by Sarah Ambrus
Creating a pollinator-friendly garden doesn’t mean you have to have be a gardening expert. There are many elements anyone can easily incorporate into their yard or garden that are attractive to pollinators. Most people are familiar with honeybees as a pollinating species, but pollinators can include all different kinds of bees (mason bees, orchard bees, bumblebees, etc.); birds like hummingbirds; butterflies and moths; and even insects that we consider to be pests like wasps and mosquitoes!
With spring upon us, now is a good time to think about how to attract these important creatures to our homes and gardens.
In recent years, the importance of honeybees, other pollinators, and the role they play in our food supply has become part of our national conversation. Other parts of the world, such as the EU, have taken steps to ban harmful pesticides and herbicides to protect these vital creatures, but the United States is still lacking in effective legislation. You can read more about pesticide and herbicide use in the United States from the Environmental Protection Agency.
By far, the most important thing you can do to protect pollinators is to protect their food supply by not using harmful pesticides. As a beekeeper, experiencing a pesticide kill to your honeybees is heartbreaking. Hundreds of bees’ dead bodies in front of the hive with their tongues sticking out because they got into a contaminated food source is an awful sight to see. There are so many other ways to control pests that do not harm these beneficial insects.
When you see an insect in your garden or landscape that you think may be harmful, don’t reach for the pesticide. Observe it first. What is it doing? What is it eating or harming? Don’t automatically assume it is killing your plants. Secondly, how many are there? Is there one bug? Or are your plants covered in them? Once you have observed these items, call your local agricultural extension office. They will help you interpret what these insects are, what they are doing, whether or not they are harming your plants, and how to get rid of them if you choose to do so.
This is where I think people have the most knowledge regarding pollinators. Providing uncontaminated food sources for these animals is something I see social media posts on every week. “Plant these to save the bees!” is a popular slogan. It’s true, there are some plants that are going to be more attractive to honeybees. However, I have found that variety is extremely important.
Honeybees are just one pollinator. And contrary to what you may have been told, they can’t pollinate your tomatoes! Bumblebees, though, are all about it. Every pollinator has a proboscis of a different length (yes, size does matter) and they are each going to be able to pollinate different plants. If you want to attract different species, supply different foods. My hummingbirds love the long, dangling blooms of my Fuchsia plants, but the bees can’t reach inside to get the nectar, so they don’t touch them. Having a variety of plants will attract a variety of pollinators.
It’s also important to have plants that bloom throughout different times of year. If you only have flowers in spring, they won’t have anything to eat through the rest of the year, and they will go elsewhere. When planning your garden or landscape, look for varieties that bloom year-long or are staggered so that different plants are blooming at different times. You can also provide other food sources such as hummingbird feeders. I usually hang mine near an attractive plant and use a 1:4 ratio of sugar water (no red dye needed). The hummingbirds are all over my feeders from March to October before they migrate back down south.
It always amazes me that people are shocked when I mention that bees need water. Every living thing needs water to survive and our insect friends are no different. If you’re not much of a gardener, providing a water source is a great way to benefit bees and other insects. There are a few ways to encourage them to drink at your place.
Shallow, moving water is best. Stagnant water is not attractive to most animals and can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. I use a solar fountain to keep the water moving in my birdbath. Bees also like to have somewhere to land. I place river rocks in my birdbaths and fountains so they can perch there and drink. Also, birds are more likely to use a drinking source when they can judge the depth. The rocks help them do just this.
Creating a pollinator habitat is less work than you think. Pollinators prefer a more natural landscape than what many people have created with manicured lawns and tidy flowerbeds. If you want to attract these stunning creatures, you have to let things get a little wild.
Allowing some weeds and wildflowers to grow will provide cover and nesting materials for birds and bumblebees. Bumblebees nest in the ground, so allowing some thatch and dead plant materials to build up will provide them with a home. Don’t clean up the yard too much in the spring. Dead twigs, moss, and leaves can provide nesting matter for a variety of bird species.
Also, hummingbirds love to perch near feeders (especially the males), so providing a place for them to land nearby will encourage their visits. You will see the males fight for territory and try to woo their mates from these perches. Honestly, it’s quite entertaining and that’s another benefit for you when providing these resources for some of our most important creatures.
By providing a few small amenities, you will be rewarded with a more productive garden or landscape and the beauty of these amazing animals.
photo credit: Mike Lewinski, Unsplash