Pollinator-friendly gardening

When I mention pollen, most people immediately think about allergies. And it’s true that pollen released from trees, weeds and grasses may trigger allergies, or seasonal allergic rhinitis; sometimes referred to simply as hay fever.

There are two types of pollen however; lighter pollen, which is carried by the wind over long distances, and heavier, tackier pollen, which is not. It’s the lighter pollens that enter the body through our noses and throats and are responsible for most allergic reactions.

The vast majority of seed-bearing plants produce heavier, tackier pollens, which need to be carried from flower to flower, mostly by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds; a process called pollination. While foraging for nectar, a pollinator such as a bee, will rub up against the pollen within a flower. The pollen sticks to the insect’s body and is then transferred to other flowers as the bee moves from blossom to blossom.

There’s been a lot of concern lately about pollinators, especially honeybees, mysteriously dying off; and about habitat for pollinators becoming drastically reduced by urban development, pesticide use, disease and climate change. There’s good reason for all of the apprehension. The well-being of pollinators is closely connected to general environmental health. Large numbers of plant species are dependent upon them for their very existence.

According to the USDA, “Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about thirty-five percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. Some scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths, birds and bats, and beetles and other insects.” Without pollinators, most flowers, some tree species, and many food plants would be unable to reproduce. The result could be a drastic reduction in natural, as well as agricultural food production, putting us all in jeopardy.

Pollinators play a beneficial role in the production of apples, alfalfa, beans, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, cucumbers, melons, pears, plums, onions, raspberries, soybeans, squash, strawberries, and numerous other food crops. When healthy populations of pollinators are present, yields and quality are increased, both in agriculture, where they are also important in production of many of the plants that we rely on for dietary fats and oils (i.e. canola), fibers (i.e. cotton) and for medicines (i.e. goldenseal); and in the wild, where they play a vital role in maintaining the function and structure of natural communities increasing biodiversity and the quantity and quality of natural foods.

By adopting pollinator friendly practices, gardeners can take proactive roles in conserving, and even enhancing, pollinator populations. It’s the old adage, ‘if you build it, they will come.’

Consider when the plants in your garden will be in bloom and, with that in mind, introduce additional, preferably native plants, which will bloom when those already in your landscape do not. The objective is to provide a continuous food source from early spring through late fall, for as wide a variety of pollinators as possible; many of which are active at different times of the season. This can be accomplished by selecting a wide-ranging assortment of plants that produce flowers of varied color and fragrance and that achieve different heights, which also provides shelter.

By grouping your plantings, you can enhance pollination effectiveness. When only a few scattered flowers of any given variety are available, pollinators visiting your gardens are more likely to be unsuccessful; transferring pollen to dissimilar types of plants.

Consider planting herbs and annuals which, although they are non-native, can be extremely inviting to pollinators. Bees are particularly attracted to herbs including basil, bee balm (which also draws hummingbirds), catnip, chives, garlic, lavender, lemon balm, oregano, parsley, rosemary, mint, thyme, and many others. Annuals that attract pollinators include cosmos, impatiens, petunias, salvia, sunflowers, sweet alyssum, verbena and zinnias. Remember, however, that many hybrid varieties are bred to be attractive to humans, but may lack accessible nectar and pollen.

If you’re interested in fostering pollinators, you might also want to think twice, before pulling weeds. Many of the flowers that we consider weeds are actually excellent food sources for pollinators. Dandelions, for example, are an important source of nectar in early spring; a time when other food sources are often quite limited. On the other hand, learning to recognize and eliminate invasive species of plants, before they become established, can safeguard important pollinator plants and keep them from becoming displaced.

You may also want to protect and/or introduce native host plants that provide food and shelter for butterfly and beetle larvae. Milkweed, for example, hosts the larvae of migrating monarch butterflies.

You may also wish to become more familiar with Integrated Pest Management techniques and procedures. IPM promotes practices that minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides when dealing with insect pests. Monitoring pest populations and plant development are fundamental to discovering pest problems. Through vigilant monitoring, gardeners are able to eliminating unnecessary, often routine pest control treatments. If controls are needed, natural management techniques are always used first; picking off insects by hand, for example, or removing them by using a strong spray of water. Should pesticide use become necessary, the least toxic pesticides, insecticidal soap for example, are always used first. Since the primary focus of IPM is prevention, maintaining healthy soil, watering properly, and controlling unwelcome weeds are fundamental IPM practices.

National Pollinator Week is June 17 – 23. Why not celebrate by planting a small garden for pollinators at your home or by embracing pollinator conservation in already established home landscape gardens?

For more information, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office or email me at rlg24@cornell.edu.