Pollinator Conservation Begins in the Home Garden

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Pollination is essential for the production of many crops. In fact, it is estimated that one-third of our diets are derived from insect-pollinated plants.

This sign is in someone's front yard in Oakland, CA.

Pollinators, like bees and other insects, are essential for our agriculture system in the US. Creating pollinator habitat on your property is the single best thing you can do to help pollinators. Pictured here is a sign posted in a residential yard in California, indicating plantings designed to provide pollinator habitat. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Pollination increases yield and also improves crop quality. Flowers of squash plants require pollination by insects (or humans), or they will not produce fruit. Multiple visits to squash flowers by pollinators increase the size of the fruit, the number of seeds, and the consistency in the shape of the fruit.

The most common pollinators are bees and butterflies, but other creatures like hummingbirds and bats, are pollinators of some plants. Pollinators can be native (bumblebees, orchard mason bees, blueberry bees, etc.) or introduced (most commercial honeybee species).

The economic value of native pollinators in the US is estimated at $3 billion. However, the decline of native pollinators has been documented for several years now and can be traced back to several issues, including habitat loss and pesticide use.

So what can you do to protect pollinators? Improve the pollinator environment by increasing the use of native, flowering plants in your yard, creating nesting sites for native bees, and using pesticides sparingly, if at all. If you’re going to use a pesticide, be sure to choose the correct one for the pest and plant you’re treating.

Pollinator habitat should include plants that provide pollen and nectar as well as a place to nest. Native plants are most effective at attracting native pollinators, because they have co-evolved with them. Some native perennials that attract pollinators include milkweed, aster, joe pye weed, beebalm, and blazing star.

Non-native plants can also attract pollinators. Examples include cosmos and anemones (two of my favorites) and herbs, like lavender, basil, and rosemary.

Once you’ve attracted pollinators, protect them by using pesticides wisely or not at all. While not all pesticides are toxic to bees, it’s a good idea to choose the least toxic pesticide which will control the pest you’re targeting. A common myth is that pesticides labeled as natural or organic are less harmful to pollinators, which isn’t always the case.

Always read the pesticide label before its application, as it provides important precautions for protecting pollinators (and yourself). Some pesticides can be toxic to pollinators not only when the chemical comes into direct contact with the insect, but also from the insect landing or foraging on a plant that has pesticide residue. Pesticides which are toxic to pollinators should not be applied when plants are in bloom.

The Xerces society, founded in 1971, is a non-profit organization dedicated to invertebrate protection. The organization is named for the Xerces Blue (Glaucopsyche xerces) butterfly, the first American butterfly thought to have gone extinct due to habitat loss from urban development. Their web site (www.xerces.org) includes fact sheets on everything from pollinator plants to building nests for native bees. Additionally, a pollinator conservation guide for North Carolina can be found at http://go.ncsu.edu/pollinator.