Plant Stems Raising Baby Pollinators

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Last month I gave a presentation at Carolina Home and Garden, off Highway 24, in Newport, on caring for perennials in the fall. I want to share some of that information here as well. I think this little bit of research might be helpful to many of you who care for and want pollinators to do well in the landscape.

This is a sneak peek at some research that is being done at NC State University. I might also add that there are nine counties in the state that have been helping with this research by collecting flower stems from the garden and sending them to the university for examination.

Maybe, I should start from the beginning and need for this research. Some information can be found on the internet stating that you shouldn’t cut the flowering stems of perennials down until spring, because some pollinators use these stems to raise their young. Elsa Youngsteadt and Hannah Levenson, professors at NC State University in the Department of Ecology, agreed to work with Extension Master Gardener Volunteers and agents from across the state to see if it is true that some pollinators use these old flower stems as places to raise their young.

This experiment is a two-year trial to see if this hypothesis is valid. The first year the plants were grown, the flower stems were cut back to 18 inches in the fall. Each quarter after that samples were sent to the university where they were cut open to see if they were being used to raise baby insects. The first samples were sent in November, followed by February, May, and August, with the last samples to be sent again in November of this year to finish up the experiment.

That first November nothing was found. Again, in February, nothing was found, but in May and August more than 50% of the samples had some stems with baby insects growing in them. This shows that in fact, stems are used as places to raise baby pollinators, but it doesn’t happen until the following spring and summer.

Bottom line, if you want to cut your perennial plants back and they have stems about the size of a pencil, cut them back to about 18 to 24 inches long and leave them like this through next summer for pollinators to make use of to raise their young.