With all the environmental concerns facing humankind, it’s easy to overlook the tiny pollinators. Yet, they are a crucial link in the food chain, necessary for the reproduction of 90 percent of flowering plants and one-third of human food crops.
They are in trouble, and they need our help, which is not only easy but pleasant to give.
Who are the pollinators? Bees (of course), butterflies, moths, beetles, flies (yes, flies), birds and bats (though not so much in our area).
And when we speak of bees, we are not just speaking of honey bees. Among the pollinators are bumble bees, large carpenter bees, digger bees, small carpenter bees, squash and gourd bees, leafcutter bees, Mason bees, sweat bees (the summertime bane of children who play outdoors), plasterer or cellophane bees, yellow-faced bees and Andrenid bees.
Honey bees were imported from Europe nearly 400 years ago, but there are nearly 4,000 species of native ground and twig nesting bees in the United States.
With the collapse of honey bee colonies nationwide (33 percent losses from 2006-2011), American gardeners are encouraged to provide habitat to support and sustain a variety of bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, birds, and yes, flies.
The first step is to eliminate toxic chemicals from your garden, following the example of the great gardener Henry Mitchell who said, “I will not attempt to turn poisons into flowers.”
Learn about Integrated Pest Management, which does not forbid all chemicals but encourages the use of the least harmful methods first.
The second step is to include a variety of native and non-native plants that provide food and shelter for pollinators in all stages of their development. It is crucial to have a succession of plants blooming from spring to fall.
As painful as it may be, do not keep yards manicured within an inch of their lives. Leave some dead leaves and twigs piled about, spare some weeds that provide food for pollinators, keep some areas bare of vegetation for ground nesting insects and provide safe access to clean water. Safe access means putting out containers that are shallow or have sloping sides so the pollinators can drink from the water without falling in and drowning.
Learn to love dandelions and other early spring bloomers (usually considered weeds). These provide nectar before other plants have opened.
Build bee boxes to encourage solitary, non-aggressive bees to nest, and plant flowers in groups of at least 4 feet in diameter rather than singly to attract and protect pollinators.
Focus on native plants for the specialists, but non-natives are good for the generalists, who visit a variety of plants.
Plant in layers — flowers, shrubs and trees — to provide protection for pollinators while they move throughout the garden.
Now is the time to plan flower and vegetable gardens and the time to amend plans to include concern for pollinators.
Native plants to consider include yellow buckeye, river birch, sweet shrub, silverbell, mountain laurel, tulip poplar, flame azalea, milkweed, wild bleeding heart, crested iris, cardinal flower, bloodroot and ironweed. A more complete list can be found at www.pollinator.org.
Consider these pollinator friendly plants that can be grown from seed:
Baby Blue Eyes
Bishop’s Flower/Ammi majus
Sources: The Xerxes Society, Pollinator Partnership, North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, ezfromseed.org