chemicals in pesticides can harm pollinators in lethal and sublethal ways.
  5. Make your lawn pollinator friendly. If a lawn is part of your landscape, participate in No Mow May, reduce or eliminate fertilizer, and consider inter-seeding pollinator-friendly species into existing turf. Learn more here.
  6. Spread the word! We need as many people as possible supporting healthy pollinator ecosystems. Put up a habitat sign where passersby can learn the value of your pro-pollinator practices. Check out MJV’s habitat signs here.
  7. Observe and collect data about the pollinators you observe in your habitat through a community science program. Learn about programs in your area here.
  • Don’t have a pollinator-friendly garden yet? No problem! Check out these resources to help you get started. You can create pollinator habitat anywhere, from a small container garden on your balcony, a backyard, a community garden plot, to a large-scale habitat. If you don’t have your own space, consider engaging your community in creating a native plant garden in a public park or space.