There’s a joke going around the interwebs currently, that people are using the quest to save our pollinating species as an excuse for any evidence of laziness:
Didn’t mow the lawn: It’s for the pollinators.
Didn’t rake leaves: Made homes for the pollinators.
Garden is full of weeds: Gotta provide food for those pollinators.
Didn’t do the dishes: Pollinators.
It’s cheeky, to be sure, but there’s some truth behind the gag: You can help save our pollinator species by letting your yard go native. In fact, with National Pollinator Week coming up on June 19th-25th, we want to encourage you to do so, because saving pollinators is essential to life as we know it.
Why Birds and Bees and Butterflies Are So Important:
Every third bite of food that you eat is provided by bees doing their thing. They pollinate most of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that grace our tables every day. Unfortunately, according to The Bee Conservancy Organization, 1 in 4 of North America’s native bee species are at risk of extinction, and over half of them are in decline.
Contrary to what you might think, those numbers don’t include honeybees. Apparently, honeybees aren’t considered a native species in North America; they were brought over by the first colonists along with their Old World crop plants that they pollinate. So while honeybees play a vital role in our ecological system, they are only a tiny fraction of the bee populations we’re trying to save. Truly, we need to fight for the solitary bees and other native pollinators, because they’re fighting the same obstacles as honeybees — climate change, land overdevelopment, pesticides — as well as being forced out by competition with the human-managed honey bee species.
What Can We Do?
Go Native. The best thing we can do as individuals is turn our outdoor spaces into pollinator-friendly environments. Letting your yard grow a bit longer before mowing is one solution (as we discussed for No Mow May), but we can do plenty of other equally simple things as well. Choosing native plants for your gardens and patios, for instance, can make a huge difference.
Pollinators need nutritious food to survive and thrive. A balanced bee diet includes nectar (which contains sugars and carbohydrates) and pollen (made up of protein and fat) from a diverse array of plants. Making things more difficult, many pollinators are specialists, meaning they might only forage on a single plant family. So, some bees might have different nutritional needs than others. (Although any flowers are better than none, almost 80% of ornamental plants being sold at garden centers originated in Asia or Europe, and consequently aren’t always the best source of nutrition for our native species.) The best way to provide enough food sources for a wide range of pollinators is to have diverse varieties of native plants that bloom at different times throughout the growing season.
The other benefits to planting native species are myriad: they won’t push out other native plants as some invasive species do; they have more consistent blooming periods because they are well adapted to local conditions (which makes them a more reliable food source); and they provide habitat for local wildlife like birds and insects.
How to Choose Native Plants
Most garden centers have started labeling their plants as native or non-native, and you can certainly seek out assistance from a local landscaper. Even more easily, though, you can visit the Pollinator Partnership’s website, which has a wealth of information on the plants that are best for your area by zip code. They’ve also made Pollinator Garden Cards, which are helpful references you can use at a glance that recommend native species based on when they bloom. Some common plants include columbine, wild geranium, foxglove, milkweed, beebalm, goldenrod, and New England Aster.
Provide Safe Habitats
In addition to ensuring that native pollinators have food, we can help by giving them safe spaces and structures to make their homes. Woody plants like trees and shrubs provide foliage and stems to nest in, and if you choose flowering or fruit-bearing species it’s like a full-service hotel. Material from dead branches and logs make great nesting sites, so allow them to gather in a back corner out of sight, if possible. It’s also helpful to reduce your use of mulch, and leave some bare ground for ground-nesting bees to use.
Alternatively, if branch piles would drive you (or your HomeOwners Association) crazy, you can install a bee hotel. You can buy one, or even build one yourself using some simple craft supplies. It is recommended that you install the hotel where it is protected from high wind and rain (as they can be prone to mold growth, which would deter any possible residents.)
Pollinator-Friendly Yard Checklist:
- Diverse range of native plants that bloom at different times; planted in clusters to create a “target” for pollinators
- Woody plants like trees and shrubs; particularly flowering or fruit-bearing
- Reduce/stop use of pesticides; If needed, use early in morning or in the evening when bees and other pollinators aren’t usually actively foraging
- Maximize space for planting pollinator-friendly plants – window boxes, patio gardens, reduce lawn etc
- Allow material from dead branches and logs to remain as nesting sites (in a back corner out of sight); reduce mulch to allow patches of bare ground for ground-nesting bees to utilize; consider installing wood nesting blocks or pollinator hotel
- Remove invasive non-native plants
- Mow less frequently; or make a bee lawn with dutch white clover, self-heal and creeping thyme:
- Provide a water source such as a bird bath or water feeder with a wet surface made of sand, soil or brick so they can collect water without drowning.
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