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The worth of pollinators is undeniable. Each year, more than $20 billion dollars of food crops come to fruition across North America because of creatures far smaller than the coin in your pocket. That’s a lot of weight on those tiny shoulders. And unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock, you know about the troubles facing European honeybee populations. So, with European honeybee numbers at risk and pollination rates dropping, attracting more bees and pollinators is more important than ever. But, what’s a gardener to do? Well, helping native bees is a good place to start.
6 tips for attracting more bees and pollinators:
- Learn to identify native bees. North America is home to nearly 4,000 species of native bees, and they too are fast becoming victims of pesticide exposure, diseases, and habitat loss. Most native bees are solitary, rather than living in large colonies like European honeybees, and they are often more efficient pollinators. 250 female orchard mason bees can pollinate an acre of apple trees, a task that requires 15,000 to 20,000 European honeybees. And unlike honeybees, most species of native bees are active in cold and wet conditions. The truth is, in many cases, helping native bees means better pollination. Most native bees are very docile and gentle and don’t sting. They’re a very diverse crew – with names like mining, digger, sunflower, mason, leaf cutter, carpenter, and squash bees. Many are very nondescript, while others shine like iridescent green jewels or have bright stripes.
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- Protect any habitat you may already have in place. Preserve undisturbed, wild areas that can serve as sources of nectar and habitat. These types of environments are great at attracting more bees and pollinators. Rock piles, heaps of brush, snags, hollow-stemmed plants, and bare ground all serve as possible nesting sites and should be protected. Habitat preservation is an important step in helping native bees. Some 70 per cent of native bees nest in the ground while most of the remaining species nest in tunnels.
- Examine your garden management practices. Because native bees are sensitive to pesticides, start by converting to natural pest management practices. Tilling the garden can also impact native bees. Because a significant number of native bee species nest in the ground, no-till practices definitely have a positive impact on their numbers. A study in Virginia looked at pumpkin and squash pollination and found that where no till practices were in place, there were three times the number of pollinating squash bees. This large, solitary bee nests in the ground right next to the plants they pollinate and is responsible for 80 percent of squash pollination. If you don’t want to switch to no-till practices, allow areas with plenty of exposed soil to remain undisturbed, and don’t mulch every strip of bare ground, especially south-facing slopes where certain bees prefer to nest. Attracting more bees and pollinators is often as simple as letting part of the garden be fallow.
- Create new pollinator habitat for nectar foraging. Plant native plants with diverse bloom times, varied flower shapes, and mixed coloration. The Xerces Society has been working with the native seed industry and seed suppliers to develop seed mixtures specifically tailored to attracting more bees and pollinators. You can find Xerces-approved seed blends listed on their website.
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- Add artificial and natural nesting sites for tunnel-nesting bees. You can purchase or build nesting tube houses, tunnels, and blocks, or plant plenty of hollow-stemmed plants, like elderberries, box elders, Joe Pye weed, teasels, brambles, cup plant, and bee balm for them to naturally nest in. Homemade or commercially purchased wooden nesting blocks or stem bundles can be placed in a sheltered site with morning sun. They can be left in place year-round, but should be replaced every two years.
- Be smart about garden clean up chores. Because many native pollinators nest and overwinter in garden debris, pay careful attention to how and when you cut back and clean up your garden in the spring and the fall. Here are two great posts on conducting a pollinator-safe spring garden clean up as well as performing the right kind of garden clean up in the autumn to help you meet your goal of attracting more bees and pollinators to your landscape.
Follow these simple steps to make a huge impact on the health of all our native pollinators. Helping native bees is easier than you might think. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can support native bees, Attracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society (Storey Publishing, 2011) is a great place to start.
Tell us about what you’re doing to help native bees. We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.