Protecting Pollinators In Your Backyard
by Debbie Roos, NC Cooperative Extension
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Sweat bee on a coneflower.
Photo by Debbie Roos
Did you know that worldwide, roughly 1,000 plants grown for food, drinks, fiber, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend? Good pollination ensures that a plant will produce full-grown fruit and a full set of fertile seeds.
Most pollinators – about 200,000 species – are beneficial insects such as bees, flies, beetles, wasps, butterflies, and moths. A small number of pollinators are animals such as hummingbirds, bats and small mammals. Honey bees and native bees (bumble bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, mining bees, mason bees, etc.) are very important to our food supply and are responsible for pollinating about one-third of the foods we enjoy.
Bees and other pollinators are also crucial members of the habitats and ecosystems that many wild animals rely on for food and shelter. As natural areas are cleared for development, pollinator habitat is destroyed or fragmented, resulting in the loss of foraging, nesting, and/or egg-laying sites. This can lead to fewer pollinators. However, there are many things you can do to protect pollinators right in your backyard!
The first step is to change your lawn and garden habits to reduce harm to bees and other pollinators. You can lower the risk for pesticide poisoning by not using pesticides. Remember that even “organic” or “natural” pesticides can be highly toxic to bees, so if you do choose to use them, apply them late in the day when bees are not actively searching for food.
The next step is to create feeding and nesting habitat to attract more bees. About 70% of native bees nest in the ground, so it’s important to protect the nests that are already there and to encourage new ones if possible. Ground nesting bees prefer to build nests in well-drained, sunny, gently sloping sites with little or no plants. You can also create nests for wood-nesting bees such as carpenter bees by drilling holes in wood blocks, or making bundles from the stems of plants like sumac, elderberry and bamboo.
The next piece of the puzzle is to feed bees by growing plants that provide nectar and pollen. This can be done at any scale – from planting in containers if you don’t have much room, to planting a big pollinator garden! The pollinators will be thankful for anything you do to help them find more food.
Your main goal is to have plants flowering throughout the growing season, from early spring through late fall, with overlapping blooming times. Choose flowers of different colors, sizes, and shapes to attract different kinds of pollinators. Some pollinators have short tongues and can only eat from small open flowers with easily accessible nectar. Other pollinators have long tongues and like tube-shaped flowers. Plant native plants to provide the most benefits to the biggest number of pollinators.
Some examples of NC native plants that will make your pollinators very happy from spring to fall: wild indigo, spiderwort, and beard tongue (spring); butterfly weed, mountain mint, Joe- pye weed, coneflower, blanketflower, and St. John’s wort (summer); goldenrod, aster, spotted horsemint, and obedient plant (fall). Herbs such as lavender, oregano, basil, catmint, and rosemary also provide great food for bees.
I hope that you will consider planting some plants that both you and our pollinators will enjoy for many seasons to come!
Want to learn more? Visit Cooperative Extension’s Pollinator Paradise Demonstration Garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro. For more information and a schedule of tours, just go to ProtectPollinators.org.
Debbie Roos is an Agricultural Extension Agent with the Chatham County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
Summer 2011 Contents: