How to Start Caring About Pollinators: A Guide for Iowans

How to Start Caring About Pollinators: A Guide for Iowans

Now that the City of Ames has its own Pollinator Plan, we know how the city feels about Iowa’s native pollinators. But what about individual Iowans? We asked three central Iowans from vastly different backgrounds about how they 1) came to appreciate pollinators and wildlife in general, 2) what catalyzed their appreciation into action, and 3) how they stay energized and hopeful for the future of pollinators and our natural environment as a whole. Lori Biederman, Lynn Kellner, and Todd Burras share their journeys with us here.

A trout lily at Brookside Park, where Lori has spearheaded a Plant Corps with Friends of Brookside Park to remove invasive plants.

Lori Biederman – Ames, Iowa

I grew up on a 10-acre hobby farm in southern MN and both of my parents are biologists.  I spent much of the summer playing outside. I was tuned into the natural world, but mostly for plants, and did not think too much about insects.

I started appreciating pollinators relatively recently. Although I have two advanced degrees in ecology, my focus has been on plants and the soil. Animals in general were just not my focus area. However, now when I’m outside working at field sites or in my garden, I like noticing the activity of birds and insects around me. This suits me as I get older and cannot move as quickly as I used to; plants don’t mind activity around them, however animals such as pollinators require sitting still and watching.

As an ecologist, my gardening philosophy aligns with my training – plants will sort themselves out to the conditions they like. Because native plants are adapted to local conditions, they are the easiest to grow! Now I have lots of plants to enjoy. My backyard is forested and unmanaged; I buy forest seed every year from Prairie Moon Nursery and spread it around – plants pop up when they are in a good place that matches their sunlight and moisture needs. Right now my backyard is full of purple giant hyssop and it’s covered with various bees, from big bumble bees to small little sweat bees!

I am in despair about the loss of biodiversity, but people can only appreciate what they know. I try to share my excitement about different organisms, and I am also learning new things too, which is always fun!

Lynn Kellner – Des Moines, Iowa

Growing up, my mother always had a yard full of flowers, fed the birds, watched butterflies, and loved the natural world. She was always reading, learning, and sharing. She inspired me, and I count it as one of her greatest gifts to me. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always had flower gardens, vegetable gardens, herb gardens, and bird feeders, and I’ve learned more as time has passed. I started deeply appreciating pollinators in 1981 when my then 5-year-old daughter and I searched a country road’s ditch for monarch caterpillars for a school project. As the class watched the caterpillars transform to butterflies, we learned all about milkweed, host plants for other moths and butterflies, and learned that some flowers are better than others for supporting bees, wasps, and other insects.

I started to become concerned about insects and bees when I learned about colony collapse disorder. Since then, I’ve become even more interested in pollinators, native plants, and other wildlife. I see myself as a realist, and that’s why I have hope during insect declines and climate change. I believe in the change of seasons, in science, and I believe in the goodness and perseverance of humankind. It may not be a direct line, but we will always keep moving forward.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

A longhorn bee in just one of Lynn’s pollinator-friendly gardens.

Todd’s business, Wild Birds Unlimited, Ames, hosts many presentations about our native wildlife.

Todd Burras – Ames, Iowa

I grew up on a farm in north-central Iowa, with parents who took a great interest in birds, animals, insects, trees, and flowers. My dad was very active in implementing soil and water conservation practices, and he and my mom planted many windbreaks, shelterbelts, waterways, and bufferstrips. It was probably inevitable that I would adopt an appreciation for the same things in which my parents were interested.

Many things that raised my curiosity converged to eventually interest me in pollinators. To complete the Story County Master Conservationist program, I started a weekly outdoors page for the Ames Tribune that ran for over 20 years. While I learned about hunting and fishing, I was introduced to federal habitat programs that, while created to help pheasants and waterfowl, had the added benefit of providing habitat for songbirds, butterflies, amphibians, and other wildlife. But it was while learning about the native flowers incorporated in the seed mixes used in these programs that I became interested in prairie and the natural history of Iowa. Through this interest, I was introduced to an entire niche group of prairie enthusiasts that opened my eyes to the wonder of what Iowa was like prior to European settlement. The desire and urgency to learn more and to be actively engaged in conservation practices took root and has been growing ever since.

