Pollinators are garden essentials

By: Jan Begliner, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Genesee County
May 3, 2011

Pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, beetles and even hummingbirds are essential to roughly 70 percent of the world’s flowering plants. The U.S. alone grows more than 100 crop plants that need pollinators. Without pollinators we would not enjoy strawberries, apples, pumpkins, blueberries or many other fruits and vegetables. And we would not have forage crops like alfalfa and clover. Many plants have increased crop yield and are higher quality after insect pollination. Pollinators also help native plants reproduce, producing fruits and seeds that feed other wildlife.

Bees are the primary pollinator for most wildflowers and crops in the U.S. There are approximately 4000 native species of bees in North America. They range from large bumblebees that form colonies of a single queen and her daughter-workers, to tiny sweat bees that excavate nests in the ground and live solitary lives. Contrary to popular belief, most of our native bees are unlikely to sting unless grabbed or stepped on. Only honey bees, bumble bees and a few of the social wasps (such as yellow jackets – which are not significant pollinators) are likely to sting when their nests are disturbed.

Many people assume the honeybee is native to North America, but it was imported by Europeans in the 1600s. The honeybee is the most common domesticated pollinator in the U.S. The loss of honeybees has been widely reported, but many of our wild native bees are also in trouble. As pollinators disappear the results can be disastrous for plants that depend on them for pollination.

Whether you have a small city lot or a large country garden it is important to have a plan to preserve, protect and attract pollinators to your landscape. Pollinator conservation can be as easy as putting the lawn mower away and planting native wildflowers. Research suggests that native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than non-native flowers. By including a diversity of native flowering plants, you also support a diversity of different types of pollinators

Bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects need nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season. Diversify your garden plantings so you have different flower colors, fragrances, and shapes from early spring to fall. Be aware that some ornamental plants have been selected for traits that are attractive to people rather than the bees, so avoid pollenless and double-petaled varieties. Flower colors that are particularly attractive to native bees are blue, purple, violet, white and yellow. Consider leaving flowering weeds such as clover and dandelions to serve as nectar sources for pollinators. Cultivating large clumps of native flowers in various areas around your yard will be more effective for attracting bees than growing them all in one spot. Where space allows, make the clumps at least four feet or more in diameter.

While native plants are the best sources of food for bees, there are also some garden plants that are great for pollinators. Here are some plants that provide nectar and pollen for bees: aster, beebalm, boneset, goldenrod, Joe-pye weed, milkweed, basswood, service berry, sunflower, cosmo, purple coneflower, squill, lavender, basil, borage, elderberry, blueberry, rhododendron, lupine, hawthorn, spiderwort, Russian sage, catmint and willow.

Aside from flowers, pollinators need untidy areas with twigs, brush piles, stones and other natural shelter to lay their eggs and to spend the winter. There are three common bee nesting strategies, those of ground nesting bees, wood nesting bees and bumble bees. Ground nesting bees require direct access to soil in well drained, sunny areas. Look for small, circular holes in the ground surrounded by small piles of dirt. Wood nesting bees are found in pithy twig or vine centers, rotting wood and existing cavities in wood. Only carpenter bees chew their own nest cells into soft wood; others require existing holes. Bumble bees are generalists in their nesting habits and can be found under leaves, in old mouse nests and other preexisting cavities, above or below ground. You can supplement natural nesting sites for bees by adding mason bee houses or bundles of hollow plant stems.

Resources for this article include the Xerces Society, USDA, Iowa State University Extension and Rutgers University.

Contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension Genesee County Master Gardeners for assistance with your gardening questions. They may be reached by calling 585-343-3040,  ext. 127, Monday through Friday from 10 am until noon; or stop in at our office at 420 East Main St., Batavia. They may also be contacted via e-mail at: geneseemg@hotmail.com. Visit our CCE web site at HYPERLINK ”http://genesee.shutterfly.com/” http://genesee.shutterfly.com/. “Cornell Cooperative Extension of Genesee County provides equal program and employment opportunities.”

The Wyoming County Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners are sponsoring their sixth annual Garden Day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, outside the CCE building, 401 North Main Street, Warsaw. This event is free and open to the public. Garden Day is a plant sale and more – shop, learn, relax, and entertain the kids.

Genesee County Master Gardeners Spring Coffee & Dessert Series. When it comes to choosing containers for your plants, why opt for the typical terra-cotta pot? A wealth of more intriguing objects is just waiting to be transformed into creative container gardens. Join us for some inspiration so you can fashion container gardens from unexpected sources this season. Register for “Creative Containers” by May 6. Cost is $10 per person. Held at the Genesee County CCE office, 420 East Main St. For more information or to register call Amy Berry at 585-343-3040.

Bird Festival at the Genesee County Park from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Bird walk, bird banding and Friends with Feathers. Cost $8 per person, pre-register at 585-344-1122