Plan to Entertain a Variety of Native Pollinators
by Amy Loughrey Gray
Insect and animal pollinators are vital to the production of healthy crops used for food, medicine, fibers, and other products. Nearly one third of all agricultural output of the United States depends on pollinators, and they are also essential for the health of ecosystems that many animals rely on for food and shelter.
In recent years, their populations have been in decline due to human activity that causes pollution and loss of habitat. Such activities include the use of broad-spectrum pesticides and herbicides, the spread of invasive plant species, and urbanization.
The focus of this blog post will be on native pollinators and the many things we can do to help them thrive. Native pollinators are defined as insects and animals that were established in our area before European colonization and include wild bees, flies, wasps, butterflies, ants, moths, beetles, birds, and bats.
A good place to start is to become familiar with native pollinators of Pennsylvania by doing an online search or making a trip to your local library. If you don’t have time for a lot of reading, you can still help our pollinators by providing a habitat in your own backyard.
Pollinators need a pesticide- and herbicide-free area with food, water, and shelter to survive. Organic gardening is the best thing you can do to help.
You can reduce pesticide use by practicing IPM - Integrated Pest Management. IPM includes such things as caulking cracks and holes around the home to prevent pests from entering; selecting plants that are well suited to your location and maintaining plant health; tolerating low levels of pests instead of treating every small nuisance; and, if pesticide use is necessary, using the least toxic product that kills only the targeted pest.
Reduce herbicide use by mulching garden areas, manually pulling weeds, and learn to live with a few dandelions and patches of clover in the lawn.
Provide food such as pollen and nectar by planting flowers that have different shapes, sizes, and colors that bloom at different times in order to attract a wide variety of pollinators.
Some species, such as the Monarch butterfly, require a certain host plant (milkweed) for survival. Choose organically-grown native plants whenever possible. Water can be provided by setting out shallow plant saucers or birdbaths filled with water with stones or pebbles added for perches.
Shelter is just as important as food and water. Provide cover and nesting sites by planting shrubs and small trees. Wait until late spring to clean up your gardens because many pollinators overwinter in dead plants, twigs, leaf litter, old logs, and other hiding places. Leave a few patches of bare soil for solitary bees and other insects to use for nesting.
Providing man-made nesting sties is also an option, but be sure to first learn about the specific needs of the pollinators you want to attract. Most commercially available Mason bee houses and online “DIY” bee house instructions are prime examples of poor design, built without consideration for what the Mason bee actually needs to survive.
Mason bee nesting tubes should be at least six inches deep and made of natural reeds, cardboard, paper, or specially designed nesting blocks that can be opened and cleaned annually. Using bamboo, plastic straws, or drilling holes in wood blocks does not provide optimal conditions for survival and is therefore discouraged. A little research can make the difference between help and harm.
Providing habitat to pollinators now will reward you with beautiful flowers and better vegetable harvests for years to come!
Amy Loughrey Gray has been an avid gardener of vegetables and flowers for the past 20 years. In addition to tending the gardens, she raises native bees and Monarch butterflies and is a member of the Ford City Garden Club.