My wife, Stephanie, and I started supporting wildlife and pollinators by planting trees, shrubs, and flowers – not exclusively native ones at first. We eliminated pesticide use on our property, and Stephanie started keeping honey bees. I know that honey bees can be seen in a negative light, but they really were a “spark” insect that accelerated our interest in learning about and helping other pollinators and wildlife. Lastly, our deepening friendships with other conservation-minded people have been instrumental in our evolution of trying to become better stewards of the land and all creation.

In terms of insect decline and climate change, I’m encouraged when I see people make connections between their favorite birds or butterflies with their specific habitat requirements. Once that connection is made, they begin to understand how they can steward their land to provide for, and hopefully secure a better future for, the wildlife they are interested in and all creatures that play an integral role in the ecosystem. The pollinator project undertaken by Prairie Rivers of Iowa and the City of Ames is going to accelerate these connections for countless residents, and help change the trajectory of how our community grows more environmentally friendly for years to come.

A tiny sweat bee foraging pollen on a native flower, purple prairie clover.

The Good, the Bad, and the Alternatives to No Mow May

The Good, the Bad, and the Alternatives to No Mow May

A long-horned bee visits a coneflower.

If you’re involved in any kind of pollinator or wildlife hobbies, you’ve probably heard of “No Mow May”. An initiative that started in the United Kingdom, No Mow May is a campaign aiming to encourage people to stop mowing their lawns during the month of May to help pollinators. The idea is that leaving your mower parked for a month in spring will allow dandelions and other lawn-associated flowers to grow, providing food for emerging pollinators at a time when there aren’t many flowers blooming yet. This sounds easy and beneficial, but is it really? Are there better options, or is this the answer to pollinator-friendly yarding? Let’s mow through the jargon, discuss different viewpoints, and offer simple alternatives.

There are many positive and negative opinions surrounding the No Mow May campaign.

Let’s start with the positives:

  • No Mow May is a catchy slogan.
  • It allows dandelions, clover, violets, and other flowers to bloom.
  • Generalist bees, such as honey bees, may have more food options.
  • It keeps neighborhoods more peaceful.
  • You save money on gas, and maybe on fertilizers/pesticides as well.
  • 31 days of no fertilizers or pesticides is good for the environment (and water quality!).
  • Ground-nesting bees may be disturbed less.
  • You’re contradicting the status quo about what yards “should” look like.

A hairstreak butterfly on a dandelion.

Now for some cons to consider about No Mow May:

  • It’s only for 31 days. Pollinators are active at least from April to October (which is 184 days).
  • Only honey bees and other generalist bees can benefit.
  • You may spread invasive species such as dandelions and dutch white clover.
  • Dandelion and clover provide sub-par nutrition compared to native flowers.
  • Weeds can perpetuate the image that eco-friendly lawns are just careless and messy.
  • It may upset your more traditional neighbors.
  • Some may use more herbicides after No Mow May to get their lawn “back to normal”.
  • Cutting a large amount of grass length in one go can stress the lawn, if you keep it.
A lucky four-leaf clover.

A mining bee on a dandelion.

Many articles will discuss these different viewpoints, but few tell you exactly how to start a pollinator garden. Or they do tell you, but it’s pretty heavy reading, or tells you to start in fall. This article is for those needing simple steps and instant gratification. While yes, in most cases it is best to start in the fall (for seeding), if you’re willing to buy potted plants and plugs you can get outside now, while you’re excited to, and have some happy pollinator plants this summer. We’ll start with steps to selecting plants and container gardening, and then dive into in-ground gardens.

Luna Moth

A pollinator container garden.

Start easy with container gardening

The easiest thing you can do is to buy a potted plant and stick it on your porch or patio. You probably do this already – why not choose one that will make both you and pollinators happy? To start considering which plants to bring home, first ask if the store or nursery has any certified USDA organic plants; if they do, these plants are less likely to make pollinators sick as they will have little to no harmful chemicals. Next ask if they have any native plants.

