A Place for Pollinators

This week is National Pollinator Week, a week to celebrate and appreciate the vital role that pollinators play in healthy ecosystems.  Pollinator Week is sponsored by Pollinator Partnership whose mission it is to support pollinators through research, conservation efforts and education.

Syrphid fly

Nurturing environmental conditions conducive for pollinators, and allowing for pollinators to be–to exist, to procreate, to pollinate, are worthy gardener goals in establishing and maintaining biodiversity in urban and suburban areas.

Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus)

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

There are many reasons for the deeply concerning and potentially catastrophic decline of pollinators.  The average person doesn’t have much sway over the varied and complicated issues involved with this decline.  But gardeners, whether in their own personal space or at a school or community garden, can certainly contribute to the creation and implementation of lovely and living pollinator and wildlife habitats and with that, affect their local environmental paradigm by gardening for pollinators.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Mosquito? Fly?

What does it mean to plant or garden for pollinators? Several practices are key to a successful pollinator gardening.

Even if you’re new to the gardening world, you’ve probably heard it:  limit chemical use.  Insecticides and “gardening” chemicals don’t produce balanced systems where wildlife flourishes, and pollinators are especially impacted by home and agricultural chemical use. In fact, the use (and over use) of chemicals typically causes more problems than it solves.  Additionally, if you plant native and well adapted annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees, most, if not all, chemical use is unnecessary.

Honeybee and Syrphid Fly

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)

Accept that nature is sometimes messy!  Have a few holes in your leaves?  Don’t grab the bottle of insecticide and spray, willy-nilly, everything in sight.  Instead, observe who’s munching.  It’s probably a moth or butterfly–in childhood form (caterpillars!)–munching away contentedly before building strong exoskeletons, wings, and antennae, on their way to morphing to responsible, pollinating adults.  When you’re invested in butterfly gardening, you must be willing to tolerate some foliage damage in the garden.  Yes, adults butterflies and moths sip nectar and therefore pollinate, but their offspring–the very hungry caterpillars eat the leaves of host plants; if you want a butterfly garden, you’ll must plant for their larvae.  Clearly, spraying insecticide does not produce a good outcome for butterflies and moths, or any other beneficial insects.

Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina sp.)

To encourage all wildlife–pollinators included–minimal or no chemical interference is a a given.  Avoiding chemicals is also less expensive than constantly purchasing on the chemical treadmill.

Commit to ridding your property of at least some of the sterile, water-guzzling turf.  Americans’ love-of-the-lawn is a direct contributor to declining insect populations, especially pollinators. Carving out areas for wildflowers, shrubs, and perennials will allow habitat for all sorts of wildlife, including pollinators.

If you plant them, they will come.  The them are flowering plants:  native plants are always best because they’re easier to grow and have fewer disease problems.  The they are the pollinators: butterflies, honeybees, native bees, flies of an astonishing variety, moths, and hummingbirds.  Truthfully, planting perennial gardens is less work than a lawn.  I’ve experiencd both and my full-on urban wildlife/pollinator garden is less trouble, less work, and more interesting than a swath of grass.

Honeybee

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)

There are a few simple practices that every gardener can employ to help our beleaguered bees, both native and honey. The easiest is to simply leave some untended spots in your property.  Maybe it’s where you keep your gardening shed or garbage bins, or perhaps, where you store firewood.  Allow bare soil–no mulch, no plants, no cement–just a solid plot of open dirt left untouched for ground nesting bees. Unless you’re very lucky, you probably won’t even know they’re there, raising their little pollinators to help the Earth–and your garden.   One reason that the American Bumblebee is declining is that they nest in the ground and there’s little uncultivated ground left. The sterile, neat yard is not a normal, healthy yard.

Set out some older wood in a protected spot for wood nesting bees.  Their babies will thank you and it’s fun to watch the adults drill into the wood. The downside? You might have to sweep after they’ve drilled baby drilled.

Build an insect hotel–there are many easy DIY plans available–and see who moves in.  For excellent information on building and maintaining insect hotels, please read this article from The Entomologist Lounge.   Insect hotels have become a cool garden thing to do, but they require effort to safeguard the insects who utilize them.   My own insect hotels are small and easy to keep and clean.  Thanks Bee Daddy!  (aka, The Hub)

As well, you can go all-out, bee-crazy and get into honeybee keeping.  It’s fun!  It’s fascinating!  It’s also work, especially at the beginning.  The learning curve is steep and everyone you know will think you’re weird, but will want some of your honey. That said, our beekeeping efforts have been rewarding, especially with the best honey (according to everyone who’s ever tried it) and we congratulate ourselves as gardening do-gooders with our backyard beehives.

