June is pollinator month, so I want to chat about pollinators. They are crucial to our ecosystem and the health of our gardens, but many of the species we love are in danger. However, the good news is that it's within our power to fight for pollinators. So, let's chat about pollinators, what they mean for our lives, and how to make our gardens into pollinator havens.
What is a "pollinator?"
The word pollinator refers to the biotic (or living) vectors that spread pollen between plants, as opposed to the abiotic (non-living) vectors like wind. Bees, wasps, butterflies, flies, beetles, birds, and bats all contribute to the dissemination of pollen, and are, therefore, pollinators. Now, it is our fortune that the pollinators we most want to attract to our gardens are those most in need of our help. Butterflies and bees are currently suffering due to human intervention. But they can flourish with our help too!
The fall of the Monarch Butterfly & Honey Bee:
Sadly, in the past 20 years, the population of Monarch Butterflies in the U.S. has dropped by 90%. To put that in human terms, that's like the entire population of the U.S. disappearing except for residents of Florida and Iowa. This decline in population is due largely to the disappearance of milkweed as more and more land is cleared for human use.
Likewise, Honey Bee populations have fallen by 30% in the last ten years. Now, this figure does not take into account populations of non-communal bees, but it should still alarm us. Honey bees are considered an "indicator species," which means that their state of health offers us information about the larger ecosystems in which we all live. If bees are suffering, our environment is at risk. The scientific consensus points to three major contributing factors that harm bees: infection, agricultural monocultures, and neonicotinoid pesticides. In case you're curious, I've included more in depth explanations of those risk factors at the bottom of the page.
What do we lose if bees and other pollinators lose?
1 in 3 bites of our food depends on pollinators. Here's a list of produce that we'll all miss without pollinator insects. Alfalfa, almonds, apples, apricots, avocado, bananas, blueberries, cashews, cherries, chocolate plants, coconuts, coffee and tea plants, cranberries, grapes, grapefruit, kiwi, mango, melon, papaya, peaches, pears, pumpkins, raspberries and blackberries, strawberries, and tomatoes all depend on the work of pollinators. Even dairy production depends on bees, as dairy cows eat alfalfa pollinated by bees. So, though a diet consisting only of potatoes may appeal to you, you wouldn't even have butter or cheese to put on your potatoes! Experts estimate that pollinators generate 20 to 30 million dollars in agricultural yield every year, all of which would vanish without these creatures.
Where do we go from here?
Now, I know this post has all been a bit doom and gloom but the good news is that we have the power to make change, to fight for our bees and butterflies. The first and most essential action we can take is to plant rich pollinator food. This means native varieties of flowering plants that are kept free of pesticides, and it means a variety of plants that will bloom throughout the seasons.
When planting for bees, plan to have Hyacinths, Calendula, Lilac &c. blooming in the Spring. In the summer, Cosmos, Echinacea, Snapdragon, Foxglove, &c. will nourish your local bees. Zinnia, Sedum, Asters, and Witch Hazel will keep your bees happy in the Autumn. Keep bloom size in mind too! Chubby little pollinators like bumble bees need larger blooms to fit into.
For butterflies, especially Monarchs, plant Milkweed. Despite its name, Milkweed is not a weed, but instead a flowering perennial plant. It is the sole source of food for Monarch butterflies, but feeds other species as well. Oregano, Aster, Purple Coneflower, and Marigold will also bring butterflies to your garden. Plant Butterfly Bush with caution. It provides excellent food for butterflies, but it cannot sustain their eggs and caterpillars. It is, however, a gorgeous plant. So, what you'd want to do is to plant Butterfly Bush very close to Milkweed or another plant that butterflies love. That way, you'll provide nourishment and a nursery.
Bees and Butterflies also need access to fresh, clean water. You can create an insect bath by creating a very shallow pool of water near your blooms that has perches (stones & twigs will do) within it. These will allow the pollinators to land, get comfortable, and then make their way to the water's edge.
So, this is where we come in. We can help you make your garden a pollinator haven.
McArdle's and pollinator provisions:
Now I want to highlight some of our own products that can help protect pollinators. First is our pollinator house. These houses attract butterflies, solitary bee species, and other pollinator insects that are vital to the health of our gardens and our ecosystem. There are, you should know, a couple of features that make our pollinator houses unique. First, they have a closed back, which protects any insects making a home within. If the back were open, those little friends would be blown right out when the wind rises. Also, ours do not contain any glass or plastic, which create a lot of condensation. Roaming pollinators need dry conditions to make their homes. You can create similar conditions by piling hollow sticks and twigs together on the ground, but our house is much cuter. Some solitary bees also require access to soil to create their homes, so bear that in mind as well.
For our butterfly friends, we also carry a Butterfly Garden Kit. This gift set includes a can of wildflower seeds that, as they grow, will attract butterflies and other pollinators to your garden and a book that will provide all sorts of helpful tips for bringing butterflies around.
We also carry a wide variety of perennial plants that will attract pollinators to your garden. In the autumn, we carry bulbs of all sorts, including hyacinth. During planting season, we carry Foxglove, Aster, Sedum, Cosmos and more. Our garden center team is always happy to help you select plants that will draw pollinators.
We also carry a variety of organic products in our Garden Shop that won't harm pollinators. I should caution you that not all organic products are made equal. For example, some pest control products that are listed as organic contain Spinosad, which is used in flea and tick medication. It will harm pollinators. At fault of all else, soapy water is an excellent insect deterrent.
A spoonful of realism:
This could all be a dreamy post about how wonderful bees and butterflies are, but I have to bring us down from the clouds from a moment. It's impossible to bring desirable pollinator insects without bringing the ones we don't want too, and you cannot beat back one kind without ridding the garden of others. The plants we've mentioned may also bring wasps, beetles, flies &c. They may not have the same charm as a bumble bee, but it's important for us to respect their place in the local ecosystem as well. The good news is that if you're concerned about pest control, there are natural solutions. Ladybird beetles (ladybugs), Praying Mantises, and Spiders will control insect pests. Beneficial border plants will help too; in fact, research shows that native border plants actually sustain fewer pests than weeds.
Some closing thoughts:
As I mentioned earlier, June is pollinator month, but for our own sake, let's make 2017 pollinator year! Let's support the little creatures that make our lives so much better. Call us or stop by. Let us transform your yard into a space that you find beautiful, and that busy little pollinators will love too. Thanks for reading!
Justin Lievano works in the Flower Shop at McArdle's, and he's ready to protect his buzzing little friends. Are you?
PS, for the curious, let me define monoculture and neonicotinoid pesticides. (Agricultural) monoculture refers to the obliteration of plant biodiversity in an area for the sake of growing a single crop. For example, much of Maine's wild landscape has been cleared in favor of blueberry monocultures. Though bees can feed from blueberries, the fact that they are the only prevailing plant in the area means that bees and other pollinators only have access to nourishment for a short time. When the bloom falls, it creates what is often called a "food desert," or a wide swath of land without any viable nutriment. Food deserts are not necessarily devoid of life, just of diverse food sources.
Neonicotinoid refers to a specific kind of pesticide that's having an extremely deleterious effect on bee populations. They are especially insidious because they kill bees after they make it back to the hive, and put whole colonies at risk. When a single bee comes into contact with neonicotinoids, often she does not die immediately. She will become sick , but she will also carry pollen laced with the pesticide back to the hive. That pollen is used to make honey, and the level of pesticide slowly accumulates in the honey as more and more bees come into contact with the neonicotinoid poisons. Eventually, the toxicity of the honey supply becomes so great that the entire hive is wiped out. That's why it's so important to push against the usage of these kinds of pesticides.