Preserving Space for Pollinators

Megachildae species on snapdragon

Last weekend I shared a talk at our local community services building on the topic of bringing pollinators to your garden. (photo: NOT a hornet--leaf cutter bee!) Initially, I had offered to email the presentation to all the folks who showed up--then realized, with the photos I had used, that the presentation was over 26MB in size. I don't think they would really appreciate that if it dropped into their inbox.

SO--I am posting the short version here! And the first thing I shared with my lovely audience was a photo of a sliced apple. A very lopsided apple. Which is a symptom of incomplete pollination. In other words, not enough bees were on the job to see that every portion of the flower blossom got pollinated on that apple tree. The scary thing is--it is really difficult, at least at our local grocery stores, to find an apple that is NOT lopsided. (Learn more about the bee above here.) In the larger context of things, this nation is faced with a likely scenario this year of a drop of 50% or more in food production coming out of California, due to drought. Cue the scary movie music here, and picture what is going to happen to the average food bill for families across the country. In a way, this may be a good thing, as it may force us to decentralize food production. Decentralizing production would reduce the petroleum impact of the average grocery bill, but more importantly would help to reduce food insecurity nationwide. For more on this topic, check statistics and other information on the USDA site here.

So how do you make an impact? You can, of course, grow some of your own food. But top of our priority lists has to be preservation of the species that do the work of pollinating those groceries. And the first way for us to preserve them is to stop killing them inadvertently. So the preservationist's yard is going to have to stop the use of any long acting pesticide (this should be obvious), stop using RoundUp (not so obvious, but the stuff washes into our waterways and kills the plants many pollinators need as habitat), and finally--at least for awhile--stop purchasing garden plants at the Big Box stores.

Let's look at these a little more closely. Pesticides/insecticides are actively designed to kill pests, which, in the context of gardens, are the insects that chew on our plants. Some things can be used safely (like insecticidal soap on aphids) because they wash off the plant when watered and act as desiccants--they dry the insect out, killing it.

The vast majority of the new pesticides you find at your local big box, however, are designed to be long acting.

They hang around, and work by interfering with the nervous system of the insect. I won't even get into the unfortunate impacts this can have (with continuous or prolonged exposure) to humans--especially children. But if you would like to know more, you can start your research at this page from the EPA. So. Don't use them. Blast those aphids off with the garden hose, and work on creating a yard where the beneficial insects and songbirds move in to keep your pests in check.

RoundUp--the big sin is that commercial agriculture uses huge volumes of this stuff on "RoundUp Ready" plant crops. Unless you buy only organic produce, you are ingesting this stuff. And all of the "weed" plants that used to grow in and around the fields of commercial farmers who use RoundUp as a method of increasing yields (which may just be a sales pitch by the chemical industry) are no longer available to pollinators.

Fewer resources for pollinators means fewer pollinators. 

The Big Box Stores--gardeners everywhere have been appalled to discover recently that suppliers to Lowe's and Home Depot (and some other big chains) have been pre-treating their plants with neonicotinoids--the pesticides wreaking havoc on so many of our insect pollinators. They do this to make sure the plants look "perfect" and have not insect damage. Even many of the employees of these stores are sick at heart. Find a local nursery that does not use these products, or you are simply introducing an attractive lure to kill pollinators.

That pretty much covers the downers. Now for the fun and easy things to do!

Old spruce log chunks embedded in slope

Logs & Dirt: Two big assets to native pollinators! When larger branches come down or a tree is taken out, plug some chunks of these into your yard. They create instant habitat space for beneficial insects. In this image, we plunked some chunks of log into the hill to help create better soil--the milkweed to the right of the logs needs a more well-drained soil, and we have an abundance of clay. Putting logs in next to the milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa, here) allows the insects to improve the soil their way, and we don't have to do any real work.

When planting, leave some open soil exposed is certain areas away from your home's points of entry. Many native bees are ground nesters. If yellow jackets move in on you--that's a threat to your family's  health and of course you would need to do something about a nest like this. (Flooding such colonies out is a safe, non-toxic alternative.) But small patches of soil will give some of our bumblebees a place to hatch out the next generation.

Female sourwood tree at peak bloom. Photo from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Plant Trees. This picture of a sourwood in full bloom would make honeybees and our native bees salivate. Think of how many perennials you would have to plant to have the same impact as one mature, flowering tree. Or even one immature tree. Or a large flowering shrub, instead of some of the typical "foundation" shrubs. Visit this excellent page from the University of Georgia to see a list of native trees and shrubs that benefit our pollinators. *Note: this list includes butterfly bush, which is now classified as an invasive plant in many areas of the country. I do not personally recommend it.

Two monarchs on a large pile of open-form mums.

In the same vein as planting trees: Plant Big Blobs! For a pollinator to find your lovely offerings, she has to see it or smell it. Just like you have your favorite odors, pollinators have theirs. Generally, they react most strongly to plant perfumes that they evolved to pollinate. This requires a mass at least three feet in diameter, and preferably four. Imagine if you had to find your next meal based on your nose. The more aromatic perfume, the better! Masses, in general, will provide you a more attractive landscape anyway, by avoiding the "chopped up" look of Too Many Different Things. To accomplish this, you may have to do away with some lawn. What a shame. Flowers are much more fun!

Native bumblebee on native JoePye Weed

While you are planning where to put your Big Blobs, plan to BLOOM ALL YEAR LONG. Or as close to it as you can get. Here in Western North Carolina, it is possible to plant for a progression of blooms that extends from late February to early November. The first place to look for advice on what to plant to create this progression is at, where you can punch in a zip code and receive a customized list of native trees, shrubs and perennials that will help you provide food for pollinators. If you have a small property as we do, look for cultivars of natives at your local nursery that will be more appropriately sized to your lot. You don't need to plant everything on the list. Choose one thing you like for every month that matches up with the conditions of your growing site and then plant a blob's worth. If you do that, you WILL have pollinators move in to your garden. And songbirds. You're welcome.

Provide Clean Water: bird baths, water features and rain gardens can all help support pollinators. Bird baths need to be kept clean (rinse them well if you use any type of cleaning agent besides elbow grease). Water features need to have a "still" portion for insects to take advantage of them. Both of these need to have stones or other unglazed surfaces that bees can use to crawl down to the edge of the water safely. There is nothing more depressing than a batch of drowned bees in your bird bath.

Coneflower seed heads being dined on by goldfinches.

Finally, Settle For Sloppy. Most of us are far too fastidious about our gardens. The phrase "well manicured" is held up as the ultimate compliment. Well manicured, however, usually means we have tidied up things that should be left alone if we want to support our native pollinators. Spent blooms mean seed for birds (that eat garden pests). Those spent blooms are perched on stems that may be bored into by pollinators to lay eggs or to just escape from cold weather. If a plant you have is struck by disease, then naturally you will have to clean that up to keep things from spreading. But unless you leave a little litter--leaves, stems and spent blossoms--you are removing housing opportunities for a well-balanced home ecosystem. So give yourself permission to be a little lazy and leave those coneflower and rudbeckia stems standing until spring! This practice fits into what the Pollinator Partnership refers to as S.H.A.R.E.: Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment. Learn more at the link--and thanks for helping to save pollinators!

Wildlife and Human Delight--Crabapple

Wildlife and Human Delight--Crabapple

Weathering Winter

Weathering Winter