The Importance of Pollinators & Pollinator Gardens

"His labor is a chant,

His idleness a tune;

Oh, for a bee’s experience

Of clovers and of noon!"

The Bee by Emily Dickinson

The Power of Pollinators

Imagine a future where Canada is in search for hundreds of thousands of people to be recruited to work on farms nationwide in a hand pollinating campaign due to systemic bee colony collapse and the extinction of many pollinator insects. It may sound dramatic or unrealistic, but it is a dark and very real possibility waiting on the horizon unless serious changes are made. 

As we speak, huge swaths of Chinese agricultural land are pollinated by humans using paint brushes and other makeshift tools. China is the world’s leading producer of apples and pears, and today millions of Chinese farmers are forced to pollinate their fruit trees by hand due to the systemic collapse of pollinator insects such as bees and butterflies. A tall task considering a person can typically pollinate 5 to 10 trees a day, depending on the size, whereas a single bee colony can pollinate 20 million flowers a day.  

Restoring Bee Habitats

American bumblebee populations have collapsed by 90% in the last twenty years. U.S. National Agricultural Statistics show a 60% decline in honeybee colonies from 1947 to 2008. Climate change, habitat loss, and widespread use of pesticides have all contributed to the collapse of bees, the species declared “most important on earth”.
 We can no longer take these selfless and hardworking creatures for granted, as their existence is imperative to the sustainability of human life. So, what can we do to support these generous little insects that are so vital to human existence and life on earth? Well, we can begin by restoring their habitats, and one simple way to do just that is by building a pollinator garden.

Attractive Gardens:

Pollinator gardens are gardens designed specifically to attract pollinator insects and animals such as hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. Unlike a vegetable garden, or monocrop farming (where there is a single blooming period) pollinator gardens are defined by a diverse array of flowering plants that create multiple blooming periods throughout a growing season to provide a sustained supply of nectar and pollen for pollinators like bees. Wildflowers, perennial flowers and native shrubs and trees can all form the basis of a good pollinator garden. Here are few plants to consider for your pollinator garden:

Perfect Pollinators:

• Sunflowers – Not only are sunflowers beautiful and a visual treat for any garden, but sunflowers make excellent plants for a pollinator garden as they produce large quantities of nectar and pollen, which bees and other pollinators need for energy. Sunflowers’ size and bright petals also provide an easy visual cue for pollinators to locate them. And as an additional benefit, sunflowers are great for maintaining healthy soil. Their root systems help break up compacted soils and allow water to penetrate deep into the ground. There is also evidence that sunflowers are effective at removing toxins and heavy metals from the soil.

• Milkweed – Once an abundant plant native across Canada, milkweed species have been steadily diminishing as a target of pesticide use. An unforeseen consequence is that monarch butterflies have diminished with it, as milkweed is a vital source of larval food, and now because of the loss of this plant, monarch butterflies are an endangered species in Canada. Monarch butterflies are amazing pollinators, and who wouldn’t love to see more monarchs in the garden again? Being the sole host plant for monarch caterpillars, milkweed is perfect for a pollinator garden.

• Legumes – Leguminous plants such as clovers, beans and peas are great additions to a pollinator garden, as many legumes have bright and colourful flowers that produce sweet fragrances that are very attractive for pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. They also provide a nutritious source of nectar and pollen. Legumes have the added benefit of being tremendous at restoring soil fertility. As we’ve discussed in other blogs, soil health is critical to the health of the entire ecosystem. Legumes have specialized structures called “legume nodules” on their roots, which contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into a nutrient plants can use, enriching the soil for all the plants that live there.  
Science Nerd Moment: Legumes have evolved to house the nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobia) in nodules, because rhizobia do not like to be exposed to too much Oxygen: this valuable bacterium is anaerobic. The nodule membrane carefully regulates the oxygen level within the chamber, keeping the oxygen-averse rhizobia inside happy and productive.  

Diversity is Key:

The most important thing to consider when building a pollinator garden is diversity. The more diverse your pollinator garden is, the more blooming periods there will be, which means more periods of collecting pollen and nectar for pollinators. When deciding which flowers and shrubs to plant in your pollinator garden, check when the blooming period is and plan to have blooms throughout the growing season. As we restore the habitats of these important pollinators, we can not only enjoy the beauty of these gardens but appreciate that we’re giving back to creatures who give so much. The "Woodland Edge Pollinator Garden" plan from Heather Holm's book "Pollinators of Native Plants" is an excellent example of how to plan out a diverse garden that will bloom throughout the season. Note how about 1/2 of this plan includes plants that are happy to be in the shade of a nearby tree. 

Recommended Reading:

There are many excellent books that can be of great help and inspiration when you take on your pollinator garden project. I was recently invited to participate in a Pollinator Festival one of our vendors organized. This family owned and operated business (Bee Sweet Nature Company) propagates and sells native trees – and they have an apiary as well – the honey their happy bees produce is fabulous. At the event, I picked up an excellent book, "Pollinators of Native Plants," by Heather Holm. This well-organised reference book contains 100's of beautiful images of pollinators and their favourite native plants. The author also includes several pollinator garden designs in her book. All in all, this book is all you'll need to begin your journey of discovery into the workings of pollination. 

Consider Native Plants & Trees:

On a closing note, I’d also like to recommend that you consider the incredibly important role that all native plants and trees play in our landscapes. Everything in Nature is interconnected and interdependent. When you plant a non-native tree (such as one of my personal favorites from Asia “Gingo biloba”) you will enjoy it for its unique leaves and wonderfully bright fall colour – but – it is unrecognised as a food source by our native insects. It will not attract and support insects (including pollinators) and without insects, birds lose a valuable source of protein. Non-Native trees and plants can be exotic and beautiful, but we need to think of them (only) as Accents in our garden designs.

A few non-native plants here and there are great – but they should not dominate the plant mix on your property. To our native insect and animal populations, non-native plants are more like a sculpture – beautiful to us perhaps, but inhospitable to the insects and animals in our wider ecosystem. Compare a Gingo tree to any one of our native Oaks for instance; the former will not support any species of insects, whereas the Oak is a food source for over 600 species of Caterpillars alone! The plump larvae of these 600 Lepidoptera species (butterflies) provide a bountiful food source for breeding bird populations. Everything in Nature is interconnected – let’s help Nature by planting more Native plant species whenever and wherever we can.

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