Land Stewardship: Every Gardener’s Role in The Power of Pollinators

by Madison H.V. Hall

One of the great joys of gardening and landscaping is delighting in the butterflies and bees visiting your plantings, knowing you’ve purposely created a haven for pollinators, which desperately need our help for survival. By planting pollinator-attracting perennials and annuals, gardeners become a part of the solution for ensuring sustainable food sources for hard-pressed bees and butterflies.

By adopting an organic approach to lawn and garden care, even the smallest patio or yard can become an important micro habitat for sustaining pollinators in the surrounding landscape. If enough habitats are linked together in an overlapping fashion, pollinators will forage successfully within the entire sustainable landscape. Your lawn may be a small part of this habitat, or the only part in your neighborhood. It’s up to each of us to take a leadership role in creating sustainable and organic habitat for pollinators.

POLLINATING BASICS

Bees are a Keystone species, upon whose important ecosystem work other species depend. Their removal would create drastic ecosystem imbalance and change. Currently, there are nearly 4,000 bee species in North America, with bumblebees accounting for only 49. Bees and other pollinators are responsible for the work of pollinating much of our global food supply. Without pollinators and the free ecosystem services they provide (a natural capital service valued in the billions of dollars), many of the foods humans rely on would never be pollinated, resulting in crop failures and complex ecosystems collapsing, while creating food scarcity and significantly higher food prices.

Butterflies and bees require blossoms as a source of pollen and nectar, in addition to a water source. The water source may be a bird bath, or a simple bowl filled with water daily and a few small stones to perch on while drinking. Butterflies prefer a damp patch of soil from a dripping hose or irrigation drip which has some sea salt added for nutrients. The blooms, which provide their food source, must be available from the beginning of their annual season to the end when they enter hibernation in their hives (when pollinators leave your region in a migration) or build their cocoons. Butterflies, like the magnificent orange and black Monarch, are famous migrators but require specific foods along the way, such as milkweed as they go through four generations from February
to September. 

With 175 species of butterflies, North Carolina is an ideal area to establish butterfly and pollinator gardens. Keep in mind that the butterfly life cycle requires host plants for larvae in addition to
nectar plantings. 

Choosing indigenous plants native to your area will go far in creating a robust habitat for pollinators as well as requiring less care. 

Additionally, plants must provide food for pollinators from early spring to late fall, so a variety of differently timed blooms rich in nectar is important. Some flowers are very hardy, continually growing fresh blooms most of the summer, such as marigolds, cone flowers, geraniums and petunias for example.

Sunny locations for plants also draw more butterflies, something to consider when planning your butterfly garden. Some butterfly species depend on unique habitats, while others are more broadly dispersed. In North Carolina, butterflies commonly seen include delightful Swallowtails, colorful Sulphurs, Brushfoots and Skippers, all of which may be attracted to your butterfly and pollinator garden. 

POLLINATOR CHALLENGES 

With the expansion of urban areas associated with metropolitan growth, habitat which supports pollinators is shrinking along lines of migration, increasing the difficulty for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and other butterflies to complete their life cycle migratory patterns. In the last 20 years, monarch populations are estimated to have decreased by an astounding 90%. 

In the big picture, pollinators are critical to the underlying ecological balance of the biosphere, fulfilling their habitat niche in regions around the world where each species is found, and upon which other flora and fauna depend within each ecological zone. 

Many pollinators are currently under severe pressure from the use of pesticides which contain neonicotinoid, attacking the insect central nervous system, harming bee foraging, memory, navigation and reproductive capacities, and must be avoided. Big box garden centers selling flowers and plants must be checked for a tag which identifies if neonicotinoids have been applied. If your goal is a healthy pollinator garden, only buy plants and flowers which have not been exposed to neonicotinoids, and preferably are completely organic. The discovery of organic-based garden centers in your area will delight you and are not difficult to locate.

