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Building a Pollinator Garden

Dan and Cheryl Forrest, Master Gardeners

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” This may or may not be a true Albert Einstein quote but the concept is valid. We need bees and all pollinators. Approximately 75% of the world’s flowering plants require a pollinator to reproduce. Pollinators help produce one-third of our food. It’s hard to imagine a diet without many fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Building a Pollinator Garden

Yet, pollinators are at serious risk. You can learn more about this risk at the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota.  But the purpose of this article to focus attention not on the risk, but on what we can do to help. Here are some suggestions. 

1.  Rethink your lawn!  Perfectly manicured grass does nothing for pollinators.  Maybe it’s time to let some dandelions and clovers grow in that back corner of your property.  These two wildflowers (not necessarily weeds) are prime food sources for pollinators during the late spring and early summer.  Stagger mowing so that some of the flowers are in bloom at all times.

Take steps to protect the pollinator habitat that exists on your property, especially if this area is out of the way.  This could be a bare patch of soil, a dead tree, a rock or brush pile where native pollinators build nests. This is the perfect time to cut down on the amount of grass you have and build a pollinator garden.  

2.  Design a pollinator garden!  First of all, it helps to have sun. The vast majority of pollinator plants are sun-loving.  But don’t despair if you have a shady yard; there are shade plants that attract pollinators. A source of water should be available.  An old bird bath filled with pebbles and water makes an ideal source of water.  A mud bath will attract butterflies as well as bees. Make sure there is a safe distance from any area where you use chemicals. Better yet, avoid chemicals altogether. Although budget limitations might demand that you start small, allow room for expansion.  In the world of pollinators, bigger is better.

3.  Go native!  Avoid highly hybridized plants that are bred to be seedless and thus produce very little pollen and scent.  It’s been estimated that native plants are four times more attractive to pollinators than hybrids.  Emphasize diversity, not only in variety but also in size, especially plant height.  Your goal should be a minimum of 10 different plants; more is better.

When you plant, do so in clumps at least 3 feet in diameter.  Focus on bright colors.  For bees, it’s white, yellow, blue, violet, and purple.  Attract hummingbirds with red and orange colors.  If you include all these colors, you will attract butterflies also.

The shape of the flower is important.  Do not include “double” flowers as the pollinators cannot reach the nectar.  Single flowers are best.  Flowers that provide a natural platform give pollinators a place to land.  Flowers that resemble a bull’s-eye provide a nectar guide.  This is a region near the center of each petal not seen by humans but visible to the pollinator.  Some flowers should have a tubular shape to attract hummingbirds.

It is very important to provide nectar and pollen all season-long.  Include flowers that bloom continually or stagger bloom times to cover the entire growing season.  An excellent source of information regarding plants for bees can be found at the “Bee Squad” at the University of Minnesota. 

4.  Provide nesting sites!  The fourth suggestion is to provide nesting space that provides morning and mid-day sun.  Ideally, this should be within three hundred feet of the food sources.  Keep in mind that approximately 70% of all native bees are ground-nesters.  So, an area of bare soil is mandatory.  These bees seldom nest in rich, compact soils so you might have to work some sandy or loamy matter into the soil.  The tunnel-nesting bees, approximately 30% of our native species, need old tree stumps, logs, or piles of twigs and branches.  Rock piles can also provide nesting areas.  Allow this area to remain untouched, especially during the fall and winter months to allow the eggs and larvae to develop.

There are man-made nesting solutions.  You can find plans on the internet for wooden nesting boxes, stem bundles, butterfly boxes, etc.  There are even plans for bumblebee nests.  Consider a honeybee hive and learn about their fascinating community lifestyle.

5.  Go organic! Finally, we can safeguard beneficial pollinators by going natural or organic.  Avoid the use of chemicals, including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or fungicides. Your pollinator garden is a good place to let the garden go wild.  If you must use chemicals, please do so in small, limited quantities and at times when the pollinators are resting, as in the late evening.  Remember, while you are killing one pest or weed, you are likely killing beneficial pollinators as well.

Following these suggestions will not only add beauty to your yard but will help restore the pollinators we need.  Our future depends on these pollinators; without them our food source will dwindle

Photo credits: Cheryl Forrest (1, 2)

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