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5 Ways to Encourage Pollinators

If it seems the world is abuzz about pollinators, it's for good reason: Pollinators do hugely important work that is irreplaceable, as we recently shared with you. When pollinators are healthy and happy, our natural world as a whole is healthier and happier, too. And when the fate of pollinators is in danger, our own is threatened as well. Small strides have been made. This year's beekeeper survey from the Bee Informed Partnership saw the second-lowest rate of annual colony loss in seven years. But one in three beehives was lost - for reasons largely beyond the control of individual farmers and beekeepers. This is why we all have to do our part.

While climate change, pesticide use and loss of habitat are major threats to our beloved bees, birds, butterflies and more, there are thankfully plenty of ways you can help. Since protecting pollinators is a core value at Gaia Herbs, we wanted to share some simple yet effective tips that you can implement in your own backyard.

Gaia Herbs is headquartered in Western North Carolina, in one of the most biodiverse regions in the country. Our 350 acres of organic land provide sanctuary for pollinators, as does the land of other organic farms, no-spray fields, native forests and perhaps even your own yard. We spoke to some local experts about how we can help pollinators all year long.

1. Devote space to pollinator-friendly plants.

Let part of your lawn grow wild, with plants that attract and nourish pollinators. If space is an issue, a flowerbed or two - or even some pots on a balcony - can provide food and shelter for pollinators.

Bumble bee pollinating on lavender

"Meadows provide a wide diversity in terms of floral resources (pollen and nectar) that are critical for pollinator diets," says Meghan Baker, an extension agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension who specializes in small farms. "The various heights and structures of the plants themselves provide refuges for pollinators during extreme weather events, or when neighboring areas are exposed to pesticides. Different heights and types of plants also offer a multitude of nesting sites for pollinators as well as other beneficial insects. For example, the hollow stems of Joe Pye Weed are useful as nesting sites for many native bees." 

For those who don't have the space - or the time and energy - to plant a meadow, Dianne Tolman of Big Pine Native Gardens, suggests "creating islands of natural vegetation." Her nursery specializes in native culinary, medicinal and landscape plants and is based in Madison County, N.C. "I try to help a customer visualize creating a border of a diverse mix of native plants alongside their vegetable garden or in a green space to attract pollinators," says Tolman. "Everyone with a patch of earth can make a significant contribution towards sustaining local biodiversity. It is painstaking work to create a meadow, as you will need a site with the right soil type, adequate rainfall and a lot of luck. You cannot scatter out the contents of a 'meadow-in-a-can' mix and expect a flourishing, beautiful meadow. It's best to start with individual plants or seeds in a small area and work up from there."

2. Always choose plants that are native to your region.

Awhile back, a cereal company's plan to promote pollinator health backfired when it was discovered that some of the free wildflower seeds it was offering were actually invasive species in certain areas of the country. So, while it's a great idea to plant wildflowers, make sure they're the right ones for your region.

The Audubon Society explains why it's so important to "choose local" to promote biodiversity: "The continental U.S. lost a staggering 150 million acres of habitat and farmland to urban sprawl, and that trend isn't slowing. The modern obsession with highly manicured 'perfect' lawns alone has created a green, monoculture carpet across the country that covers over 40 million acres."

Echinacea is a naturally occurring plant in North Carolina

"It's important to plant native plant species to support the ecology our native insects are tied to," says Jillian Wolf, AmeriCorps service member and outreach coordinator for the Organic Growers School in Asheville, N.C.. "Native bees in the U.S., for instance, are responsible for pollinating over $15 billion worth of agricultural products annually. They are in decline due to the loss of their natural habitats, and in turn, our natural environment suffers from the loss of these pollinators."

Monoculture farming (growing a single crop or raising one type of livestock) is one of the contributors to the decline in pollinators. "Pollinators need a diverse diet to maintain maximum health, just as we do," explains Baker. "The main goal should be to provide a variety of flowering plants that bloom from early spring through late fall. Many of our native plant species can fill in the 'bookends' of the blooming season, and our native plants are excellent at providing food and habitat for native pollinators. The primary caution would be to avoid invasive or exotic plants that have the potential to get out of control."

Most native insects require a native host plant to complete their life cycle, says Tolman, and that co-evolution is another reason growing native plants is extremely important. "Native plants co-evolved with native insects and wildlife, and they are deeply dependent on one another. The larvae of many butterflies and beetles will eat only native species. It is a web, and not a chain. If you cut down the Goldenrod, the Black Cherry, the Milkweed and other natives, you eliminate the larvae and starve the birds. Native insects cannot, or will not, eat non-native plants. I tell folks to plant a diverse selection with differing flowering times and a variety of flower shapes and colors, to encourage pollinator diversity. Local plants are like locally grown food: It's better to buy local and in season."

Her suggestions:

  • For hummingbirds, plant Cardinal Flower, Columbine and Indian Pink.
  • For seed-eating birds, plant Echinacea, Black-Eyed Susan and Sunflowers.
  • For bees, butterflies and birds, plant Mountain Mint, Bee Balm, Asters, Goldenrod, Ironweed and Joe Pye Weed.

Want more ideas? The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has a comprehensive region-by-region guide to pollinator conservation that includes appropriate plants. If you're local to our region, NC State has a great list of the top 25 pollinator plants.

