Pollinators are important because they serve as a critical link in the ecosystem. Without pollination there would be no seeds or fruits that provide food for other insects and animals (including us!). Pollination is critical for agriculture and supports the development of many foods we consume. An estimated 90% of flowering plants and one third of human food crops require insect and animal pollinators in order to reproduce via seeds. Furthermore, seed dispersion by wind and animals allows new plants and plant communities to grow, forming grasslands and woodlands that stabilize the soil surfaces of our watershed.
Who is the cast of characters? Bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies and birds are the primary pollinators in our local ecosystem, the Eastern Broadleaf Forest, Oceanic Province. Bees are considered to be one of the most important groups of pollinators in this region. Female bees feed on and collect both flower nectar (high in sugar and necessary amino acids) and pollen (high in protein) as food for their offspring. No wonder they are so busy! In doing this, they accidentally transfer large quantities of pollen from flower to flower, providing a critical link in the seed production process. Other pollinators also unintentionally transfer pollen in their search for nourishing nectar, and many of the recommendations described below support their life cycle needs too.
What’s happening to them? Today we are facing the rapid decline of both native bee pollinators and domesticated European Honey Bees. They are threatened by loss of habitat, disease, excessive use of pesticides, and possibly the introduction of genetically engineered crops. European Honey Bees have historically been the work horses of commercial agriculture production, but with recent, severe declines due to colony collapse disorder, the role of native pollinators has become increasingly important. Restoration and creation of new habitats is part of the solution to supporting our pollinators and restoring their populations. If you are a gardener and want to be a part of this solution, there are many helpful practices you can implement on your own property.
What do bees need to survive and thrive? Bees, like all living creatures, need an adequate, regular food supply, shelter, nesting sites, and water.
Native plants are four times more likely than nonnative plants to attract one of the nearly 4000 species of native bees. Different species of bees have different lengths of tongues and that determines which flowers from which they can gather nectar. If you plant a diversity of perennials, shrubs and trees, you can attract and support a greater variety of pollinators. Make sure you choose your planting palette so that there is always something blooming throughout the growing season.
Flowering perennial plants should be organized into groupings so that bees can see them as they fly over your yard. Generally, a cluster of three to five of the same plant will create an adequate bee feeding node. Choose a variety of flower colors. Bees can see the colors in the bright white, yellow and blue spectrum the best. Bees also use flowers as social spaces to meet and find mates.
The following is a list of garden worthy native plants that are especially nectar and pollen rich. They are attractive to a great variety of hungry bees and will also draw other types of pollinators.
|Spring Blooming:||Botanical Name||Common Name|
|Ground Covers||ARCTOSTAPHYLOS UVA-URSI||BEARBERRY|
BIRD’S FOOT VIOLET
|NEW JERSEY TEA
|Trees|| ACER RUBRUM
DWARF JOE PYE WEED
JOE PYE WEED
|Shrubs||CEPHALANTHUS OCCIDENTALIS||BUTTON BUSH|
|Trees||MAGNOLIA VIRGINIANA||SWEET BAY|
|OXYDENDRUM ARBOREUM||SOURWOOD TREE|
NEW ENGLAND ASTER
GOLDENRODNEW YORK IRONWEED
Note that these plants are usually available through local nurseries. Often you will find a cultivar of a native plant species. This is a native plant that has been selected for various traits such as compact size, flower color, etc. Sometimes cultivars are preferred for a residential garden setting, and they certainly can be included in your pollinator paradise. An example of a cultivar is Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’, which is commonly known as ‘Kobold’ Gayfeather. While the straight species can get 4-5 ft. in height, ‘Kobold’ has a much more compact habit and grows only to a height of 20-24”.
Pollinators need shelter and nesting sites within flight range of their flower resources. This can be up to a mile for some larger bee species such as Carpenter and Bumble Bees, but is only a couple hundred feet for some of the tiniest bee species. To create shelter for bees, incorporate varied canopy layers into the landscape by planting assorted sizes of trees, shrubs and perennials. Dead trees and branches are good nesting sites for Carpenter and Leafcutter Bees. Areas of uncovered soil allow ground nesting bees like Bumble Bees and Sweat Bees to have access to underground tunnels. Also, to encourage solitary, non-aggressive bees to nest on your property install specially designed bee boxes. Many retail garden centers and online stores sell these ‘homes for bees’. Sources include www.kinsmangarden.com and www.gardeners.com. Finally, a little untidiness can be a good thing. Keep a few areas of leaf litter around for these pollinators to take shelter during stormy weather.
Including a water feature in your garden design provides a clean and reliable water source for bees and other pollinator insects. The water sources should have a shallow or sloping side so that pollinators can approach the water to drink without drowning.
If possible, eliminate the use of pesticides in your garden. Pesticides are largely toxic to bees. If you are concerned about controlling pests in your garden, please visit the University of MD Home and Garden Information website to learn about Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices (https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/insects). There is a link to an excellent video about IPM practices (mid page) and, although it focuses on vegetable garden pests, the concepts apply to other plantings as well.
The spring planting season is upon us, so dust off your gardening tools and walk around your property to assess what changes you could implement. Remember that pollinators can’t see property lines. If we all participate, collectively we can make a positive impact to restore and enjoy a thriving ecosystem. Share this information with your friends and neighbors, and happy gardening!
In addition to serving as a board member for the GVC, Kirsten Coffen, ASLA is the owner of Garden Architecture, LLC, a landscape architecture firm located in Fork, Maryland. For additional information about Garden Architecture, LLC, visit www.gardenarchitecturellc.com or contact Kirsten directly – [email protected]