June brings summer flowers and summer showers. It is also the month when Pollinator Week is celebrated; this annual event, managed by the Pollinator Partnership to raise awareness of pollinators, takes place during the last full week in June. In 2022, it is slated for June 20 to 26, with activities and events planned nationwide to educate everyone about what we can do to protect pollinators. For more information, visit the Pollinator Partnership at https://www.pollinator.org/pollinator-week.
But Pollinator Week does not have to begin and end in June; for the gardener, it can be a year-round affair. There are many easy things that every gardener, even if you have just a small patch of ground or a few planting containers, can do throughout the year to preserve, protect, and provide habitat for pollinators.
As we hear and read news reports about declining populations of insects and bees in trouble, it is encouraging to know that we can all take steps to help pollinators. But who are the pollinators and why is it so critical to protect them?
Pollination is an essential component of not only a healthy natural ecosystem but also of our agricultural production system. It is the transfer of pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of a flower and is necessary to produce complete fruit and fertile seed.
Many different species of animals around the world act as pollinators. Some are larger animals such as birds and bats, but most pollinators are small invertebrates – insects such as flies, beetles, butterflies, moths, wasps, and most importantly, all kinds of bees.
Pollinators are “keystone” species in ecosystems: they support plant communities that provide food and shelter for many other animals; the fruits and seeds that result from pollination are a major component in the diet of many animals, including humans; and a diverse community of healthy plants helps to retain soil, prevent erosion, conserve natural resources, and preserve clean water.
Now that you know the why, here is the how – some things you can do to cater to pollinators during every season in the garden.
- Grow a diverse mix of plants that provide pollen and nectar for insects throughout the growing season. Choose flowering plants with a range of shapes, sizes, and colors to suit the needs of different kinds of pollinators, and plant them in masses and drifts. Native plants are usually recommended as the best choices, but it’s also okay to include non-native plants that are excellent sources of pollen and nectar, including herbs such as lavender, mint, oregano, and parsley, and colorful annuals such as zinnias and Mexican sunflowers.
- Include plants that provide food for caterpillars. To provide habitat for butterflies and moths, you need to have the plants that their larvae (caterpillars) feed on, which are often native plants. Many butterfly larvae are very specific in their feeding preferences, for example, monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweed species. You must be willing to accept the leaf damage that comes from supporting caterpillars as they grow and transform into butterflies and moths.
- Provide sites for nesting and sources of water. Nesting sites might include dead logs and hollow plant stems for cavity-nesting bees, and patches of bare or sandy soil to support ground nesting bees. Small colonies of bumblebees might nest in upside down flowerpots or under boards. A shallow container with sloping sides can provide fresh water for pollinators without the risk of drowning; and a wet muddy patch of ground provides butterflies with moisture and essential minerals.
- Avoid or minimize use of pesticides in your landscape. Exposure to pesticides – not only insecticides, but also herbicides, miticides, and fungicides – is one of several stressors on bees which can kill them outright or, in combination, have chronic sublethal effects that impair their abilities to function and thrive.
- Include late-blooming perennials, such as goldenrod, aster, ironweed, Joe Pye weed, and perennial sunflowers, in your garden to provide food resources to pollinators preparing for winter.
- Save and use fallen leaves as a mulch for your pollinator garden. Leaves can be shredded or chopped; and if you have too many, stockpile them for future use in composting or mulching.
- Provide overwintering habitat for insects by leaving much of your perennial garden cleanup until spring. Different insects survive the winter in different life stages (eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults) and use the shelter of leaf litter on the ground, or plant stems and debris left standing until spring, to wait out winter’s cold. An old log or stump is also a good sheltering site for overwintering pollinators.
- Include flowering trees and shrubs in the landscape to provide shelter, food, and habitat. In early spring, early flowering trees and shrubs, such as red maple, willows, spicebush, and serviceberry, blooming before most perennials have barely stirred, are an important source of pollen and nectar for emerging pollinators. Spring blooming bulbs, such as snowdrops and crocus, along with early blooming perennials such as hellebores, are another good addition to the spring scene for pollinators.
- Early to mid-April is a good time to begin perennial garden clean-up tasks.
Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research also has a wealth of information and resources available about pollinators in Pennsylvania at its website: https://ento.psu.edu/research/centers/pollinators. The Penn State Master Gardeners also offer a Pollinator Friendly Garden certification program for Pennsylvania residents; find out more at https://ento.psu.edu/research/centers/pollinators/public-outreach/cert.
Make a bee happy, not just during Pollinator Week, but throughout the year. We can all make a difference, one garden at a time
–Annette MaCoy, Penn State Extension