Leave the Leaves: Pollinators need support year-round, even after flowers are gone

Getting people to plant flowering native vegetation is relatively easy, since so many of the species are hardy, self-perpetuating, and beautiful to look at – in addition to performing the various beneficial ecological services they seek.

The hard part is getting people to let things get messy after the flowers have all died.

We love the trees, but remove the leaves. We love the flowers, but cut back all the stems. This makes is very difficult for the many species of insects that we value – such as resident butterflies – to make a home in our yard.

The fact is that, in order to support pollinators, beneficial insects such as moths, beetles, spiders, small mammals and birds, it is important the let some part of your yard get messy. And the more so, the better. A yard that is as neat and orderly as a well-appointed living room looks nice from a human point of view – and a historically particular one, at that – but is next to useless in terms of supporting wildlife over the coming winter. A few examples from the Xerces’ Society’s Leave the Leaves blog:

Great spangled fritillary and wooly bear caterpillars tuck themselves into a pile of leaves for protection from cold weather and predators. Red-banded hairstreaks lay their eggs on fallen oak leaves, which become the first food of the caterpillars when they emerge. Luna moths and swallowtail butterflies disguise their cocoons and chrysalises as dried leaves, blending in with the “real” leaves. There are many such examples.

Beyond butterflies, bumble bees also rely on leaf litter for protection. At the end of summer, mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate for winter. An extra thick layer of leaves is welcome protection from the elements. There are so many animals that live in leaves: spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, and more—that support the chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians that rely on these insects for food.

The two most important actions that can be taken to ensure that your yard offers a minimum of overwintering habitat are 1) to leave all stems standing over the winter months, and only cut them knee-high in the spring; and 2) design your yard so that some leaves may remain where they fall, or designate an area where some of them may be shifted so that they may provide all the benefits of cover and food and nutrient cycling.

For more details on this subjects, and specific guides to action, see this flyer from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

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