Beekeepers are a varied sort of people. There are city dwellers, country residents, beach fronters, in-betweeners — all with different tastes, preferences, likes, and dislikes. Yet, one area nearly every beekeeper agrees on is the importance of not only our honeybees but pollinators in general. And one way to help these little guys is to create a pollinator haven. But don’t think you have to have a large garden or acres of land to get started. Just a simple flowerpot sitting on a balcony filled with nectar and pollen-rich plants is all that is needed to get started down the path of helping local pollinators. So, start with the following basics to get your pollinator haven growing.
Who are the pollinators?
Bees and butterflies are the most commonly known pollinators, but hummingbirds, moths, beetles, and even some bats pollinate. The role these insects and animals fill is nothing short of a miracle. According to EarthWatch (earthwatch.org), approximately 75% of flowering plants and at least a third of our food crops require the assistance of pollinators to reproduce and set quality fruit. Without them, our gardens would be bare and our plates dull.
Sadly, pollinator numbers are dwindling, and not just the bees. Bats, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds are disappearing at alarming rates. Pesticide use, disease, and loss of habitat are the main culprits. Fortunately, anyone can help protect these vital creatures by providing safe food, adequate shelter, and reliable water sources – a pollinator haven.
Provide a safe food supply.
While no one enjoys watching “bad bugs” decimate a favorite garden specimen, the unintended consequence of pesticide use is the death of “the good guys.” Bees either die on contact or take tainted nectar and pollen home, killing the hive. Butterflies and moths suffer the same fate while their larvae, or caterpillars, die from consuming poisoned leaves. Bats and hummingbirds ingest not only the poisoned nectar but contaminated insects, as well.
Fortunately, the best alternative to pesticide use is to plant more flowers. The more flowers you have, the more beneficial insects you will attract, which will naturally drop the pest load due to their predation of pests to a more balanced level where pollinators, pests, and flowers can all live in harmony. Over time, as has happened in my yard, the need for any pesticide, including organic options, usually becomes unnecessary.
To accomplish both goals simultaneously, fill garden spaces with native flowers of every type, size, and color with varying bloom times from early spring to late fall. Yes, you can even add a few non-natives; check local guidelines before introducing non-natives to your area. Provide brightly colored, tubular-shaped flowers for the hummers and butterflies. Plant dainty flowers for bees, moths, and butterflies. Night bloomers entice bats, while bowl-shaped flowers appeal to beetles. Whenever possible, choose natives over hybrids, as many hybrids provide little to no usable nectar or pollen. Plant a variety of pollinator-friendly plants to create a welcoming habitat for pollinators.
And don’t pull up those dandelions! Dandelions are one of the first food sources available in late winter to early spring, giving many pollinators a much-needed food source after a long winter. Clover is also a victim of the “perfect lawn” scenario. Yet, clover, like dandelion, is another of the earliest food sources in many areas and provides loads of food for honeybees and other pollinators.
Like all creatures, these hard workers require a safe place to call home. As you fill your space with flowers and other vegetation, you’ll also be creating safe havens. For instance, some bees choose to rest overnight in wilted squash flowers. And beetles call moist soil under closely planted beds home, while butterflies and moths happily live out their larval stage on host plants.
However, some pollinators require different types of shelter. Hummingbirds love to rest in nearby trees and shrubs and especially on vine-covered trellises that provide a lookout for competition at the hummingbird feeders. Various bees prefer to live underground or in dead trees and branches, while others enjoy drilling holes in wood and nesting in plant stem cavities. To provide for their needs, leave patches of bare earth, snags of deadwood, piles of plant debris, and old lumber throughout your pollinator haven.
Scatter water sources throughout the garden or yard to provide a constant water source for all the pollinators. Reservoirs such as birdbaths, saucers, and ponds need sloping sides to allow small pollinators to safely drink from the water’s edge without risk of drowning. Small stones placed throughout drinking holes provide landing sites and sunbathing opportunities. Butterflies are especially appreciative of mud puddles that give not only moisture but also much-needed minerals. The key is to make sure water sources never go dry and offer cool water whenever possible.
No matter where we live, pollinators play an integral role in the success of our gardens and the success of the overall ecosystem. As their populations continue to decline, we can ensure their recovery by providing pesticide-free food sources, adequate shelter, and dependable water. Working together, we can and save our pollinators.
KRISTI COOK lives in Arkansas where every year brings something new to her family’s journey for a more sustainable lifestyle. She keeps a flock of laying hens, dairy goats, a rapidly growing apiary, a large garden, and more. When she’s not busy with the critters and veggies, you can find her sharing sustainable living skills through her workshops, articles, and blog at tenderheartshomestead.com.
Originally published in the March/April 2022 Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.