Attracting Native Pollinators to Your Garden
I've had an increasing number of gardeners tell me that they've experienced low yields or outright failures of some of their food crops due to lack of pollinators. While a few plants, like tomatoes and beans, are self-pollinating, other crops, like melons and squashes, depend upon insects to pollinate their flowers.
The population of honey bees has been decimated across the U.S. over the last several years because of colony collapse, mites, and other issues. However, honey bees (which are not native in the U.S.) are not the only insects that can pollinate our plants.
We have hundreds of species of native pollinators in the U.S. that can help keep our gardens productive. These include native bees (ranging from tiny sweat bees up to the large carpenter bees), wasps, flies, beetles, and even butterflies and moths.
Most native bees are very gentle, and will only sting if threatened or pinched. Many of them are solitary bees, and don't form aggressive hives. Native bees are often 2-3 times more efficient at pollinating than are honey bees, and they may also continue working in cool, wet weather when honey bees won't leave their hive.
In many areas, our populations of native pollinators have been greatly reduced because of loss of habitat and food sources. Yards that are composed of closely-mowed grass and few large trees don't offer much shelter or food for our pollinators. Gardens that include mostly non-native plants don't support as many native insects. The wide-spread use of pesticides (even some organic ones) often kill off our pollinators, too.
You can help to increase pollinators in your neighborhood by improving insect habitat and food sources in your yard. This includes providing:
- a diversity of plants that will bloom from early spring through late fall (mostly natives)
- egg-laying and nesting sites, that also include useful nesting material
- undisturbed, sheltered locations that provide sites for overwintering and hibernation
- a landscape free from pesticides
Pollinator Meadows (Bee Pastures)
If you want to create a pollinator-friendly garden, you can start small. Select a variety of pollen and nectar-rich plants that will bloom throughout the growing season. Native plants can support up to four times more native pollinators than non-native plants.
Gardens that include 10-20 species of bee-friendly flowering plants will support the widest diversity of pollinators. Focus on plants best suited for your region. Group similar plants together, so that bees can collect the nectar and pollen efficiently.
Native bee nesting sites include:
- patches of mostly bare, well-drained soil – often on slopes
- dead tree snags or rotting logs
- hollow broken stems of many plants
- overgrown areas, rock piles, and brush piles
You may find that some of these sites already exist on your property. You can easily create one home-made bee nesting site by drilling long holes into a piece of lumber, and tucking it into a sheltered location.
We had very few honey bees on our fruit blossoms in 2014, but because we had created and set up a couple of these nesting blocks the year before, we had enough native bees to help pollinate our fruit trees.
Instructions for creating pollinator nesting sites:
Creating hedgerows is one way to combine providing a sheltered location for your pollinators, along with a variety of nesting sites. Hedgerows aren't mowed or tilled, and can provide a very diverse habitat. You can combine a variety of small trees, evergreen and deciduous shrubs, and perennial plants, along with dead tree branches, rotting logs, small piles of rocks or brush, and an occasional patch of bare, well-drained soil. Hedgerows don't have to be wild and unruly, but keeping it extremely clean and tidy will reduce its value for pollinators.
Many pesticides (even some organic ones) can kill our pollinators and other beneficial insects. Avoid using them as much as possible. If you feel you must use a pesticide, closely follow the directions to avoid affecting your pollinators.
Here are a few resources that I've found helpful:
A great pollinator website: Pollinator Partnership
A non-profit organization dedicated to protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems.
A nice 5-minute video showing close-ups of various pollinator bees in action:
Bee Pollinators of Southwest Virginia Crops
The best book I've found about native pollinators, including lots of great photos and in-depth information:
Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat