Create a pollinator habitat

The Best Times Digital Edition

August 19, 2021

By Dennis Patton

“Pitch in for Pollinators” or “Plant a Patch for Pollinators” are catchphrases creating awareness of pollinator protection. Whether you have a yard, live in an apartment, or in a maintenance-provided community, there is something we all can do to help our pollinators thrive.

Native bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, birds, beetles and ants are all important pollinators supporting our food supply. However, honeybees managed in hives are a non-native European species. Although honeybees do pollinate many of our food crops, they are not the true workhorses. Instead, it’s the seldom-seen native insect responsible for pollinating most plants in the world.

About one in every three bites of food we eat have been pollinated by insects. Three-fourths of all plants on earth require pollination. If these vital pollinators are lost, the results will be a less diverse food palate and increased food prices. The value of insect pollination in the United States is $18 to $27 billion annually. The variety of fruits and vegetables coming from foreign countries allows consumers to purchase fresh produce year-round.

What can we do? Together we can pitch in and help support a more diverse habitat. The good news is many strategies do not require spending money or doing a lot of work. Some simple changes could save you time and money.

Think of insects as good not bad

We are conditioned early in life to believe insects are bad. They need to be controlled, squished or sprayed. Many people develop irrational fears of insects, running and screaming at the sight. Of the millions of insect species worldwide, about 1% to 3% is harmful to either crops or man. This means most cause no harm or are vital in supporting the food chain.

The chickadee, a bird-feeder favorite, requires more than 6,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of young, according to University of Delaware Professor Doug Tallamy. By spraying every tree and shrub to rid an insect that might cause damage, we practically eliminate the next generation of birds to enjoy.

Let’s change our view. Consider insects for the value they bring, not the potential harm. So, think twice before reaching for the spray bottle. Better yet, be tolerant. Instead of thinking of a few chewed holes in a leaf as damage, think of it as food for hungry caterpillars – many of which gave their lives for our friendly birds.

Eliminate use of pesticides

Pesticides are one of the major threats to pollinators. Insecticides kill pollinators outright. Think you are doing good by using organic pesticides? Think again. Organics, just like synthetic chemical products, also kill beneficial insects. No product can selectivity target the bad guys. The good guys are also eliminated. Control insects if their damage threatens the plant’s life. Tolerate imperfections as life is not perfect.

Herbicides use is a mixed bag. Removing invasive plants is helpful as they outcompete the native plants. However, herbicides can also kill natives. Native plants are essential for nesting larval stages, providing nectar and pollen, and overwintering habitats.

One of the best early-season sources of pollen are dandelions and white clover. Ask yourself – does every weed really need to be killed? Practice tolerance.

If pesticides must be used, follow the label and use methods to minimize harming pollinators. Spray at night but never when plants are blooming or on winding days.

Plan to attract pollinators

Simple practices make a big difference. Diversity among plants in the garden is a must to support the wide range of pollinators. Native plants can co-exist with more formal plants to create an attractive yet sustainable garden.

Avoid a spic-and-span garden. An estimated 30% of native pollinators nest in pithy stems of plants. In the spring, leave winterkilled stems allowing for overwintering insects to slowly emerge. Don’t remove every dead twig at spring cleanup. Leave a third of the old stems to provide summer nesting materials. These stems disappear in the new growth only visible to nesting pollinators. Dead branches or logs decaying provide excellent habitat.

Approximately 70% of native pollinators are ground-nesting, burying into the soil to reproduce. Avoid the use of landscape fabric and heavy mulching, making it harder for ground dwellers to dig in. Holes bored into the soil should be thought of as good instead of something damaging. Don’t panic.

Pitching in requires us to adjust our preconceived notions about insects. Appreciate them for the good they provide. Focus on the positive, not the negative. We can make a difference and ensure a world supporting bustling insects. The bases of the food chain for all species depends on it.

Dennis Patton is horticulture agent at the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office.