Spring Cleanup: 5 Things You Can Do to Help Native Pollinators

By Ta’Leah Van Sistine, Marketing & Communications Intern

With the weather getting warmer across Wisconsin, people with green thumbs are beckoned to their brightening garden spaces. However, pollinators are not always ready for spring tidying and gardening when humans are. They hide in the cracks and crevices of the outdoors, and it’s likely that they are still sleeping in early spring, tucked away from winter’s cold.

Although a gardener will always have that tug to tend to their garden, here are five things you can do to ensure the timing of your spring cleanup is the best for native pollinators.

Wait as Long as Possible

One of the best things you can do for hibernating pollinators is wait as long as you can to do any spring cleanup in your yard. This way, inactive insects can emerge from slumber on their own time, and we can avoid disturbing these essential creatures that we need to conserve.

Take a stroll around your garden space and consider what elements could be potential homes to pollinators. With that in mind, you can then modify your garden cleanup actions to be conscious of potential insect habitats. Experts ultimately recommend waiting to do your spring cleanup until the daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Be Careful When Cutting Down Old Plants

Get tips from Mark (Director of Horticulture) on pruning and planting in the spring.

It is true that for new growth to start, old plant stems are typically cut down. Therefore, there are two things you can still do if cutting down old plant stems is a part of your spring cleanup process:

  1. You can gently place any perennial and woody plant stems you cut onto a compost pile, or spread them out at the edge of a wooded area. The insects that are taking shelter inside the plant stems can then leave them at the right time.
  2. You can also gather the stems you cut into small bundles of a few dozen, tie them together with twine and hang them on a fence or lean them against a tree on an angle. An additional perk of this cleanup method is that once the insects originally living in the stems leave, new insects — especially native bees — can move into the stems and possibly call them home all summer long.

Take Care When Raking Leaves

Sometimes pollinators hibernate in the leaves that occupy your perennial beds during the winter. Raking the leaves out of the beds too soon would then cause the insects to get hurt. Some adult butterflies, such as Mourning Cloaks, Question Marks and Eastern Commas do indeed hibernate in leafy beds. Thus, waiting to do this part of the spring cleanup process until temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees would be best for pollinators.

Eastern Comma PC wisconsinbutterflies.org
Eastern Comma butterfly
PC: Butterflies of Wisconsin

Don’t Mulch Too Early

Get tips on mulching around trees and more from Mark (Director of Horticulture).

Be sure you wait to mulch until the weather warms and the soil in your garden space dries out a little. Hummingbird Clearwing Moths, Soldier Beetles and many native bees overwinter in soil as eggs, pupae or adults, so covering the ground with a layer of mulch too early in the spring could block their emergence.

Look for Cocoons and Chrysalises

Peruse your garden space and keep a sharp eye out for cocoons and chrysalises before you prune back woody perennials or shrubs. Make sure to keep branches intact that have cocoons or chrysalises on them.

crecopia moth with cocoon
Crecopia Moth with its cocoon in the Garden.

Nature’s call can be a hard one to ignore as warmer weather seems to be the perfect opportunity to get ahead on your spring cleanup. The pollinators hibernating in your plant stems, underneath your leaves and in your soil are sometimes blissfully unaware of the changing seasons. It’s up to us to keep them safe until they can experience spring’s beauty on their own.