I adore the honeys, but for what it’s worth–native bees are actually better pollinators (in general) than honeybees. The suggestions I’ve mentioned are easy ways to develop the right environment in which native bees will thrive.  Most homeowners and community gardeners can easily afford the time and funds required for hosting pollinators in their garden spaces, directly benefiting their personal gardens and the greater ecosystem.

Planting the lovely flowers that pollinators need,

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

Green Sweat Bee (Agapostemon texanus)

…and the host plants that butterfly and moth caterpillars eat,

…means that you’re part of the solution.

For all the good reasons to convert your space into a pollinator garden, I’ll add one more:  they’re beautiful.

Bordered Patch (Chlosyne lacinia)

Horsefly-like Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa tabaniformis)

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

12 thoughts on “A Place for Pollinators

    • Thank you, Judy. When I began to really pay attention, I was astonished at just how many different bees were in my garden. My identification skills are so-so; it’s usually: “Well, it looks like a ‘this’…I think!” 🙂 Regardless, they’re here and in variety and I guess that’s all that matters.

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  1. Native plants are also better because they appeal to native insects, rather than promoting proliferation of exotics. Also, they provide pollen for the same natives beyond the landscape (if they are regional natives). So many exotic plant distract pollinators from native plants that rely on them for pollination, just like the blue gum eucalyptus distracts monarch butterflies here from the native flora.

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    • Thanks for mentioning that, Tony, you’re absolutely right! I should have popped that fact in somewhere, but neglectfully didn’t, though I have written in other posts about the importance of pollinators.

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      • As a garden columnist, I know some information does not fit. (My articles on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are from my gardening column, which has a very precise limit of characters.)

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  2. Lots of thoughts rattling around in my brain. I’m glad you included more than bees in your photos. Important as bees are, i’ve learned there are some plants that depend on certain flies, or beetles, or other insects for their pollination. And I think that might be a crane fly up there where you’ve suggested ‘mosquito.’ I can’t be sure, but it’s possible.

    Believe it or not, I thought about you twice last weekend in East Texas. The first time was when I came across a vine that once had a wealth of beautiful leaves, but had mostly one inch, chewed-off stems when I found it. I thought, “One of Tina’s caterpillars (or a whole host of them) has been busy! And I got to witness buzz pollination for the first time. The bumblebees were working some native mallows, but they mostly were flying in and out without pausing. Finally, one went deep into the flower and started buzzing. The flower vibrated, the pollen flew, and then so did the bee. I waited for some time to try and catch another one in the act, but no luck!

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    • You’re right–there are so many different kinds of pollinators, the mind reels! Beetles, skeeters (male, I think mostly), and so many flies! It’s always amazing to me that most people don’t even know that there’s such a thing as native bees, all they know about are honeybees. I confess that I was in that category too, until I really began with the native plants. And, I think you’re probably correct: crane fly.

      Haha–I like that “Tina’s caterpillars”! That reminds me that I noticed my Gregg’s mistflower foliage has been stripped and I need to find out who did that. Isn’t the buzz pollination fascinating? I’ve only seen in a couple of times, but it’s like they have a little motor attached to the flower. Weirdly (very weirdly) for some reason I think of that contraption, popular in the 50’s-60’s where a person has a strap around her (it was usually a ‘her’) waist and a motor vibrates her whole body. I think it was some sort of “exercise” machine, but that’s the image that I have of buzz pollination. Not quite sure what that says about me. 🙂

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  3. Syrphid flies are fun to watch, although waiting for them to finally settle so I can photograph them can take a lot of patience. And metallic sweat bees are gorgeous; I’ve sometimes thought somebody should dress up as one for Halloween.

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    • Syrphids are fun and so beautiful! They do take their time in deciding where to land, though.

      An excellent idea for Halloween–the honeybee costume is just so overdone. 🙂

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  4. Great post. I’ve eliminated insecticides and use herbicides very rarely. However, both my neighbors use lawn services and I hate to think what gets sprayed on either side of our property.

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