This past week I attended the First Annual Protecting Pollinators in Ornamental Landscapes Conference in Hendersonville, NC. When it comes to protecting pollinators, a lot of research focuses on honey bees, pathogens, pesticides, and the current state of agriculture however, most of us encounter pollinators in the ornamental landscape (i.e. urban environments, backyard gardens). At this conference, I learned about what the general public can do to help all the pollinators from a diverse set of speakers (scientists, growers, and those involved in extension programs). Although my research focuses on honey bees (and I love honey bees), bumble bees (the extra fuzzy bee above), solitary bees (for example, the shiny green bee below), and butterflies (and more!) need your help too! Based on what I learned at the conference, here’s what you can do (at home!) to help both the pollinators and the environment in general.
While there are various reasons for pollinator decline, one of the main reasons is the lack of food—pollinators need flowers for their nutrients. In early spring (especially in New England), sometimes the only food available is what most people consider “weeds”—dandelions and clovers. Dr. Emily Minor’s lab at the University of Illinois Chicago found that when given a choice, bees actually prefer these “weedy” flowers. So, something as simple as cutting your lawn less often or not cutting your lawn as short can help pollinators get the nutrition they need!
BeeSmart— Pollinator Gardens
You can also create a pollinator garden to give pollinators both healthy food and a place to live. A good pollinator garden has a variety of pollinator-friendly, locally adapted plants, and doesn’t need pesticides. Debbie Roos, an Agricultural Extension Agent at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, has created her own pesticide-free pollinator garden that she shares with the public through tours and educational outreach. In addition to providing a source of food and habitat for the pollinators, Debbie’s garden supports small nurseries—all her plants are bought locally!
“Locally adapted” differs by region—a great resource for figuring out your local is the Pollinator Partnership. They have free downloadable regional guides and a free mobile app that allows you to select your region and your pollinator (bees, butterflies, etc.). Also, pollinator friendly gardens don’t need pesticides as some pollinators (wasps) are bio-control agents—they feed leaf-eating caterpillars to their babies as a source of protein! With this in mind, be aware that plants sold at Home Depot or Lowes may have been raised with neonicotinoids—a systemic pesticide that has been shown to be detrimental to honey bees and bumble bees—make sure to read the label before you buy and plant!
Another main reason for pollinator decline is the loss of habitat—they are running out of places to live! Planting gardens provides nesting habitats for ground nesting bees which are important pollinators and do not sting humans (unless handled)! Dr. Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex and bumble bee expert, suggested planting your garden in a raised spiral—it looks cool and will provide even more habitat for ground nesting bees.
You can also create a bee hotel to provide homes for other solitary bees such as mason bees . If you happen to already have a garden or a vegetable garden, a bee hotel will only help you out—it will attract more pollinators and as a result, your plants will be more productive. As concisely stated by Dr. Terrill A. Nell, research coordinator for the American Floral Endowment: “Horticulture needs bees and bees need horticulture.” The same can be said about pollinators in general.
Lastly, you can help pollinators by supporting your local beekeepers, farmers, and nurseries. Promoting local operations will promote pollination services that can then spill back to wild plants. Thus, not only are you helping the pollinators—and your local economy—you are helping the environment as a whole!
These are only a few things I learned at the First Annual Protecting Pollinators Conference—I also learned about beekeeping in the city from David Tarpy, immune functions of native bees from Margarita Lopez-Uribe, and how to create educational and extension programs from various speakers (Jane Memmott, Connie Schmotzer, and Susan Varlamoff to name a few). As part of the conference, I was also able to tour the gorgeous Biltmore Estate & Horticultural Gardens in Asheville, NC (where all these pollinator pictures were taken!). Next stop: the Greater New York Honey Bee Conference in Queens, NY (tomorrow!).
Photos of the Biltmore house courtesy of my lab sister and traveling partner, Kelsey Graham.