Pollinator populations are declining in the United States, due to lack of food, habitat loss, climate change, and pesticides and other chemicals. What pollinators need are more nectar and pollen sources – more flowers – to provide nourishment, and habitat – nesting places – to reproduce. We hear a lot about helping honeybees, butterflies and birds. It's important to remember that native bees, moths, beetles, bats and other less flashy members of the pollinator army need help, too.
Providing food and habitat is something anyone can do, and gardeners are especially situated to help. The garden can be any size, in any place. Pollinators happily visit city gardens, patios and balconies. Provide flowers, water, or nesting places, and they will find them.
So much of our food – vegetables, fruits, nuts – depends on pollinators. It's estimated that they bring us one out of every three bites of food we eat. Some 1200 cultivated crops depend on them, and over 180,000 plant species. Pollinators moving DNA around contribute to genetic diversity in plant species, and of course the plants themselves create oxygen, cool the air, stem erosion and support other life.
These benefits come courtesy of "ugly" pollinators as well as "pretty" ones. We're all onboard when it comes to planting for butterflies, hummingbirds, and honeybees (so long as we don't get stung). But many of us either don't think about supporting populations of native solitary bees, wasps, moths, beetles, or bats, or find them repellent or frightening. But they are no less necessary. They are also at risk, but their needs get less attention.
And the numbers back it up: there are ten times more moth species than butterfly species. The sheer number of beetles on earth makes them crucial pollinators. And seventy percent of all bee species are solitary bees.
Here's a review of what all pollinators need, with tips on helping the less photogenic ones:
Grow sources of nectar and pollen. Solitary bees, moths and beetles are attracted to most of the same flowers honeybees and butterflies are, such as butterfly bush and honeysuckle, alliums and bee balm and flat-topped flowers such as queen Anne's lace and yarrow. Single (not ruffled) impatiens and petunias attract moths. The clumsier beetle family needs wide-open, easy access flowers such as daisies, coneflower and black-eyed Susans.
And plant for the night shift, which includes bats (which pollinate flowers in desert and tropical climates) and some moths. They are attracted to evening- and night-blooming nectar plants that have white or pale flowers, or are fragrant. Flowering tobacco, yucca, cactus and four o'clocks are some examples.
Grow host plants. It seems counterintuitive as a gardener to cultivate a plant specifically so that bugs can chew all the leaves, but the term host plants means those flowers, trees and shrubs where caterpillar larvae pupate and feed. The Io moth lays its eggs on cherry, willow, and raspberry leaves. Hummingbird moths rely on honeysuckle.
In caterpillar form, some spectacular moths such as hawk moths are voracious pests of vegetable plants, especially tomatoes. They are valuable pollinators as adults, however, so planting some extra tomatoes in a different spot and moving the caterpillars (hornworms) to those sacrificial plants is a workaround.
Create habitat. Most bee species don't live in groups the way honeybees do. These are known as solitary bees, and they live, overwinter, and breed their young in the ground, or inside hollow stalks, logs, or other plant detritus. An overly neat garden, with every inch covered in mulch and all plant litter swept clean doesn't leave anywhere for these pollinators to live. Create a "messy" area in your yard with some bare soil, some rough grass, and a log or two, and make that where you put all the trimmings from your garden. Or check online for easy to make pollinator shelters and nest boxes.
Provide water. All pollinators seek water. A fountain, still pool, birdbath or even saucers of water in accessible places are helpful. Use half submerged stones as landing pads and remember to keep the water as fresh and clean as possible.
Care for this habitat sustainably. Chemical treatments such as pesticides and herbicides may be safe for humans when used correctly, but often have unintended and deadly consequences for other creatures. They should be used only as a last resort. Sure, it's easier to spray from a bottle instead of trying a solution that requires more effort, but why go to the trouble of creating pollinator habitat if you're going to use something that kills or drives away the pollinators?
Pollinator.org has downloadable, zip code-specific planting guides for dozens of regions in the U.S. and Canada, and information on many different types of pollinators. There you can find information about Pollinator Week, which this year is June 18-25.
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