By Jennifer Wilson Pines
Spring officially arrived when we passed the vernal equinox March 20. As this seems to have been the winter that wasn’t, this year it’s easier to believe that we are heading into warmer days. All the predictable harbingers are following their appointed schedule.
the snowdrops came in February and are now clumps of grassy foliage. Small species crocus were welcomed by honey bees foraging on warm days. On their heels came the giant crocus and the early daffodils. Tulips and iris are pushing green shoots out of the ground. The buds and flowers of maple and birch trees are popping out in shades of scarlet and lime. Pussy willows are showing their fuzzy catkins beside open streams. Those of us with pollen allergies are beginning to sniffle and wonder where we stashed the antihistamines last fall.
It’s not too late to think about making changes to your garden to improve it as a habitat for birds and wildlife, and even more importantly, for insects. Insect decline might seem like a good thing when you’re swatting at mosquitos or fishing a yellow jacket out of your drink, but they along with plants are the base of the terrestrial food web. A full 96% of songbirds feed insects to their young, with that high protein diet allowing them to grow to adult size in a few weeks.
Roughly 35% of crops grown worldwide and three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants depend on insect pollination. And that pollination is not just by honeybees, but also by solitary bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths and beetles.
Diversity is a good thing, both in plants and insects. The bigger the buffet provided, the more guests can arrive and thrive. Most of the plants I mentioned above are non-native and while welcomed by the European honey bees that are active earlier than the native pollinators, it’s native plants that give the best resource value to the vast majority of our insect population.
There are a wealth of resources to help you make decisions to up your pollinator game. These are the basics rules to follow;
- Provide habitat for pollinators. Nesting and sheltering sites are needed as much as pollen rich plants.
- Offer pollinators a drink with a bug bath – a shallow saucer with pebbles and a little dirt- butterflies need minerals from the soil.
- Leave the leaves in spring and fall – just rake them under your shrubs or into a pile to compost. That’s where insects are overwintering as adults and larvae. They’re also helping to decompose the remnants of last season’s plants. Let’s say that again- LEAVE THE LEAVES. Shredding, blowing and filling black plastic bags for dumping are BAD in so many ways.
- Limit the use of pesticides unless there are no other options – try to be organic. Best management practices mean you start with the least damaging method first. And first means checking to see if a pest’s natural predator is doing the job for you. Then spray with a hose, or a mild soapy water concoction. Use a box fan to keep off insects when relaxing outside. Be vigilant about standing water where mosquitoes can breed – prevention is better than warfare. Pesticides are mostly indiscriminate – they kill the good bugs along with the pests. And most of them are toxic to you, your kids and pets, but they just won’t kill you right away.
- Offer a variety of plants, perennials, shrubs and trees. They provide different value as food and shelter at different times of the year.
- Remember that a few holes in some leaves is a small price to pay for preserving diversity and abundance.
Some good resources to guide you in planning and planting for pollinators and their kin.
National Parks Service https://www.nps.gov/subjects/pollinators/index.htm
The Xerces Society https://www.xerces.org/pollinator-conservation
The Pollinator Partnership https://www.pollinator.org/pollinators
The National Environmental Education Foundation https://www.neefusa.org/nature/land/protecting-pollinators