Much has been said lately about attracting pollinators and even a cursory glance through the perennial section of your local nursery is likely to reveal small icons of bees and butterflies championing this cause. But is that really what’s it’s all about, just enticing a few more ‘bugs’ to the garden or are there more important reasons for undertaking this task?
What’s a Pollinator? It might surprise you to learn that pollinators are much more diverse than just honey bees (Apis mellifera) and butterflies, as it also includes beetles (the most diverse pollinator), wasps, moths, wild bees, ants (in dry regions), hornets, flies, hummingbirds and in other parts of the world, bats, lemurs and geckos; so it is definitely time to broaden our vision of what defines a pollinator.
Why Are Pollinators Important? The predominant reason for wanting to preserve pollinators is that they have evolved as an essential component of our local ecosystems, as Mother Nature never allows for anything superfluous. They are responsible for pollinating about 35% of all food crops and 80-90% of all wild plants, with the latter providing forage for wildlife and enabling forest regeneration. Terrestrial plants also produce 20% of the oxygen we breathe and sequester about 29% of our carbon emissions, so without them our air quality would quickly decline.
Why Are Pollinator’s at Risk? There are many factors adversely affecting both native and cultivated pollinators, but the one that has the largest impact is massive changes to land use. These include the destruction of natural ecosystems for agriculture, forestry or industrial use, as well as the utilization of chemicals associated with these human activities. Of these, none presents a greater risk than the Neonicotinoid class pesticides; as these systemic chemicals have a residual of 12 to 24 months after application and literally poison the pollen that bees and other pollinators seek out. Even the current COVID-19 pandemic we are going through now has been directly linked to the degradation of natural ecosystems, as declared by both the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
Why Act Now? The COVID-19 lockdown has been surprisingly beneficial for the natural world, with water clarity and wildlife returning to the canals in Venice, drastic reductions of carbon and nitrogen dioxide emissions (25% and 40%, respectively) from China (the largest emitter of air pollutants) and a 10% drop in demand for fossil fuels; proving that we can change our ways and improve the planet we all share. So perhaps we should all consider making the world a better place to live, one garden at a time.
What Can You Do? If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a larger property with natural forest or meadows, probably the best action here is to preserve those areas and allow the native vegetation to do what it has always done - provide pollen, food sources and egg-laying sites for the insects that have evolved with it for thousands of years. For those of us living in smaller urban sites with cultivated gardens, my first piece of advice would be to limit your use of pesticides, even organic-based ones, as they will also kill beneficial pollinators foraging your flowers. Another good option is converting your lawn into a diverse ecosystem of wildflowers, low groundcovers and maybe the occasional shrub or perennial and since European Chafer is currently ravaging our turf areas, now is as good a time as any. Small actions like letting your vegetables bolt into bloom or planting a few sunflowers (both are pollinator magnets), providing a water source (I.e. bird bath) during the heat of summer and putting up a bug hotel or mason bee nesting block all make a huge impact. But more than anything, it is the pollen, nectar and seeds that the plants in our gardens provide that best sustain our wildlife and insects.
Choosing the Right Plants – The good news here is that pollinators aren’t particularly fussy about which plants they frequent, as many landscape standards double as great pollination plants including hardy geraniums, Spirea, English or Spanish lavenders and common thyme. That said, there are always a few favourites which are listed below for bees and native pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Honeybee on Geranium 'Rozanne', Bumblebee on Hardy Geranium, Bumblebee on Spanish Lavender.
Bees and Native Pollinators – We actually have 450 species (and counting) of wild bees in British Columbia and that does not include pollinating wasps or hoverflies. So there are a lot of ‘bugs’ out there looking for food in and amongst the flowers we choose to plant in our gardens, which means that picking the right ones can go a long way to helping the environment. Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro) and Sea Holly (Eryngium) are two favourites, as are Asters, Agastache, Sunflowers, Tanacetum, catmint, Armenian Basketflower (Centaurea macrocephala) and some trees such as Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Edibles also come into play here with Thyme, Fennel and Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) all being highly favoured by bees.
Bumblebee on Cardoon, Hoverfly on Aster, Bumblebee on Agastache, Hoverfly on Centaurea macrocephala, Honeybees on Eryngium 'Blue Hobbit', Bumblebee on Fennel, Wild pollinators on Golden Tanacetum, Bumblebee on Robinia 'Frisia'
Hummingbirds – While hummingbirds are primarily after nectar they also help with pollination by incidentally transferring pollen that sticks to their bill or heads and by nudging the blooms and dispersing the pollen that way. While they prefer tubular flower structures, they can be found foraging other flower forms such as Hollyhocks. For shade gardens you can rely on Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra), Hosta or Heuchera to draw them in, while the best climbers are definitely Honeysuckle and Trumpet Vine (Campsis), which both prefer a little more sun. Part to full sun exposures are ideal for Columbine, Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Bee Balm, Delphinium, Foxglove, Salvia or Penstemon, while Petunias are a good summer flower choice.