The art of observation

Once you are in the organic and native section (or sadly, in a random flowering section because there are no such plants available), the key to narrowing down the plants you should get is observation.  Walk slowly through your plant options and watch the plants to see which ones are visited by pollinators. Those are the plants you want to look at. You may notice that nothing ever visits a pansy or petunia, but sunflowers or tube-shaped flowers are all a-buzz. While it is best to buy native plants, some plants such as irises and sedum will attract pollinators even though they are in a pot, and you can easily find them at local nurseries and big box stores (keep nonnatives in a pot to keep them from spreading). 

Cultivars and creepers aren’t keepers

Be mindful of plants labeled as “double bloom” or ones that have fancy names, even if they look like a native plant. These are likely cultivars, and pollinators won’t visit them very much, as those extra-big flowers normally don’t have any pollen or nectar. If they do have some sort of food, pollinators have a hard time pushing through those extra petals to get to it. Try to stay away from anything that has the word “creeping” or “spreading” in its name, and check the label to see if it’s “aggressive” or needs a large area for its “spread”. This will keep you from bringing an invasive plant home that could escape your patio. Do keep in mind, however, that it’s going to be a lot more fun for you if you buy native plants, as they will likely attract many more pollinators! Lastly, try to choose at least three flowers – one that is currently in bloom, one that will bloom in summer, and one that will bloom in early fall. This will ensure you are supporting pollinators throughout the year, and also allows you to enjoy flowers during the entire growing season.

Large flowers and unnatural color, with the name “Pardon My Purple”  signify a cultivar.

Pots are easy; finding native plants isn’t

It isn’t as easy to find potted native plants as it is nonnative plants, but it’s better than it used to be! Semi-local native seed companies such as Allendan Seed Co. and some local nurseries may sell native plugs during the growing season. You can also scope out Facebook for local native plant swaps. When buying or swapping plants, ask them if they are likely to bloom this year or the next; some perennial plants take two years to bloom, even if you buy a plug and not seed; it’s good to set your expectations. Also ask where the person got the seed to grow the plant, or if it’s been treated with chemicals recently. If they can’t answer these questions, find a polite way to exit. In terms of native plants that grow well in a pot, beardtongue is an earlier bloomer, and bee balm as well as black-eyed Susan are great plants that will bloom later on. 

Bumble bees love beardtongue flowers.

Borders are an easy space to add pollinator habitat.

Gardens attract and support the most pollinators

Carving out a piece of your lawn to create a garden is the best thing in the world that you can do for pollinators. Start a small, manageable garden this year with some plugs from a reputable plant supplier (Allendan, Iowa Native Trees and Shrubs, Blooming Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery) for instant gratification. You can create a small garden on the side of your house that’s annoying to mow. Or maybe there’s an awkward corner in the back of your yard that the kids don’t really play in. Those areas are great places to start.

Natives are a must

Choosing plants for a garden follows the same rules mentioned above for container gardening, except it is much more important to have native plants that were grown relatively local. Putting a plant of dubious quality in the ground lowers the chance it will survive and flower for you later. Or worse, planting a nonnative plant in the ground could lead to it doing too well and spreading across your yard, forcing you to hack away at it all next year (remember those lilies of the valley your friend can’t get rid of? You don’t want that). 

Replace the grass

To start planting your native plugs, you’ll have to kill the grass. A good tilling deep into the turf is a quick way to get started. A few rounds of glyphosate or roundup will also do the trick, but that’s a pretty nasty chemical. Covering the area with cardboard and compost on top for a year is a great way, but it’s obviously a better method for a fall planting rather than an immediate one. After you’ve removed the grass, plant your plugs. Grouping the same flower species together will attract more pollinators and make the garden look more intentional. Choosing different flowers that have different shapes and colors will attract and support a higher diversity of pollinators. After planting, water your new garden well for the next few weeks! Leaving some bare dirt may encourage native bee nesting; however if you’d like to mulch, use natural, undyed and untreated wood chips and leaves to keep turf grass and weeds at bay. Adding a natural wood border or rocks can add more nesting habitat. Lastly, be sure not to fertilize or use pesticides on or near your pollinator garden. Fertilizer will only encourage weeds, and pesticides will harm any pollinators that visit.

Tilling is an easy way to remove grass.

Enjoy your handiwork!

