Most of us know that pollinators are important. Without pollinators many of the ordinary foods we eat would not be available. We hear about Colony Collapse Disorder which affects honey bees, but there are thousands of other types of bee and many other insect and animal pollinators including bats. These pollinators are also dying. What to do?
This past June the National Pollinator Garden Network (NPGN), an amazing collaboration of gardening and conservation organizations, launched the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge to give all of us an opportunity to support the pollinators in our part of the world. The NPGN says they “represent nearly one million active gardeners and 15,000 schoolyard gardens. The Network is challenging the nation to reach the goal of one million additional pollinator gardens by the end of 2016. The Network will work to provide resources for individuals, community groups, government agencies and the garden industry to create more pollinator habitat through sustainable gardening practices and conservation efforts.”
Pollinators are a particular and important set of the insects that make up our food web and we can support them by planting a garden that will supply them with nectar, pollen, water and shelter. The garden can be of any size from a window box to a field. We can support pollinators by not using herbicides and pesticides that will make them sick and die.
The first thing to think of when planting a pollinator garden is choosing plants that will supply a generous helping of nectar and pollen. At this time of the year we are surrounded by one of the best pollinator plants – golden rod. Joe Pye Weed is almost as common. I also have wild asters (I would never use the word weed) coming up in our field, and in places we have not managed to keep mown. I don’t know if these are New England asters which are listed as a good pollinator plant, but I certainly see unidentified little bees and other insects buzzing around and visiting them.
Pollinators will need pollen and nectar in every season. We should never curse our dandelions. They are one of the earliest good sources of pollen in the spring. Other familiar spring blooming plants supplying nectar and pollen include red maples, shadbush (amelancheir), willows, apple, plum and cherry trees, pieris, viburnams, blueberry bushes, Johnny jump-ups, tiarella, red columbine, crocus, and daffodils.
As the season progresses bee balm, chives, purple coneflower, thyme, rhodendron, swamp milkweed, penstemon hirsutus, black eyed susans and winterberry are in bloom. Some annuals like old fashioned zinnias and cosmos are useful. There are many more pollinator plants that are attractive and suitable for the home garden and lists are easily found on the Internet.
It is best to choose a variety of pollinator plants that will bloom over the full season, providing food spring through fall. Also, they should be planted in large clumps so that the pollinators will find them easily.
It is important to remember that many of the hybrid plants that have been improved to have bigger, more double or complex flowers may not have as much pollen or nectar. For instance, there are many bright and sometimes humorous cultivars of Echinacea, but pollinators need the basic coneflower Echinacea purpurea. They have the simple petals providing a landing strip and a big center cone filled with pollen and nectar.
Some of the principles followed by birdlovers will serve pollinator lovers as well. Insects need protection so use different layers in your garden by including trees and shrubs as well as perennials of different heights. Even leaf litter will offer them protection. A bit of bare ground is important because some insects nest in underground tunnels.
Many of us are already leary of using herbicides and pesticides in our gardens because we are concerned about harming other living things in addition to the particular pest or problem that is bothering us. Avoiding these poisons is sometimes harder than we think because they are added to lawn fertilizers. The idea is that you can eliminate weeds before they get started at the same time you are fertilizing.
Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are a new class of pesticides that are systemic. They are watered into the soil where they are then taken up into all parts of the plant. The plant looks good, but any insect that goes for pollen or nectar or a bite of a leaf will be poisoned. Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Imidacloprid, Nitenpyram, Thiocloprid, and Thiamethoxam are all neonics. Read the ingredients labels carefully when you buy pesticides or fertilizers, and always use them carefully, if you must use them at all.
Insects, like birds, need water. It is a good idea to provide a shallow container of water with an island of stones so they can sip easily. Make sure to provide a constant supply of this clean water in a sheltered spot.
If you want to join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge (and you may already have achieved many of the goals of the Challenge) go to the website www.millionpollinatorgardens.org and sign up online. Currently there are 184,427 pollinator gardens registered, and I am one of them. Won’t you join me?
Between the Rows September 12, 2015