Sharing the Million Pollinator Challenge

Bumblebees on aster - NC Arboretum Asheville2

Bumble bees are one of the fastest disappearing types of pollinators due to their complex habitat needs, climate change and, possibly, their special sensitivity to environmental pollutants, like pesticides.

This week I had the opportunity to attend the First National Conference on Protecting Pollinators in Ornamental Landscapes.  The meeting took place outside of scenic Asheville, NC and drew entomologists, industry personnel and extension educators from all over the country.  I thought I would use this post to help me digest some of the things I learned, and pose my readers a challenge.

First of all, it was nice to get the chance to interact with folks on both sides of the bee wars–that culture/science clash between the green community and pesticide manufacturers over the cause of recent bee declines.  Most meetings I attend seem to include like-minded people that generally agree with each other. Applied entomologists like myself like to talk about how to manage pests more effectively (IPM), and usually end up commiserating about the loss of key insecticides for control of important pests. Conservationists often gather to decry the loss of rare species, while plotting how to battle forces of evil in the guise of industry and “progress”.  This week’s meeting was one of those rare times when generally pro- and anti-pesticide groups sat down to find common ground and share ideas for solutions.

How refreshing it was to see these normally hostile groups coming together in support of an often overlooked part of the urban ecosystem, namely bees.

As speakers at this conference reminded us, bees are a diverse group of organisms.  There are 4000 species of bees in the U.S., and 25,000 known kinds of bees worldwide.  While one species, honey bees get most attention from the public, the other 3,999 species of pollinator bees provide most of the pollination services to native and agricultural plants.  Tomatoes and eggplants, for example, rely largely on bumble bees, a type of bee that is rapidly disappearing from our urban and natural landscapes.  Many of these other bees, like leaf cutting bees, mason bees and sweat bees, go largely unknown and unappreciated by most people, including many gardeners. Much of the meeting focused on these “other” bees, and what is being done to protect them.

Even though I’ve always liked bees, I learned that bees (and not just honey bees–pollinators in general) are definitely becoming cool for gardeners, and the public in general.  Even the White House this spring launched a new initiative to protect pollinator health.  The three goals of the initiative include

  • Reducing honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels;
  • Increasing monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration; and
  • Restoring or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action.

And political support from the Executive Branch is nothing to sneeze at.  It is likely to lead to increased funding for research and more public monies going to pollinator gardens and conservation programs.  In addition, many states and cities are launching pollinator awareness programs and declaring themselves “Bee City USA Communities” (Asheville was the first of what is now approximately 15 Bee City USA Communities).

The Challenge

The Pollinator Partnership (P2) is an organization devoted to the protection, promotion and research on pollinators and their ecosystems.   P2 is working with the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge to establish a million gardens across the country that are designed to provide food, water and habitat to critical pollinator species.  If you are interested in doing something to preserve the pollination services and survival of bees, would you consider establishing a pollinator garden in your backyard, garden or local green space?  Or maybe you already have a garden that would qualify as pollinator heaven. Would you commit to learning more about how to improve and expand the number of pollinator species that you attract?

If so, consider joining me this year as I upgrade and register my garden through P2.  The SHARE (Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment) project is committed to teaching gardeners how to grow a pollinator friendly garden, getting these gardens registered, and documenting the change.  You may already be further along in this effort than me.  If so, register!  But before I register I’m going to make a few pollinator upgrades to my drought-strickened garden this winter and spring.  Plus I plan to add a few pollinator friendly features like an upgraded bee hotel.  The most important thing to remember when planning a pollinator garden is season-long flowers, preferably perennials.  P2 provides the following tips for wannabe pollinator protectors:

bee box made with bamboo cane.

My small “bee box” at home has attracted only one bee colonizer since it was installed two summers ago. This year I plan to expand the box, add wood boles with pre-drilled holes and provide the house with better shading.  It may take several years to get a strong bee colony started in pollinator-poor sites.

  • Don’t be afraid to have a garden full of bees!  Honey bees are quite docile when foraging for nectar, and native bees rarely sting.  The only time bees or wasps really pose a threat is when their nest is disturbed.  These are not the kinds of nests we want IN our pollinator garden anyway–unless you’re a beekeeper.
  • Avoid use of broad spectrum pesticides in your bee plantings.  This means no mosquito misting systems, or general sprays for mosquitoes in the landscape.  If you need an insecticide to protect a plant, either consider not growing that plant any more, or apply the pesticide at night, when bees are not active (follow the label).
  • Provide water, and mud or bare areas of sandy soil.  Mud is an important nesting material for some bee species.  Other bees may use light soil to seal off their nests.  Others actually dig in areas of bare soil. Heavy clay soils in our area may not be very helpful in this regard.  I plan to investigate digging some pits with amended soil and sand around my bee hotel to see if it helps attract more types of bees.
  • Plant native plants from your area.  The Xerces Society publishes helpful lists of pollinator friendly plants for all regions of the country.  They have also published a new book that might be helpful, called Attracting Native Pollinators.
  • When choosing plants try to provide a variety of nectar sources that will bloom over a wide period of the growing season.  And don’t forget spring blooming trees like plums and cherry and redbud and holly (crape myrtles are not very attractive to pollinators).  Spring blooming trees are especially important to early emergers like bumble bees.
  • Consider building a bee house or hotel.  Holes can be drilled in the ends of cedar post scraps or firewood.  The holes should range in size from 3/32 inch to 3/8 in diameter, and 4 to 5 inches deep, according to P2.

By the way, I have tried mostly unsuccessfully to attract pollinators to a bee box the past two summers using bamboo pieces crammed into a shelter box.  My lack of success may be due to the lack of a shade roof, lots of ants, or just relatively few pollinators in my neighborhood.  But I’m not giving up.  I will keep trying until I find the right recipe for my home.  I hope you will too.

One last piece of advice for perfectionists.  Don’t let the feeling that you have to have the perfect garden or the perfect bee hotel keep you from working on a pollinator garden.  Several speakers at our conference stressed that gardeners shouldn’t over-think the process.  ANY pollinator plants you plant are better than none.  Start with what you’ve got and build on it.  No garden will be perfect the first year, but as it matures and you add to it, it will just get better.  And for pollinators it doesn’t have to be native (though there are other reasons for liking native plants).  The most important thing to have in a pollinator garden is your shadow (you!).

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