The European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) in North America and Europe, faces daunting pressure from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where honeybees leave to find pollen and never return to the hive, which may contain up to 50,000 individuals prior to CCD. The causes of CCD are not fully understood, but appear to be a combination of pesticide use, pathogens and honeybee parasites. Since 2006, beekeepers have reported losses of up to 50% of all their honeybees impacted by CCD. In response, Europe has banned many of the pesticides linked to CCD to protect their honey bee populations.

Similarly, bumblebees are also in need of protection from loss of habitat, pesticides and disease. Living in underground colonies of 50-500 bees, bumblebees live primarily in a neglected corner of your garden, flourishing when their habitat provides them with blossoms and readily available water. Once a common sight in 28 states, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee (Bombus affinis) has recently been declared an Endangered Species after its population declined 90%. Be sure to create some habitat for bumblebees whenever possible.

GETTING STARTED

Bees begin to forage as soon as the first flowers of Spring in your region become available. These early blooms are generally found in healthy grasses which have only organic additives. You must avoid the elimination of weeds found in common garden store fertilizers, such as a “weed and feed.” 

The goal is to create an organic foundation, which will support the required overlapping habitats for several types of pollinators. 

In the early Spring, when your lawn is just greening up, if you have avoided the use of weed pesticides, you should be able to see many small flowers, which will naturally seed themselves and provide a bounty for pollinators. Even the cheerfully yellow dandelion plays an important role in providing pollinator sustenance and should be allowed to bloom in your yard. 

Adding white clover seed to your yard brings a bounty of small clover blooms for pollinators and fixes nitrogen in your soil, an important plant nutrient. Clover seed is readily available on www.Amazon.com. To plant, simply spread it by hand wherever you want to encourage pollinator food source and habitat development. You might even find a lucky four-leaf clover! Remember, the foundation of all successful gardening is healthy soil. Your local garden center and university agricultural extension offices and websites offer a wealth of information on plant choice, soil amendments and organic fertilizer suggestions. 

Your lawn is a critical food habitat for pollinators. Try mowing around certain sections of your lawn where a profusion of small flowers may be naturally occurring. By allowing blooms to come to fruition and naturally reseed over two to three weeks, you feed pollinators and ensure repeated blooms in this healthy pollinator food zone, while the visual focus is sharpened on the profusion of small flowers, adding texture, color and vitality to your lawn. Assisting pollinators by creating a slightly wild property border creates beneficial pollinator habitat for bumblebees and butterflies laying eggs. Fallen leaves in these wild border areas should not be removed.

In the Fall, it’s important to return the nutrients from the fallen leaves back into the soil. During the growing season, deciduous trees take up nutrients in the soil from the root zone, into the leaves. When Fall arrives, about half the nutrients stored in the leaves are transported by the trees back down into the root zone. If you remove your leaves each Fall, without mulching them to return the nutrients, you are robbing your soil year after year of half its critical nutrients. Retain these nutrients by mulching and mowing leaves down to the size of a dime, which quickly integrates into the grass and soil. Healthy organic soil creates the foundation for strong and resilient plants and lawns. This in turn creates conditions which allow pollinators to sustain themselves and carry on their very important work. 

STEWARDS OF THE LAND

Much of a gardener’s heartfelt pride comes from being a good steward of the land. That land may be a balcony, a city rooftop, or your lawn and gardens. Micro habitat by micro habitat, your work to create sustainable gardens which attract pollinators is important. 

The healthy bees and vibrant butterflies which fill your gardens are your reward, along with the knowledge that one gardener can make a difference as an advocate for healthy, organic landscapes which pollinators require.

Want more info on pollinator friendly plants? Online, www. pollinator.org is a helpful and comprehensive resource for all things related to pollinators. For North Carolina, the online “Southeast Mixed Forest”.pdf guide recommends perennials such as cone flowers, butterfly bushes, roses, violets, petunias, trillium, goldenrod, honeysuckle, milkweed, eastern bluestar, sunflower, phlox, clover, iris, lavender and salvia, just to name a few. Other regional guides are also available.