Bring all the bees to your yard with these pollinator-friendly garden tips

By John Moore, Guest Columnist

What’s all the fuss about pollinators? For one thing, we depend on pollinators for the majority of the crops we eat. And at least 80 percent of all plant life depends on pollination for reproduction. And more pollination makes for better fruit set and quality, in addition to increasing fruit size, resulting in more productive farms and gardens.

So, abundant populations of pollinators are critical for our food supply and ecosystem health.

Honeybees get most of the credit for this job, but they are not alone. There are thousands of other types of bees that also pollinate, not to mention butterflies, beetles, birds and many other species.

The problem is that there are times that our needs may outstrip the capability of honeybees to do their thing. The honeybee is not native to North America and it is facing rapid decline: the Varroa mite is a parasite that has destroyed honeybee populations in many regions of the country; Colony Collapse Disorder has taken a large toll; and the pesticides we use to control “bad bugs” also kill “good bugs,” like honeybees.

Sarah Bergmann, founder and director of Pollinator Pathways in Seattle (www.pollinatorpathway.com), makes a strong case that native plants and insects have a much better chance of riding out adversity than do non-natives. So, it makes sense to develop and preserve native plants as a buffer for fluctuations in pollinator populations. The National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org) challenges us to focus on native plants in the garden, since native plants and insects have co-evolved over centuries and depend on each other for survival. And because they are native, they are the most reliable and sustainable source of food for wildlife, including pollinators.

Attracting pollinators

Pollinators’ needs are relatively simple: food, water and habitat.

Food: Many pollinators are generalists when it comes to food. They may prefer a certain source, but they will branch out a little when it’s not available. Others, like the Monarch butterfly, depend on only one source, and if it’s not around, neither are the Monarchs. Pollinators need food all year long, so try to have something in bloom all year. And since we know that native plants are our most beneficial and reliable source of food, focus on the many beautiful native options. As an added benefit, native plants require much less work and attention to thrive in their own habitat.

Water: A source of good water is an important part of attracting and keeping insects and other pollinators. If there is no natural source of good water close to you, Penn State University’s Pollinator Garden Certification Program suggests strategies as simple as adding a birdbath or a puddling area for butterflies, or as complex as installing a water garden. You also could just hang a dripping bottle, or place a small container of water out in the open. Be sure to change the water two to three times per week when mosquitoes are breeding.

Habitat: Pollinator habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. There are programs designed to restore habitat like those designed by Pollinator Pathways, the National Wildlife Federation and the Pollinator Partnership. We can make significant contributions around our own yards by using their guidelines. Amy Bartlett Wright, in her excellent article “The Other Pollinators,” written for the National Gardening Association, suggests that we tolerate a little mess: leave dead snags and leaf litter, keep areas bare for ground-nesting insects, and leave some weeds that provide food for pollinators. Protection from predators is critical. Good habitat provides adequate protection from most predators, but well-intentioned humans with chemicals may be the #1 threat. If we choose to use them, we must use pesticides thoughtfully and in strict compliance with label directions…it’s not only the law, but it’s the best way to avoid killing those “good bugs” and polluting our water system.

How can we do it?

If you’re like most people, it’s one thing to know what do for our pollinator friends: it’s quite another to put that knowledge into action. Fortunately, there are ample resources that lay out exactly how to manage pollinators. Online is a good place to start:

  • The Pollinator Partnership has an in-depth site that includes specific regional information. Their guide, “Selecting Plants for Pollinators, A Regional Guide for Farmers, Land Managers, and Gardeners, In the Ecological Region of the Pacific Lowland Mixed Forest Province,” is an excellent resource. http://www.pollinator.org/guides
  • The National Wildlife Federation is a leader in attracting and preserving pollinators, and they have a program you can use to certify your backyard habitat. For information on certification and many other activities for children and adults, try www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife.aspx.
  • The Xerces Society has a variety of very helpful resources that are region-specific. My favorite is “Pollinator Conservation Resources — Pacific Northwest Region,” which includes region-specific information like plant lists (including bloom times, color, and the pollinator species they attract), conservation guides, plant suppliers and identification guides. Find this guide at xerces.org/pollinators-pacific-northwest-region.
  • The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at www.wildflower.org includes a searchable database on native plants nationwide.

To find local resources, try Washington State University’s County Extension Master Gardener Program, which provides good, research-based answers to your gardening questions. You can contact them via email at MGanswerclinic@clark.wa.gov or by phone at 360-397-6060, ext. 5711.

John Moore is a WSU Extension Clark County master gardener. For more information about the gardening-related event hosted by WSU Extension, visit http://extension.wsu.edu/clark/gardening/workshops-events/.