For gardeners, New Year’s resolutions aren’t made in January, but in the spring.
As the days lengthen, and the snow melts, we plan what we will do better this year. I always promise myself more color in the flower beds and better care of the vegetables. But this year, I am adding a new resolution — protecting pollinators.
Pollination is the means of reproduction for most plants. Some plants like wheat, corn, and specific trees, only require wind for pollination, but about 88 percent of plants are partially, or fully dependent on animals for assistance.
Pollination, plus fertilization, results in plants making the fruits and seeds required for their survival and ours.
Bees, flies, butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds and even those nasty wasps all pollinate. Homeowners often worry about attracting bees to their yard as they may sting. However, real bees rarely sting; wasps are usually the villains.
Bees are our best pollinators, because their hairy bodies act like Velcro, picking up large amounts of pollen. Honeybees, originally imported from Europe, are incredibly efficient pollinators. In Minnesota, we have at least 425 species of native bees which were pollinating plants long before the European imports were introduced.
We’ve all heard about recent issues with bee mortality and pollinator decline. Pollinators assist with production of 35 percent of our food and declining bee populations affect us all. Almonds are 100 percent reliant on honey bee pollination, cherries and apples are highly dependent on bees, while other plants would produce less fruit without assisted pollination. It is important to reduce the number of bee fatalities, and the causes are complex and interdependent.
Bees require two things for their nutrition, nectar and pollen. Nectar, the sweet syrup produced by flowers, has sugars and carbohydrates that bees require. Pollen is used by bees for protein. Thus, flowers overproduce pollen so that bees can use some of it and still distribute enough for the plant’s reproduction. Areas with few flowers, like city centers, vast lawns, or even large cornfields, have no food for bees.
Without a consistent, healthy, source of nectar and pollen, bees may suffer from malnutrition. In addition, some of the food they eat may have been contaminated with insecticides or other chemicals. Many garden insecticides will kill bees outright, but even residual doses and wind drift cause problems. Other garden chemicals like fungicides and repellents can also have non-lethal effects on pollinators.
Bee decline can be caused by the loss of good foraging habitat, overuse of many garden chemicals, and a variety of bee diseases. Even with a problem this complex, there are things homeowners can do to help. First, our perfect suburban lawns offer no food for bees. So, reduce the size of your lawn and plant bee friendly areas.
Next, plant pollinator friendly flowers anywhere in your garden so that something is blooming from early spring to late fall. Usually, Minnesota native plants have better bee nutrition than hybridized species bred for showy flowers. Some of my favorites include butterfly weed, Aslepia tuberosa which is so much prettier than its name; beebalm, Monarda fistulosa; and prairie blazing star, Liatrus pycnostachya which also attracts butterflies.
Most of our common annuals have also been found to feed pollinators. Zinnias, cosmos, borage, and salvias are among the best. Plant recommendations can be found at: www.beelab.umn.edu/sites/beelab.umn.edu/files/Plants-for-Minnesota-Bees.
Then, minimize your use of garden pesticides. Many insects are beneficial, or innocuous, and no treatment is necessary. If you must use a pesticide, find one with a low impact on pollinators and follow the directions carefully.
Look for the diamond shaped Bee Advisory Label and spray late in the day when bees are not foraging. Don’t be fooled by the word “organic,” as many organic insecticides are still highly toxic.
Like any New Year’s resolutions, it is hard to do everything perfectly, but if enough people make small changes, we can make our neighborhoods more pollinator friendly and provide a healthy, season-long, bee cafeteria.