Providing a Pollinator-Friendly Habitat

Native pollinator in hand. Photo by Joy Newton, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

When most of us picture a pollinator, we picture a honeybee. But, honeybees are not the only pollinator out there. They are not our best pollinator, and they are not even native to North America. A more accurate pollinator picture includes native local bees, beneficial flies, moths, beetles, butterflies and even wasps. One third of our food supply depends on pollinators, but their numbers are declining. Gardeners can provide “sanctuary cities” for native pollinators, supporting and preserving them and our food supply. To do this, gardeners should dedicate patches of the landscape for pollinators to use as food and as habitat.

This goal requires proper plant selection and some behavior changes. Plant native plants instead of non-native plants. Using plants not native to our area can hurt our pollinators. This is because these plants and our pollinators did not evolve together, so the plant-pollinator relationship isn’t quite right. Make sure when selecting native plants for pollinators that you pick ones with different bloom times. Try to stagger the availability of nectar to prevent periods without food.

Purchase native plants and seeds from local vendors, if possible. These plants will be adapted to your area to use less water, bloom longer and be a better partner to local pollinators. Contact your local Cooperative Extension office for information about plants native to your area. Take their native plant list with you when you shop.

Set out some water for native pollinators. A birdbath or small dishes placed around the yard will do. A gardener I know puts out plant pot saucers with marbles and water in them. It’s attractive, and it provides pollinators water and a place to sit while drinking it. Native pollinators also benefit from a small dripping area. This gives them not only water, but minerals from the soil as well.

Speaking of soil, set aside a bare spot of clay soil away from buildings to provide habitat for mud-nest building bees.

If integrated pest management allows it, leave garden clean up as long as possible, or leave areas of the garden uncleaned altogether. Old canes, stems and stalks provide shelter for cane-nesting bees. And, by leaving the area undisturbed, bumblebees will feel more comfortable making their home there. Bee houses and piles of small stones are also helpful in sheltering our native pollinators.

Finally, try not to use insecticides, particularly systemic insecticides, on your plants. Systemic insecticides are absorbed through plant leaves and stems and are then transported throughout the plant. Before applying an insecticide, make sure you have a positive ID on the target insect. Lady beetle larvae, for example, look quite intimidating but eat aphids for you. You wouldn’t want to kill a beneficial insect. Plus, allowing larval insects to feed on your garden encourages pollinators to live their whole life cycle there. Do not apply pesticides when pollinators are present.

To learn about native plants appropriate for the intermountain west, read Flowers at the Border, a free publication by University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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