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  • Maura Ashley

Gardening for Pollinators

Updated: May 13, 2020

Some people might be surprised to find that our first project in setting up our teaching apiary involved planting a garden. I, however, was delighted. There's nothing more satisfying to me than overturning new soil and gently tucking plants into the earth. It was amazing to transform an overgrown patch of weeds into a lawn with rock-bordered gardens.

Our gardens, while notable for the aesthetic beauty they lend our little bee-yard, are not merely for decoration. We focused on planting flowers and trees that would be a good source of food for our bees and native pollinator species. There are a number of qualities in plants that we looked for to be particularly beneficial for pollinators.

1. Succession of bloom. This means that you have pollen in flowers available to the bees for the entirety of their "active" season (generally, April to October). This is when they are out and about, foraging for nectar and pollen to feed their larvae, queen, and worker bees in the hive. A little research is necessary when planting pollinator gardens to determine when your plants bloom. You want to make sure that there is a flower blooming in each month, because consistent pollen sources are crucial to pollinator life cycles.

2. Native plantings. The term "native" means that the plant has historically existed in your area. The plant has developed properly to the climate and has a particular ecological job or niche that it performs in. Unfortunately, invasive species that are often sold as "ornamental" plants from big home and gardening companies are a threat to native plants and pollinators. Often invasives do a little too well in a habitat that is different from the one they came out of, and end up decreasing the diversity of plant life in the area. They out-compete the existing plants because they have adapted well to different/more severe environmental challenges. Although many invasive species also provide food for pollinators, they can end up causing nutritional deficits due to decreased plant diversity. Too much of one type of pollen or nectar for bees is just like too much of one food for humans. Lack of variety in the proteins and nutrients in their diet increases the chance of diseases and weakened hives and honey production.

[This dogwood tree on the Apiary property is a Pennsylvania native that serves several functions for pollinators. It has beautiful spring flowers that provide nectar to bees and is a host plant for spring azure butterflies. It is particularly attractive to pollinating insects due to its highly fragrant aroma. PC: Katerina Bailey]

3. Shape, size, and color variety. Again, diversity is key in pollinator gardens. Pollinators come in lots of different sizes and shapes, and have many methods of extracting pollen and nectar. This means that some flower structures will be good for bees, but not great for butterflies. Having plants with big blooms, little blooms, and lots of colors provides options for species that have specialized nutritional needs and physical food collecting limitations. Variety can also be enhanced by planting several flowers in multiple drifts / garden beds. This color variety can help attract pollinators to your garden.

All of these gardening tips set up pollinators for success. Especially as lawns and agricultural crops have replaced natural forest and field landscapes, pollinators that have a 3-5 mile flight range can struggle with starvation. Hunger stress just compounds with disease and other stressors to be absolutely devastating for bees and native pollinators. However, planting these gardens is a way we can add a little beauty and life to our local ecosystem.

Resources for planting pollinator gardens:

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