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Holly Flowers Attract Bees and Butterflies

by Carol A. Heiser, VDWR Habitat Education Coordinator

Thousands of sweet-smelling, miniature white flowers on a holly tree in my yard have become a temporary magnet for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The tree is humming with honeybees, bumblebees, and flies that buzz from flower to flower, while over a dozen tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails flit about the entire tree, sampling nectar all around.

Virginia is home to several native species of holly (Ilex genus), including American holly (I. opaca), inkberry (I. glabra), yaupon (I. vomitoria), and the deciduous common winterberry (I. verticillata). The holly in my yard was planted by a previous owner and appears to be a cultivar, but each spring it teems with nectar-seeking insects that later disperse to other flowering plants.

Of course, Ilex is only one of dozens of tree species that provide significant forage for bees and other insects this time of year. Between late March to early June, pollinators rely heavily on the flowers of maples (Acer), redbud (Cercis), cherry (Prunus), sassafras (Sassafras) and willow (Salix). Later in June and into early summer, another “wave” of trees will come into flower, such as black locust (Robinia), honeylocust (Gledisia), sumac (Rhus), serviceberry (Amelanchier) and basswood (Tilia).

As the growing season progresses, each pollinated flower will give rise to a fruit, seed or berry, which in turn will provide food for birds and other wildlife. Trees and shrubs are high value plants in the landscape, providing not only nectar, pollen and fruit but also much-needed cover for a diversity of wildlife species.

See a listing of Native Trees and Shrubs for Pollinators (PDF) and be sure to visit the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora to check which of the species on this list are native to your part of Virginia.

  • April 11, 2016