Easy ways gardeners can support our winged wildlife
It's impossible to overestimate the importance of pollinators — to plants, animals, people, ecosystems — to the survival of the planet as we know it.
Many pollinators are small insects, easily overlooked in our day-to-day lives. However, were they to disappear, we'd surely notice then. We'd say goodbye to apples, blueberries, cucumbers, kiwis, squash, and many more of our favorite foods, as well as the meats we get from livestock that eat forage crops, such as alfalfa, that depend on pollinators. Pollinators bring us an estimated 1 out of every 3 bites of our food!
What is Pollination?
There are about 300,000 species of flowering plants worldwide. About 90% of them depend on pollinators to transfer pollen among flowers, a critical step in the process of fertilization, and the subsequent development of the fruits and seeds necessary for reproduction. Pollinators also help ensure a plant species' genetic diversity, increasing the likelihood that some plants will be able to withstand extreme weather and other challenges, as well as to adapt to changes in climate.
Pollinators in Peril
Most of us recognize honey bees as important pollinators, and the plight of beekeepers battling mites and diseases in their hives has been widely publicized. But did you know that there are 25,000 known species of wild bees, many of which are are also critical pollinators? Now add in the many thousands of species of butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, and and other invertebrate pollinators and the scale of their collective work inspires awe. Even some bats, birds, monkeys, and lizards pollinate specific plants!
What many of us don't know is that more than 40% of invertebrate pollinator species — particularly bees and butterflies — are facing extinction, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations*. Forty percent!
8 Ways You Can Support Pollinators
Acting alone, a gardener using pollinator-friendly plants and practices can create a safe haven. Imagine if the estimated 95 million households nationwide that do some type of gardening followed suit. Collectively, we can create huge swaths of healthy habitat for pollinators of all stripes!
1. Plant native
Plants that are native to your region have coevolved with the location pollinator populations — that means plants and pollinators have evolved to support each other of time. They'll also be adapted to your soil and climate conditions, and therefore require less coddling. Find the best plants in Pollinator.org's Ecoregional Planting Guides.
2. Plant variety
Include a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals that bloom at different times of the year — that way there will always be something flowering for the birds, bees, bats, and butterflies.
3. Become a landlord
Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators need shelter to hide from predators, get out of the elements, and rear their young. Allow a section of your landscape "go wild" with unmown lawn, fallen leaves, and small piles of twigs. Dead branch on the ground? That has potential to be a bee nest! You don't need to leave it out front and center in your yard, but consider preserving a section of your garden or property with wildlife and pollinators in mind.
4. Battle pests wisely
Instead of spraying heavy-duty checmical deterrants on your garden, use physical barriers like cloches, row fabric, and fences to protect your plants. Many pesticides, even organic ones, can harm pollinators. For example, if you use a pesticide to control caterpillars, you risk harming butterfly larvae.
5. Skip the "neonics"!
Look for plants labeled as grown without neonicotinoids — systemic pesticides that spread internally throughout plants, potentially rendering even the pollen and nectar they later produce toxic to pollinators. Many pest control products sold for use in home gardens contain neonicotinoids — don't use them!
6. Make the most of milkweed
The Monarch butterfly has declined by 90% since the 1990s. A big cause of this decline is the loss of milkweed, the only plant to host this beautiful butterfly. Add milkweed to your garden to create a Monarch "waystation", and you'll gain a gorgeous, tough, and ecologically important flowering native.
7. Less mowing and more growing
Replacing your sterile lawn with flowers and food crops is good for the health of pollinators, your family, and your community. Still want some lawn? Avoid applying synthetic fertilizers and don't be shy about letting grass grow long — taller grass has deeper roots, making it more resistant to drought. Learn how to get a lush green lawn naturally.
8. Meet your pollineighbors
That caterpillar eating your parsley? It's probably the larva of the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly. Learn to recognize different bats, hoverflies, solitary bees, and other pollinators, in all their life stages (eggs, larvae, pupae, adult). Curiousity about polliantors and their habitat leads to greater interest, and ultimately, greater advocacy for their protection.
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