Written by Sara Wuerstle

Globally, pollinators are in decline. But why should we care about the birds and the bees and the bats? Bats? Yes, bats. We often think of honey bees when we hear the word ‘pollinator.’ But there are many different critters that provide pollination services. Many wasps, moths, butterflies, beetles, lizards and even flies and slugs help pollinate all different kinds of plants. Not to mention, there are over 4,000 species of bees that are native to North America and do most of the work that honeybees are often erroneously credited with. Sadly, many of these native bees are now extinct.

To be considered a pollinator all the critter has to do is carry pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part of the same or another flower. Wind can act as a pollinator and so can we!

The first pollinators accidentally spread pollen while feeding on flowers. The flower needed pollen moved around in order to reproduce but they don’t have feet or wings and could not move around. So, the plants trained the mobile critters to do it for them, which we humans now lovingly refer to as pollinators. Plants know how to turn sunlight into sweet, sweet sugar through the process of photosynthesis. Essentially, the plants make beautiful and tasty cakes and cookies to attract the pollinators and then sprinkles pollen on them as they gorge on the sweet treats. Then the critter goes to the next flower in search of more sweetness and in doing so accidentally delivers pollen from flower to flower. Boy, those plants sure are smart!

The movement of pollen must occur for a plant to become fertilized and produce fruits, seeds, and young plants. Pollinators are at the heart of the plant world’s life cycle. And without plants and pollinators not only would food become very scarce but so would breathable oxygen. Needless to say, life would get really difficult really fast for all of us if pollinators weren’t around to do their thing. Unfortunately, the population of our vital pollinators are declining, and one may reason is loss of habitat.

The chief causes for pollinator habitat loss are agriculture, mining and human development.* These land uses have reduced, if not eliminated, areas that provide food, nesting and resources for overwintering. Just think of any urban center in America. Acres and acres of sprawling pavement and buildings. There is no access to plants or even soil. Ground-nesting pollinators are physically barred from contact with soil where they make their nests to lay eggs and overwinter. 70% of all native bees are ground nesting.** No wonder so many are now extinct. And even if they could find some soil to make their nests, quality forage is few and far between in the concrete jungle. Or consider conventional agriculture here in the United States. Millions of acres of corn sprayed with pesticides and herbicides as far as the eye can see. It might as well be the surface of the moon for our pollinators. And mining too, leaves behind toxic stews and barren flowerless landscapes.

So what can we do to turn this around? How can we get pollinators back to what they do best…bumbling around seeking out sweet sweet nectar and accidentally feeding all of us? Well here are a few ideas:

  • Stop using pesticides, especially neonicotinoids
  • Stop mowing, well at least minimize it!
  • If you mow, don’t mow everything all at once. Lawns do better when clovers are included in the mix due to their ability to put nitrogen into the soil and share it with nearby turf grasses. White dutch clover is most common. Many pollinators love clover flowers. To ensure that pollinators have ongoing and reliable access to these flowers, you can simply mow the front yard and leave the backyard to flower. When the front yard begins to flower, it is time to mow the backyard.
  • Always have flowers. When nothing is in flower in your garden or landscape, find out if there is something that would be flowering that grows well in your climate and soil type. And plant it. Try to create a 4 season habitat.
  • Find beauty in dried seed heads, stems and grasses. During the winter forage is scarce. Leaving dried seed heads and stems standing in your garden and landscape provide critical food sources for birds and shelter for chrysalis of butterflies, moths and wasps.
  • Provide sheltered water. Pollinators need water for many purposes, including drinking and reproduction. You may already have a natural water source, such as a pond or stream. If not, you can create a water source. This can be as easy as adding a bird bath or a puddling area for butterflies or as complex as installing a water garden. You can also provide water by hanging a dripping bottle, or placing a small container of water out in the open. Be sure to change the water 2-3 times per week during warm weather when mosquitoes are breeding.
  • Plant native plants, especially those that flower earliest and latest in the season. This will provide forage for the longest period of time and at times that they need it most. Native plants often provide the best food for the pollinators as well.
  • Enhance biodiversity. Plant many different varieties of plants, including different shrubs and trees. Monocultures are not good for pollinators!
brown butterfly perched on white flowers

The importance of native plants can not be understated for our precious pollinators. With expert knowledge and passion for native habitats, there are a number of wonderful Bucks County based native plant nurseries who can help you plant for pollinators:

  • Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (New Hope, PA)
  • Collins Nursery (Glenside, PA)
  • Gino’s Nursery (Newtown, PA)
  • Kind Earth Growers (Ottsville, PA)
  • Northeast Native Perennials (Quakertown, PA)
  • Tree Authority (Perkasie, PA)

For inspiration on your garden, join the Bucks County Chapter of the Woman’s National Farm & Garden Association’s native garden tour: Designed for Nature Garden Tour on June 18. See five unique gardens and  take home ideas for your own yard, meadow, woodland, foundation planting, bird and pollinator haven, or vegetable plot. 

June 20-26 is National Pollinator Week! Celebrate the incredible organisms who allow us to have agriculture and rich diversity of life by planting native plants in your garden.

Further Reading and Action:

The discussion will continue in our next article about native vs. invasive plants!

Sources: 

* According to the National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/pollinators/pollinators-in-trouble.htm

**https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/nesting-resources

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