Creating a pollinator garden is infinitely more rewarding than merely pausing the mower during May. By adding native plants to your yard, you will not only start seeing bees, but possibly new kinds of birds, butterflies, fireflies, and other wildlife. You’ll be able to enjoy your handiwork for not one month, not two, but years to come.

Trees for the Bees: How to Support Wildlife this Arbor Day!

Trees for the Bees: How to Support Wildlife this Arbor Day!

A native bee visiting a redbud tree.

These warmer days make it hard to sit still; we all want to get a jump on our yard and garden plans! Maybe you’re thinking of adding some small pockets of pollinator habitat. Or perhaps you’ve finally decided to add a tree or two for shade. While there’s a dizzying number of guides for “pollinator flowers”, there’s less advice on how homeowners can utilize trees and shrubs to support wildlife.

Planting a tree can be an investment not only of money but of time as well. When thinking about the long-term goals for your property, it’s important to think about the legacy you want to leave behind, as the tree may outlive you. Planting the right trees can not only increase your property’s appeal; it can also provide habitat for songbirds and pollinators for decades to come! So which trees are attractive to pollinators, are native to Iowa, and look great in our yards? We’ve put together a list to answer some of these questions, just in time for Arbor Day, which falls on April 28 this year!

But first: why trees?

Native trees and shrubs provide excellent wildlife habitat in several ways. Many provide an early flower source for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and they are also great habitat for birds! Trees provide nesting and hiding areas for birds, and can attract insects that birds need to feed their chicks (more on that later). Planting native trees will especially invite butterflies and moths to visit your yard and lay their eggs, which hatch into caterpillars. These caterpillars then snack on tree and shrub leaves (they won’t do any real damage) until they spin their chrysalises or get plucked by a bird. Caterpillars and other insects are fundamental to the food web: they are the juicy, protein-filled link between plants and larger animals. If you want to see beautiful butterflies and songbirds, you should plant native trees that support native insects!

A blue jay with an acorn.

Native trees are central to an exciting, diverse yard!

The nonnative ginko tree (the one with fan-shaped leaves) supports about 4 species of caterpillars. In contrast, native oak trees alone can support 534 species of caterpillars (according to Dr. Doug Tallamy*). Consider the fact that black-capped chickadees need at least 300 caterpillars a day to feed their chicks – that’s about 5,000 caterpillars needed in a few weeks while the chicks grow! And this is just one example. Imagine if you had three chickadee families in your yard, or five other species of birds visiting your feeders. Suddenly, native trees just seem practical, and planting nonnative trees, such as a ginko, seems, as Tallamy put it, “equivalent to erecting a statue” in terms of its usefulness.

A young chickadee and parent.

Unhelpful trees:

Let’s address the elephant in the room: some trees and shrubs commonly planted in yards are pretty damaging; they easily spread from our yards and choke out native plants that wildlife depend upon, and cost cities and counties thousands of dollars to remove from natural areas and building foundations (some of these trees’ roots can actually compromise the integrity of buildings). Some trees and shrubs to stay away from include: Bradford or Callery pear trees (Pyrus calleryana; also their flowers smell bad), Norway maples (Acer platanoides), buckthorn (Frangula species), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and Amur and Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii and L. morrowii, respectfully).



Lastly, do your best to avoid planting cultivars and hybrids that promise better color, bigger flowers, etc. Most native trees (especially maples) produce spectacular fall color anyway, and the hybrids you see in the nurseries will likely be sterile, and won’t produce flowers that attract pollinators or birds (if they produce any at all). It is also important to note that nonnative shrubs, trees, and hybrids may tout that they produce berries, and therefore support wildlife. Birds in particular may feed on berries only certain times of the year, and that time may not coincide with berry production on hybrid plants. Additionally, these nonnative plants will not come close to supporting the number of caterpillars needed to keep birds nesting in or near your yard.

Bradford pear tree with smelly flowers.

Multiflora rose choking out trees.

Now for the main event: the best shrubs and trees to plant!

How the lists are set up: Shrubs, small trees, and larger trees that are native to Iowa and beneficial to pollinators are listed below in order of bloom time. Each table describes a specific genus or species of tree, which is pictured to the right of the table (or below in mobile format).

