by Sam(antha) Burns, UME Master Gardener, Somerset Beekeepers President
With National Pollinator Week just around the corner, this is a good time to take a moment to think about all of the creatures who are so crucially important to the diversity of life we experience on this Earth.
Plants and pollinators have evolved together over the last 130 million years; today 80% of the flowering plants on the planet are reliant on the 200,000 individual animal species world-wide that transfer pollen. In Maine alone we have approximately 270 native species of pollinators. Globally, wild pollinators provide a service valued at $3 billion annually, according to The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Protection. Yet pollinators are in danger.
POLLINATORS AT RISK
Currently honeybee populations are declining at an average of 32% every year, and the same issues plaguing the domesticated bee are affecting our wild and native pollinators as well. Habitat loss through agricultural practices, urban development, and the introduction of exotic organisms are crowding out the native plants and animals that have evolved together, some which are particularly habitat-specific. As a result, a number of species have already been lost. Pollinators may be affected by the changing climate, as varying and extreme weather patterns cause seasonal or geographical shifts in plant communities, putting pollinators out of sync with their food sources. A number of diseases and pests that are being monitored in the domestic honeybee are also causing declines in the numbers of wild bees, including the common bumble bee. By far the biggest threat to insect pollinators is the use of pesticides, which affect animal populations all the way up the food chain, but have a particularly disastrous effect on insect pollinators. Insecticides kill insects directly, via ingestion or by absorption through their exoskeletons. Herbicides affect pollinators more indirectly, by reducing the diversity of the flowering plants supplying pollen and nectar, and by diminishing suitable nesting habitat and forage for larvae. Many pesticides degrade slowly, lingering as a toxic hazard to wildlife, and can affect animals for generations.
Surprisingly, studies have found more pounds of pesticides are applied per acre in urban neighborhoods than on farm lands, resulting in a higher concentration of the chemicals in urban streams than those in agricultural areas. This is likely because there are numerous laws regulating the use of pesticides by commercial farms, requiring they use trained and licensed applicators; also commercial growers strive to save money by using as little chemical as possible. The residential homeowner, however, is not regulated, and has little or no opportunity for education about the potential impacts of spraying.
While not every homeowner is interested in keeping bees, it is possible to provide the ideal conditions to encourage populations of pollinating insects and animals in our yards and gardens.
Eliminate the use of pesticides whenever possible. Insecticides kill insect pollinators directly, while herbicides reduce food and habitat diversity. If you must use a pesticide, use the least toxic product available. Read the labels carefully—many pesticides are dangerous to bees. Use the chemical as directed, and spray at night when bees and a lot of other pollinators are not active. [There are, however, moths and bats who are nocturnal pollinators.]
Use native plants. These plants have adapted to your local climate and soil conditions, and the pollinators that propagate them have evolved a symbiotic relationship with them over millions of years. Native plants provide nectar, pollen, and nesting habitat for the native butterflies, insects and birds that inhabit your local area. They are also advantageous to the gardener because native plants do not require fertilizers, need less water, and help prevent erosion with their deep root systems.
Avoid hybrids and “doubled” flowers. While those showy blossoms might be attractive to the human eye, modern hybrids are typically less fragrant, and offer little pollen and nectar for pollinators.
Provide a variety of plants that bloom from early spring through late fall. By hosting a continuous bloom, you will feed the pollinators who visit your yard throughout the growing season. Offer a diversity of flower colors, shapes, and sizes, to accommodate the varying lengths of pollinators’ tongues, including night-blooming plants for nocturnal pollinators. Planting in clumps helps pollinators find [concentrated] food and nesting sources.
Include plants for caterpillars. If you want colorful butterflies in and around your yard and gardens, be sure to include larval host plants for their offspring. Place them where unsightly leaf damage can be tolerated, since the caterpillars will eat them. Accept host plants that are less than ornamental, possibly even outright weeds. Invest in a butterfly guide, and plant a butterfly garden.
Build nesting habitats and offer a water source. By leaving dead trees and the occasional dead limb (so long as it is not a safety hazard), you will provide essential nesting sites for native bees and other pollinators. You can aid native bees by drilling holes of varying sizes and lengths into dead trees and stumps, or by building a bee condo. Also, creating a water source for butterflies and bees is helpful. Use a shallow saucer with some sand and pebbles so the tiny insects won’t drown; mix a small bit of sea salt into the mud, as this helps attract the pollinators to the water source and provides them with valuable minerals.
Reduce lawn size and mow pollinator-consciously. Lawns are a veritable barren wasteland for pollinators in search of food and nesting habitat, but by decreasing the portion of our yards that we mow we can leave more habitat for wildlife. When you do mow, do so with pollinators in mind. In the spring, wait to mow until after the dandelion bloom, as this is the first major nectar flow for native bees and other pollinators. Also, mow late in the evening when most pollinators are inactive.
Practice a peaceful coexistence. Get a guidebook and learn to recognize pollinators and other beneficial insects in your neighborhood. Take time to watch these creatures at work, and appreciate their beauty. Allow bees to nest innocuously in your yard and about your home; generally they will go about their lives without ever bothering you or your family, and the occasional sting is a small price to pay for the service these creatures provide.
To learn more about pollinators and what you can do to help those in your yard and garden, check out the following online resources:
Share your love for and knowledge of pollinators with friends and family, neighbors and community members; be a pollinator advocate by helping people realize that bugs are not bad!