Support pollination and plant a buzzworthy garden

Experts offer the best plants to encourage pollination in your neighborhood


Editor's note: This article was updated on May 19, 2017, to correct the name of Elizabeth Farnsworth, senior research ecologist with the New England Wild Flower Society. 

With major backing brought about by brand name companies like Burt's Bees and Cheerios, and even policy proposals developed under past President Barack Obama's administration, collective pleas to protect pollinators have been propelled into the mainstream.

Honeybees and monarch butterflies have become the poster species for habitat conservation campaigns, their images emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to tote bags, and names fashioned into social media hashtags like, #savethebees, #beefriendly and #SaveTheButterflies. In the past year, voters in Williamstown and Great Barrington in Massachusetts have passed resolutions and the state of Vermont has passed legislation (Act 83) to further make this a priority. But it's only half the battle in achieving the full protection of pollinators and preserving life-sustaining pollinated crops.

For home gardeners, farmers and forestry folks alike, it's important to know how to properly select, plant and maintain the pollinator gardens and landscapes that are popularly being promoted.

Many pollinators

"It's important to remember that we're not just needing to save bees but a whole host of other organisms that help as pollinators," said Elizabeth Farnsworth, senior research ecologist for the New England Wildflower Society. She's spent some 25 years researching this field and the hundreds of native pollinating species that impact the region's ecology.

These species expand beyond the honeybees and monarchs to include a range of other native bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, beetles; birds, particularly hummingbirds, even flies — they all contribute to the process of carrying pollen from one flower's stamen to another one's pistil to make fertilization happen.

Like people, these pollinators all need year-round access to food, water and shelter to survive.

All of these creatures can benefit from access to shallow water sources so they can hydrate without drowning. In terms of food preferences, bees, butterflies and hummingbirds in particular are designed to sip the sweet, sugary nectars secreted by plants. Other pollinators may eat a range of things, from leaves to other insects and even scavenging rot.

When it comes to planning a pollinator garden, offering a variety of plants, flowers, even trees creates a colorful and inviting dinner buffet.

"A range of pollinators will happily visit a whole bunch of species of flowers," said Farnsworth.

But, she noted, when it comes to providing shelter and safe nesting grounds for pollinating species, they can be more particular.

"Some pollinators are very faithful to one plant species. The best example are monarch butterflies, which can only lay their eggs on milkweed plants," Farnsworth said.

Go beyond pretty blossoms

Florence, Mass. resident Peggy MacLeod during this past year has been co-coordinating a mounting effort, known as the Western Mass. Pollinator Network, to support efforts to protect pollinators' roles in food production and biodiversity protection. Until she got involved in this mission, she said, "I used to garden for how it looks. I didn't have native plants or think about having things to bloom throughout the season. We're starting to learn why you need to have plants blooming all the time, with different shapes and colors of flowers."

Pollinator habitats can be as small as a window box or as vast as a meadow, but growing native plant gardens is preferred for pollinators because the pollinators are naturally suited to foraging from local food sources. Exotic plants and hybrid cultivars — native plants specifically cross-bred for specific characteristics — can be problematic for pollinators for a variety of reasons. The latter flora can contain high levels of toxicity, may struggle to survive in non-native soils, and can also be attractive but sterile.

"[Sterile plants and flowers] don't actually provide nectar or pollens to pollinators. The pollinators may be attracted to the huge flowers only to waste time and energy by not finding food," Farnsworth said.

She and MacLeod said that while native pollinating plants are relatively easy to integrate into an existing landscape and maintain — "you can usually just let them go," said Farnsworth — finding the right blend of plants may take a little more time and research.

MacLeod said, "You have to ask more questions. If you go to a garden center, you have to ask where did the growers seeds come from and how have the plants been cared for."

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that's great for killing pesky aphids but the poison can be absorbed by pollen and nectar. In bees, for example, consumption can result in a range of effects, from declining ability to produce honey to paralysis and death. Neonicotinoids can also persist in soil and on seed coatings for months to years, perpetuating these problems.

Thankfully, due to garden activism, research and landscape designs, advice in navigating these issues are plentiful.

"I think it's about learning from one another," said MacLeod, who encourages to people to talk to area garden clubs, conservation agencies, farmers and growers. "I also strongly believe in working with friends."


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