Pollinator-Friendly Gardens on the Farm

Bees, monarchs and other insects help us grow food. We can begin to return the favor via these three easy steps.

By Lynn Coulter | Photos By iStockPhoto.com/©Westbury

Our gardens are losing their buzz. Bee populations have been in decline since the 1990s, endangered by parasites, disease, habitat loss and pesticide misuse. Other pollinators are vanishing, too, including monarchs and other butterflies, as well as moths, wasps, beetles and flower flies.

0316garden1When honeybees and other pollinators are in trouble, so are humans because we rely on them to pollinate about one-third of our foods. Some crops, such as almonds and apples, depend entirely on pollinators to set their flowers. These important creatures are “part of the web of life,” says Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes, author of “Pollinator Friendly Gardening” (Voyageur Press). They help plants reproduce and keep their gene pool strong and diverse.

While researchers search for solutions to problems like colony collapse disorder, a syndrome that affects bees, Hayes says there are things the rest of us can do to make a difference. Here are three easy ways to help:

Plant more flowers. Flowers provide food in the form of pollen and nectar, but Hayes says you don’t have to just dig more flower beds. “Think ground covers, vines, and trees, such as fruit trees and ornamentals like crabapples. Trees and ground covers can have hundreds of blooms in close proximity, so the bees can work a small area without a lot of going back and forth.”

To draw many kinds of visitors, plant flowers of different shapes, heights and colors. Natives are a great choice and usually require less care than non-natives. Grow annuals and perennials, too, says Hayes. You want flowers that start to open, or stay open, while others are fading, so the “bloom buffet goes on all season long.”

Leave some shelter. If you have room, leave some wild edges or patches in your landscape so pollinators can find shelter and make nests. “Lots of wild bees nest in the ground, so if there’s an area where you don’t walk, leave it unmulched and bare,” Hayes says, “or plant clover or vetch for foraging bees. About 30% of wild bees also nest in wooden cavities and hollow stems, so leave some hollow, pithy stems, like trimmings from raspberry bushes, for them to use.”

Grow many kinds of plants. Hayes doesn’t use chemicals in her garden. “The more diverse your plants are, the more species you’ll attract.” She says that will help attract natural predators of pests that prey on pollinators. Hayes also watches for a “damage threshold,” so she can decide if chewed leaves from single or multiple pests are signs of a real threat or just cosmetic. “Often things even out” before you need chemicals, she says.

Even small steps can help bring pollinators back to our gardens. Share the buzz.