Shrubs and small trees are listed first, and larger trees are listed afterwards. A small picture of the blooms produced by a shrub or tree may be displayed in the corner of the picture of the mature plant. These are not exhaustive lists; they are meant to get you started!

{ See end of article for a list of places to purchase native shrubs and trees! }



The following native plant species are shrubs and small trees reaching a maximum height of 30 feet. These trees are perfect for small yards, or large yards that want to add visual interest and diversity by planting trees of varying heights. Some of these shrubs also make great hedges or borders near property lines! Be sure to look up how some of these shrubs spread to make sure their maintenance needs meet your expecations.

Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Pussy WillowEarly to Mid-SpringFull Sun, Wet – Moist
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Salix discolor2 WeeksPollinators, Birds
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
6 – 20 ftSmall, fluffy white catkinsDull green – yellow


Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Serviceberry (Juneberry)Mid-SpringPart – Full Sun, Moist – Dry
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Amelanchier arborea1 – 2 WeeksPollinators, Birds, and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
6 – 20 ftWhite, 1-inch flowersRed-orange


Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Eastern RedbudMid-SpringPart – Full Sun, Moist – Dry
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Cercis canadensis4 WeeksPollinators
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
15 – 25 ftShowy pink flowersYellow


Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
American PlumMid- to late SpringPart – Full Sun, Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Prunus americana2 WeeksPollinators, Mammals
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
10 – 15 ftShowy white flowersRed to Yellow


Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Prairie Crab AppleLate SpringPart – Full Sun,  Moist – Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Malus ioensis1 – 2 WeeksPollinators, Birds, and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
10 – 25 ftShowy white-pink flowersBrown-orangeish


Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Gray DogwoodLate Spring to Mid-SummerPart – Full Sun,  Moist – Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Cornus racemosa3 WeeksPollinators, Birds, and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
8 – 15 ftShowy white flowersRed-purple


Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
American ElderberryLate Spring to Mid-SummerPart – Full Sun, Moist
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Sambucus nigra canadensis, or Sambucus canadensis3 – 4 WeeksPollinators, Birds
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
4 – 12 ftShowy white flowersBrown-reddish to Yellow


Butterfly weed



The following species are taller native trees ranging from 40 to 120 feet tall. These trees will provide high-quality habitat in larger yards, and are sure to attract and support wildlife, especially if mutlitple species are planted. Be sure to check if these trees create any fruits or seed pods so you can determine which trees best match your expectations.

Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Maples (Sugar, Black, and others)Early to Late SpringPart – Full Sun, Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Acer species1 – 2 WeeksPollinators, Birds,  and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
60 – 100 ftSmall yellow-green flowersStriking colors, varies by species
Bicknell's sedge

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Black CherryLate Spring to Early SummerPart – Full Sun,    Moist – Dry
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Prunus serotina2 – 3 WeeksPollinators, Birds,  and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
50 – 80 ftShowy white flowersYellow to reddish
Bicknell's sedge
Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Kentucky CoffeetreeLate Spring to Early SummerPart – Full Sun,    Moist – Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Gymnocladus dioicus2 – 3 WeeksPollinators, Birds
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
60 – 90 ftSmall white flowersYellow
Bicknell's sedge
Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Basswood (Linden)Early SummerPart – Full Sun,    Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Tilia americana2 WeeksPollinators
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
50 – 100 ftSmall white flowersDull green – yellow
Bicknell's sedge
Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Oaks (Red, White, and others)VariesVaries
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Quercus speciesVariesInvaluable to countless wildlife
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
40 – 80 ftVariesDull to striking colors
Bicknell's sedge

Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

* = According to research by Dr. Doug Tallamy, author and faculty member at the University of Delaware.\

This article used a number of resources, including:

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center                                      Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Missouri Botanical Garden                                                         Michigan State University

University of Minnesota Extension                                            USDA NRCS PLANTS Database


Some great native shrub and tree nurseries:


The State Forest Nursery: Ames, Iowa.  1-800-865-2477 or 515-233-1161

Iowa Native Trees and Shrubs: Woodward, Iowa. 515-664-8633

Blooming Prairie Nursery: Carlisle, Iowa. 515-689-9444

Happy Arbor Day, and happy tree planting!