What do avocados, coffee, vanilla and apples all have in common? They are popular agricultural crops we eat on a regular basis that depend on pollinators. In fact, at least 75 percent of all the flowering plants on Earth are pollinated by insects and animals.
Pollinators are a big deal for our ecosystems and our economy. In the United States, pollinators contribute over $18 billion annually to the value of our agricultural production for over a hundred different essential crops, including blueberries, almonds and potatoes. Many of our favorite foods and kitchen staples from across the globe, such as chocolate, bananas and melons, also require the support of healthy pollinators.
Supporting biodiversity starts right here with small actions. In the city or out in the suburbs, pollinators play an enormous role in ensuring beautiful flowers bloom year after year and towering trees continue to stand and provide shade throughout the seasons. Do you part to help protect and provide green space for these integral species by planning and planting a pollinator garden.
Who Are the Pollinators?
Honeybees are always busy pollinating our farms and gardens, but they are actually joined by many other pollinators. Beetles, ants, wasps, solitary bees, flies, butterflies and moths are all pollinators. Some of these insects focus on specific plants while others are bit more generalist in their tastes. Bats and birds are active, widespread pollinators, and it is currently hypothesized that some small mammals, such as shrews and lemurs, as well as some lizards are indirect pollinators, too.
Start With a Plant
All you need to do to get started supporting pollinators is provide some of their favorite flowers. Whether you have a backyard, porch, strip or yard, consider creating a small corner into a pollinator paradise by planting a few plants. Containers and hanging baskets, with the right flowers, can definitely help support pollinators.
Avoid those showy double-petaled blooms, seen in some bulbs, roses and camelias, as they are usually sterile and practically inaccessible to insects. Instead consider growing some native plant species, such as aromatic asters, milkweed, hyssop, culver’s root, beebalm or coneflowers. Other popular plants, like butterfly bush, blanket flower, goldenrod and chrysanthemum, are also good starting choices, as they are easy to grow and have enjoyable flowers.
The more the merrier — if you start today, you can have a pollinator garden in no time.
Dead, Dried and Dirty
While many of us garden for pretty blooms or delicious vegetables, these very same plants and their surrounding spaces are much more to pollinators. Many pollinating insects burrow into the ground to pupate, including butterflies, moths and bees. Keep patches of dirt revealed within your pollinator haven, especially at the end of the season and around the plants.
Dried and dead flowers are also homes to many pollinators, who use their hollowed stems as nesting sites. Leave flower stalks standing all year after flowering. This stubble will be covered in summer by new growth and will decay on its own; you can certainly trim them down to about 12 inches if you prefer a tidier look. Also be sure to leave the leaves from nearby trees on the ground from autumn until summer, as these provide much-needed habitats for overwintering pollinators and nutrition to the soil.
If you have green grass as part of your outdoor space, consider letting the dandelions, clovers and violets grow. These plants are often labelled as weeds, but these wildflowers are just simple, easy-to-grow pollinator magnets. Wait until late May or early June to start your mowing, too, so our flying friends can make the most of these blooms. And, if possible, reduce or reconsider pesticides in your lawncare treatment plan. These chemicals can have serious impacts on our pollinators.
Unfortunately, some pollinators feel unwelcome in our yards — providing homes can change that. Bats are extremely misunderstood animals and a truly great asset to your local ecosystem. Besides pollinating, every night they eat hundreds of unwanted bugs, such as mosquitoes, and really do not want to engage with humans. Put up a bat house this year and give them a place to roost after a long night of important work! Don’t worry if it remains vacant the first year or so; bats tend to be hesitant, wary movers, but once they discover your space is up for rent, they will likely stick around.
Carpenter bees, despite their reputation, are gentle giants and very important native pollinators, especially for our vegetables like tomatoes and eggplant. Like bats, they have been making their nests in snags, or standing dead trees, and other exposed wood in the Northeast for over a thousand years. Pesticides are a temporary solution; more bees will always return. Instead, keep outdoor wood surfaces painted or apply a layer of almond oil annually during the spring. This is an excellent, nonharmful deterrent to carpenter bees, and a lovely aesthetic look. Small piles of nontreated wood, like pine or cedar, in the garden can entice this pollinator, as well as beetles and ants, to reconsider your house as their own.
Pollinating is difficult, time-consuming work, so be sure to provide refreshment! In a spot that is near the blooming flowers but not in direct sunlight (as it will evaporate quickly), set out a watering station — a small shallow dish with fresh clean water. The drainage saucers for terra cotta pots are a great option, but any little dish will do. Include a few small pebbles, shells or stones that remain half submerged; these create dry landing spaces so the pollinators can avoid drowning or damaging their wings. At the end of the day, you can dump and refill it.
Featured image of two Buckeye butterflies by Isa Betancourt.