Celebrate National Pollinator Week by growing a pollinator garden
The Mexican primrose—a delicate, pretty, light-pink flower—grows as a border plant in a few spots in Michael-Anne Foley’s expertly cared-for garden at her home just south of Hamilton City. On an opposite end of the lush row of plantings, a dandelion grows. Yet, Foley, a Butte County master gardener, is clear about which plant she intends to pull.
“I’m working on getting it all out,” Foley said, pointing to the primrose. “It turned out to be a very dangerous flower, for when they wilt and [butterflies] think there’s still nectar in [them] … their proboscis gets stuck way down there.”
One of the main focuses of her gardens is to bring in pollinators—particularly butterflies and hummingbirds—and a flower that harms them just won’t do. The dandelion stays, said Foley, as its yellow flower is visited by a number of pollinators, including bees.
Foley is full of stories of the highs and lows of being a pollinator gardener, from when a friend dared to pet a bumblebee (which didn’t seem to mind), to the “very bossy” male Rufous hummingbird that migrates yearly through her yard, to when she unintentionally removed all the larval food for the Red Admiral butterfly—stinging nettle. “It wasn’t until … about eight years after I had pulled out some stinging nettle that I figured out what impact I had on a group of butterflies,” Foley said.
Without nettles—the only food suitable for the Red Admiral’s larvae—the butterflies have no place to lay their eggs, and consequently, the local population declines. Yet a new educational pollinator garden in town, at the Gateway Science Museum—open just in time for National Pollinator Week, June 17-23—will assist local gardeners in understanding how and why to attract pollinators to their gardens.
National Pollinator Week was started in 2007 by the U.S. Senate and the USDA to begin addressing the decline of pollinator populations, according to San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Pollinator Partnership.
Locally, Gateway Science Museum boasts a robust pollinator garden. Planted this spring, the garden behind the museum is filled with native plants and interpretive signage. It will help museum visitors learn about different plants and their purposes, including the importance of planting not just for the nectar and pollen for pollinators, but also to provide “shelter for them, nesting sites, and larval food,” explained Jennifer Jewell, the museum’s volunteer coordinator.
The museum’s garden also helps gardeners connect the dots as to why they should be encouraging insect life. “You’re bringing in all this insect life, and in turn, you get a better balance in your garden,” explained John Whittlesey, co-designer of the garden. Hoverflies, a common pollinator, won’t pollinate as effectively as a bee, he explained, but their larvae eat aphids, he said. By encouraging the hoverfly to live in your yard, “you’re bringing in all these checks and balances” to your garden to make for a more healthy ecosystem.
The garden, which celebrated its opening on May 1, will be treated as a “fourth gallery” of the museum, Jewell said, with books, activities, workshops, and more for visitors of all ages.
“People think of pollinators, and they think of the honey bee. But there are 1,600 species of bees in California, there are around 10,000 species of beetles (though not all species are pollinators), there are thousands of different types of flies, and there are butterflies, moths, bats,” said Jewell. “There is just so much that is working on this together.” And most of these pollinator populations are in decline.
Pollination is big business in Butte County, where honey bees are trucked in to assist in the pollination of almond and fruit orchards. But honey bees are declining at a rate of 30 percent per year, due to a complex combination of causes, including exposure to pesticides, lack of food, pests like mites, and pathogens, according to a summary report from the October 2012 conference for the National Honey Bee Health Stakeholder Conference Steering Committee.
But while populations of wild, native pollinators—wild bees, hoverflies, wasps and butterflies—have been declining for decades, a new study published in Science magazine in February shows that wild pollinators increase fruit production regardless of honey-bee abundance, and that “wild insects pollinated crops more efficiently” than honey bees. The authors noted that “an increase in wild-insect visitation enhanced fruit set by twice as much as an equivalent increase in honey-bee visitation.”
The European Commission recently declared a two-year ban on a family of pesticides thought to harm bees. Here in the United States, to address bee declines and the increasingly clear notion that wild pollinators are important to agriculture, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has proposed a Pollinator Protection Amendment to the U.S. Farm Bill, which would mandate interagency dialogue about pollinators, the monitoring of pollinator populations, and the creation of a task force to look at implementing pollinator safeguards.
Gardeners at home can do their part to encourage pollinators, even in small ways. “It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Just be a little more conscious” of the insect life in the garden and learn how to enhance it, says Whittlesey. He recommends planting a variety of flowers of different shapes—some umbel-shaped, like a yarrow flower; some composite, like the native grindelia; some bell-shaped—and making sure that something is blooming year-round. Whittlesey also recommends planting masses of flowers together, which some pollinators appear to prefer, rather than a small, single stand.
One of the biggest advantages of having a pollinator garden, said Foley, is the change in perspective of the gardener. “I never thought about all these insects the way I do now,” she said. “The majority of [insects] are probably beneficial, and they’re not pests.”