It’s summer, well, at least in the northern hemisphere where I am. And over the past few weeks I have been reading about pollinators and learning what I can do to encourage pollinator populations - a how to “plant for pollinators” if you will. I find it fascinating and I think other people might too, so in this blog I’d like to share some of the elements and resources I have found with you. Some things may seem like common sense after reading them – and in certain ways they are – but when I first approached the subject they were not immediately evident. Regardless, I hope that after reading this you, too, can begin to plant for pollinators whether on your porch, balcony, yard, or farm.
So, firstly, to ensure we are all on the same page, what is a pollinator? Pollinators are any “agent”, such as bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles, moths, birds, etc., that fertilize the female ovule of a flower by moving pollen from the male anthers to the female stigma of a flower. (See the diagram to see what pollination looks like for a tomato plant)
Despite the importance of pollinators and the enormous value of their services, their populations are declining globally in both rural and urban areas. This decline has been attributed to loss of habitat, use of chemicals, monoculture cropping, and diseases. The loss of pollinators has implications for ecosystems, as many are keystone species, but also for agriculture production. One well-known example of dealing with declining and total loss of pollinator populations comes from the rapid conversion of vast swaths of land that was converted monoculture apple orchards in China (Read more: 1 2 3). In order to keep pollinators alive farmers would have needed to maintain and integrate a variety of pollinizer trees, however farmers choose not to do this and instead use that space for more apple trees. As a consequence, the farmers have had to resort to hand pollination in order to maintain apple yields. Though this practice has resulted short-term economic gains for apple farmers, the long-term sustainability remains to be seen.
There is growing global recognition about the need to protect pollinators and this extends to encouraging everyday citizens – like you and me – to “plant for pollinators” or engage in “bee friendly farming”. And if I can do it, you can do this too no matter where you live. If you have any space, be it a balcony, porch, backyard, or large garden or farm, you can be part of the solution by planting for pollinators.
How can I plant for pollinators?
Well, although this will depend where you are in the world and on the seasons and vegetation you have in your location there are some principles you should consider and a plethora of resources freely available online. Here I will try to summarize some aspects you should consider to get to started and at the end there is a list of references to get you on your way.
Constant supply of flowers
Firstly, you should try to include a diversity of plants so that you have at least one plant that is in flower throughout the period when pollinators will be present. In the northern hemisphere this would be the spring, summer and early fall. This ensures that pollinators have a constant supply of nectar – their food. The lack of a continuous supply of flowering plants is one of the problems (in addition to chemicals inputs) with monocultures. This is also why having diversity in green walls, fences and windbreaks is also beneficial. Also, it is one reason honeybee hives are moved during the planting season to follow the flowering crops.
Pollinator types and lifespans
Another element to consider is what pollinators you have present and what pollinators you want, this will also help inform your choice of plants. Furthermore, it is important to consider the pollinators’ lifespan and during what period they undergo each life stage. For instance, if you want a butterfly, such questions would include when is it in the caterpillar stage and what its needs during each life stage?
Plant types to consider
Pollinators are generally attracted to flower colour and odour. You can choose native or non-native species; however wild pollinators are more suited to native plants. Wild plant relatives are also generally more “nutritious” and their nectar is easier to access than their domesticated counterparts.
If the above spiked your interest, you can referrer to the resources below for more tips to make your spaces pollinator friendly. If you're skeptical about trying this in your space, why don't you test it out at a friend, neighbour or family member's place first! Or, you could just consider sharing this information with them. As you and others start to adopt pollinator friendly practices these “islands” of refuge will break the “food deserts” many pollinators encounter and will grow and create what you can think of as larger “countries” and corridors that facilitate pollinator activities and encourage them.
Tips to help you plan your space:
Creating a bee-friendly garden (with tips for species to plant in an Canadian context)
Designing a Bee Garden
Plant a bee-friendly garden (7 practical tips)
Farming for pollinators
Gardening for bumblebees
Tools for conservation and use of pollination services
Insect pollinators contribute $29 to US farm income
Fact Sheet: The Economic Challenge Posed by Declining Pollinator Populations
Pollinators Science Summary
Economic value of insect pollination worldwide estimated at 153 billions euroes