3. Avoid conventional insecticides and herbicides.

Pests are pesky, but they're a part of nature. "Pest" and "weed" are terms that are a matter of perspective. Choosing organic and sustainable methods to deter pests can ensure our beautiful flowerbeds and lush lawns are not harming the health of pollinators.

Before you buy any plants, make sure they haven't been treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. (This is another great reason to "buy local" so you can talk to the person who grew your plants.) In 2015, the journal Nature published two studies highlighting the impact of pesticides on honeybees. The first found that bees preferred sugar solutions laced with neonicotinoid pesticides (a type of pesticide that not only affects the social behavior of bees but also the survival of entire colonies) to plain sucrose solutions; the other found that the same type of pesticides "severely affected" physiology and reproductive anatomy of queen honeybees.

Many big-box stores have agreed to phase out their use over the next few years, but most still do sell plants that have been treated with these substances. Instead, choose small, local nurseries and seed companies that have not sprayed or treated their seeds and plants. Beyond both lethal and "sublethal" effects on pollinators, pesticides and herbicides can both reduce food supplies and have a synergistic effect, which in this case unfortunately means they have a greater effect on the whole hive or colony than on a single pollinator. In addition to pollinators, these substances can also affect other wildlife - and even humans.

Once you get your plants home, use alternative methods to keep pests in check. Choosing native plants, rotating crops, using companion planting methods (such as marigolds with tomatoes) and using beneficial insects and fungi can all help prevent the need for conventional insecticides and herbicides. Remember: One person's weed is often another's medicinal herb. Elbow grease also goes a long way; hand-weeding, picking insects off plants and rehoming them, hoeing and spraying plants with a water hose can also be alternatives to spraying.

"Pesticides are detrimental to pollinators," whether they're conventional or allowed for use in organic production and processing, says Baker. (This is why so many organic farms, including Gaia, rely on alternative methods, such as companion planting, to deter pests.) "Systemic pesticides pose the greatest risk. Products like horticultural oil or insecticidal soap do not have a residual effect, so while they would harm a native bee or butterfly if sprayed directly on the insect, once they dry the risk is greatly diminished."

Tolman cautions that the effects of spraying spread beyond their intended target. "They can and do affect more than the target pest," she says.

4. Help pollinators year-round, not just during spring and summer.

Sadly, pollinators tend to be out of sight, out of mind, We think of butterflies and bees during the warmer months when we see them fluttering and buzzing about, but as the leaves change color and winter arrives, they sometimes fade from memory. Pollinators need our support - in the form of food and habitat - even when we can't see them.

Few plants stay in bloom year-round, but you can ensure pollinators always have refuge nearby by building a seasonal planting list. Start with species that bloom in early spring and continue with plants that bloom until frost. "Witch Hazel, Spicebush, Goldenrod and Asters are examples of plants that provide pollen and nectar on the extreme ends of the flowering season," Baker says.

honey bee flying near flowers

The adage "busy as a bee" holds true, as Tolman says some types are active year-round while others are active only from April to August. By wintertime, she says, "most insects will have collected and stored copious amounts of pollen by wintertime" - but it's still a good idea to plant some late-blooming pollinator-friendly plants and trees.

"Goldenrods are probably the most important late-season pollinator plants in our area," says Tolman. "They are the primary winter food source for honeybees and many other pollinators." Seek out "guides that categorize, by time of year, what native plants will be flowering at that time," recommends Tolman. "This enables the gardener to plant in succession so that they have something flowering all year round until the wintertime frost."

5. Mulch carefully and naturally.

Mulching is a natural way to cut down on weeds and prevent erosion and moisture loss, but it can also impact pollinators' abilities to set up a home. A 2014 study by the American Society for Horticultural Science examined the effects of several common mulching methods - including black polyethylene, woodchips, shredded newspaper, shredded newspaper plus grass clippings and bare soil (the control group) - on the nests of pollinators like the squash bee. Of all the mulches tested, the newspaper-grass combo came out on top, improving the soil while also letting pollinators do their job.

"Many of the native bees in our area nest in the ground, and too much mulch can limit their habitat," says Baker. "Rather than avoiding mulch, pay attention to ensure that some ground can be accessed - such as in between rocks or under large clumping plants. This provides exposed soil for ground-nesting pollinators to utilize without compromising soil loss."

Tolman recommends going easy on the mulch and also leaving some bare ground for the native bees who dig holes around plants to raise their young. "While you're at it," she adds, "leave stumps, rotting logs and fallen organic material as well. These are all good places for pollinator insects to overwinter." 

These simple tips can help protect the health and well-being of the beloved pollinators who share this earth with us. Their secure future can help your own garden and land thrive, creating a ripple effect.

Pollinator infographic

National Pollinator Week was designated in 2007 by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior as a way to address "the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations." According to The Pollinator Partnership, "Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles." 

In our region of Western North Carolina, both Asheville and Hendersonville have been designated Bee Cities, which are municipalities "making an impact in protecting pollinators by raising awareness, establishing and enhancing habitats, and celebrating the achievements of the volunteers leading the effort." Hendersonville has also declared June to be Pollinator Month.