Creating A Garden To Welcome Pollinators

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butterfly and pink flower

Pollinator populations are in decline. What can we do? Creating a landscape to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Here’s how to start.

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It is no secret that the world’s pollinators are in decline. Monarch butterfly populations are down 90% in the last 20 years. They have had a slight rebound since 2013, but are still far below normal. Birds and mammals, such as bats and lemurs, are at threat of going extinct. Honeybees and native bees are disappearing quickly, too.

About 85% of plants need pollination to reproduce, and to provide food, fiber and medicine to wildlife, livestock, and humans. Pollinators are responsible for 40% of the world’s food. In developing countries, pollinator decline could mean malnutrition for residents and less food security than they already experience.

Without pollinators, ecosystems will destabilize as native plants disappear. The circle of life will be broken – every aspect of nature is dependent on every other aspect. Disrupting one part disrupts the whole.

Causes of pollinator decline

Urban sprawl and construction eat up valuable wild spaces where native pollinators and native plants depend on each other. Climate change is also responsible for habitat loss. As a region gets colder or warmer, or experiences severe weather, plants and animals are no longer adapted to it.

Pesticide use is responsible for monarch and bee decline. Herbicides are killing off plants they need for food and laying eggs. If plants aren’t eradicated, they are toxic, so when pollinators feed, they die. Farmers clearing land for corn for ethanol production are destroying millions of acres of bee and monarch habitat.

What can you do?

bumblebee and flowerDevelopment, climate change, disease, monoculture, and heavy pesticide use are the causes of pollinator decline. What are the solutions?

Did you know there are 4,000 species of native bees in North America? They are the most important pollinators we have, and we should do everything we can to get them to thrive!

At home, you can create habitats in your yard that will provide food, shelter, nesting, and water. By planting native plants, you will attract native bees. Check with your local Native Plant Society for a list of plants that will do well in your area. Always buy organically grown plants. You want to stay away from pesticides, so don’t start your native garden with conventionally grown plants. You’re defeating the purpose, if you do.

How to plant for bees

Plant in large groupings for visual attraction. Bees forage in small areas, so keep plantings close together. Choose a diversity of perennials, annuals, shrubs, herbs and trees for various colors, shapes and bloom times. You want continuous flowering throughout the growing season.

Grow as many native plants as you can. Plants adapted to your area that are not native will serve the same purpose. Avoid invasive plants. Here are some ideas for pollinator garden design.

Nesting needs of bees

About 1/3 of bees nest and overwinter in dead trees, rocks, leaf litter, and stems of perennial plants. If you don’t want your yard to look wild, create a corner with logs, rocks and plants you don’t cut back. Leave it natural for best effect.

Most bees are ground nesters, living and reproducing in burrows under ground in open spaces. Avoid disturbing soil by tilling or grading. In your wild corner, be sure to leave some bare ground for them.

Remember to leave water for them! Fill a shallow dish or create a small shallow pool, and keep it clean to reduce disease.

Butterfly habitat

Unlike bees, butterflies do not nest. They lay eggs on host plants that larvae feed off of when they emerge. Sometimes food and host plants are not the same. Check with your local extension office to find out your native butterflies and their plant needs. Here is a great source for wildlife landscaping by region.

Meadows are perfect butterfly habitat with a variety of plants. If you want to plant milkweed seed for Monarch butterflies, use this Milkweed Seed Finder from the Xerces Society. I have two varieties within ¼ mile of my house, and they grow in two distinctively different ecosystems. This shows me that we need several varieties of milkweed for Monarchs to get their numbers back up.

Away from home

City governments need to create natural green spaces to encourage pollinators. A corner of a public space can be turned into wild, undisturbed garden. Not only will this help the environment, but it can be used as an educational tool for children and adults. They can learn about bees, butterflies, plants and ecosystems, and hopefully they would be inspired to plant a pollinator garden at home.

Roadside mowing should be done with consideration to the life cycles of bees and butterflies. Late fall is the least invasive time, and blades should be set to 4-6” above ground. This will disturb the pollinators the least, and also allow for native plants to reseed.

Obvious and documented

The negative environmental and economic effects of pollinator decline are obvious and documented. It is something we should all be concerned about. Do your part at home, and get your neighbors involved with their yards. Work with your town and state to plant natural green areas and cut back on mowing. Everyone’s life depends on it.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.