Whether admired as a marvel of nature or loathed as a nuisance, honeybees are the miracle behind much of our food production. Apples, almonds, potatoes, coffee and chocolate are only a few of the nearly 1,000 foods and beverages dependent upon the work of these perfect pollinators.
Better with bees
“Pollinators contribute to biodiversity and directly impact our food supply,” says Lori Forstie, public relations and outreach coordinator for Quarry Hill Nature Center. “Statistics show that one in three bites of food can be directly related to pollinators.”
Although honeybees are the most important insects that transfer pollen, they aren’t the only species out there.
“A pollinator is any insect or animal that can transfer pollen within a flower or from flower to flower, including butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, moths and beetles,” says Tami Smith, assistant manager of perennials at Sargent’s Gardens on 2nd Street.
“All of these species contribute to the strength of our plant diversity, landscape and agricultural stability,” adds Forstie. “Unfortunately, increasing evidence has established that honeybee populations are in jeopardy and that migrating monarchs have been in sharp decline in recent years due to lack of habitat.”
Other factors reducing pollinator populations include hive collapse, disease, parasites and misuse of some insecticides, particularly systemic ones like neonicotinoids which permeate all parts of the plant and are toxic to pollinating insects.
“The jury is still out about how insecticides—neonicotinoids specifically—might be causing problems,” says Smith. “Because we haven’t been able to pinpoint which insecticides are harming pollinators, Sargent’s took all neonicotinoids off its shelves. We don’t want to contribute to the problem and don’t want to be responsible for having something on the shelf that could be harming the bees.”
So what does dying pollinators mean to humans?
Smith puts it simply: “If we lose bees, we lose our food.”
Protecting and promoting pollinators
Luckily, there are some simple ways to help these hard-working insects: decrease pesticide use, buy locally produced or organic food and provide a food source by creating a pollinator garden.
“A pollinator garden is one that has plants which insects feed on and/or collect pollen from,” says Joyce Grier, Master Gardener with University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners Olmsted County. “Butterfly gardens are often good for pollinating insects, depending on what plants are in the garden. Different plants will attract different insects, bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and moths, but many plants will attract all of these.”
As you provide food for these hungry visitors, they unwittingly pollinate nearby fruits and vegetables, making them bigger and more aromatic, nutrient-dense and disease-resistant, so placing pollinator plants in or around your vegetable garden creates a win-win for everyone.
“You don’t need to spend a fortune or provide a huge space,” says Smith. “Something as small as 6’x8’ will do. Adding pollinator plants to an existing garden or flower bed or just creating a grouping of three pots with the right plants will also attract bees and butterflies.”
“Soil type, water, sunlight versus shade are things to consider whenever one creates a garden or even plants an individual plant,” adds Grier. “So a pollinator garden will not have specific requirements, but each individual plant may.”
Using an inexpensive soil testing kit from a local nursery or home improvement store, you can find out if your soil is right for the plants you wish to use. If it isn’t, the nursery can tell you how to amend it. Most pollinator plants [see list below] prefer sun over shade, so pick a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight each day. Because many of the listed plants are native, they generally don’t require fertilizers and can be purchased locally.
After planting, don’t use herbicides or insecticides since these chemicals may kill pollinators or adversely affect them. And keep a small dish of water (or the top of a bird bath) in the garden for bees and butterflies to drink from. Last, if you don’t have shrubs or tall native grasses in or near your garden, consider using nesting blocks or Mason bee houses to offer pollinators shelter and protection from predators.
For more ideas on creating your unique pollinator garden, take a stroll through Quarry Hill’s butterfly and hummingbird gardens, attend the Master Gardeners’ annual tour on Wednesday, July 27, 4-8:30 p.m. ($5 per person) or visit your favorite garden center.
With a little patience and the right design, you can create a sanctuary that will delight you and keep pollinators buzzing for years to come.