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Mickey Rathbun: Coaxing the life-giving pollinators to your garden

  • A bee visits a vipers bugloss blossom capnrob16760—Getty Images/iStockphoto


Friday, May 19, 2017

Most people don’t pay much attention to bees, wasps and other pollinating insects, other than to swat them when they come too close. But these insects are crucial to our food supply. Between 75 and 90 percent of all flowering plant species require animal-assisted pollination to reproduce.

According to the organization Pollinator Partnership, birds, bees, butterflies, beetles and small mammals like bats that pollinate plants are responsible for bringing us one of every three bites of the food we eat. Without these critters, our food supply would collapse and the environment would be devastated.

Basically, pollination involves the movement of a pollen grain from the anther (the male part of the flower) to the stigma (the female part). This starts the process of fruit and seed production.

To attract pollinators, plants provide either nectar, a sugary substance, or pollen, a fatty protein. The pollinators pick up pollen and spread it within an individual flower and to flowers of other plants.

Unfortunately, pollinator populations are in serious decline. This is due to several factors, including decrease of natural habitat, unfavorable agricultural practices, disease, pollution and climate change. According to The New York Times, many pollinator species are threatened with extinction, including some 16 percent of vertebrates like birds and bats. The extinction risk for insects is not as well defined, but there is a “high level of threat,” with at least 9 percent of bee and butterfly species at risk.

We gardeners can’t save the world, but we can make a difference by creating pollinator-friendly environments. This involves not only choosing pollinator-friendly plants, but also being selective about garden design, location and maintenance. I always like to promote useful websites; pollinatorgardensorg is a terrific website dedicated to this subject. It was created by Annie S. White, a horticulturalist and doctoral candidate at the University of Vermont who works on the restoration of pollinator habitats in the Northeast.

If you’re interested in creating a sanctuary for pollinators, here are some of White’s tips:

Choose native species for your garden. Research shows that pollinators prefer to forage among native species. Some non-native species also are popular with pollinators, so it’s not necessary to avoid them altogether.

White notes that the typical suburban landscape contains only 20 to 30 percent native plants; she advises reversing this ratio.

Pollinators need a constant supply of pollen and nectar from spring through fall, so it’s important to provide early flowering plants such as false indigo (Baptisia) and wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) as well as late bloomers like asters. In addition to perennials, pollinators enjoy flowering shrubs, bulbs and annuals.

Pollinators prefer to forage for a single flower on each outing. Therefore, it’s helpful to promote “flower constancy” so that the pollinator can go to one spot at a time for collection. This means planting an ample patch of each plant, from five to seven, say, rather than placing individual plants throughout the garden.

Pollinators come in many shapes and sizes and their preferences vary accordingly, so give them a variety of choices. Bumblebees and other sturdy bees have no trouble prying their way into the larger blossoms of Baptisia. Smaller bees prefer smaller flowers such as yarrow (Achillea) or composites of tiny blooms, such as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia).

Pollinators also have color preferences. Bees cannot distinguish between red and green and gravitate towards purple, white and yellow flowers. Butterflies and hummingbirds love red flowers such as scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma).

Monarch butterflies will drink nectar from many flowers, but they will only lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed (Asclepias ssp.). Plant butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and marsh milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) to support these majestic creatures.

Avoid hybrid and double-flowered varieties of species. There are many recent Echinacea cultivars that offer double blossoms in a range of vibrant color. While these will add pizzazz to your garden, they won’t offer the birds and the bees much sustenance.

Pesticides are another hazard to pollinators. When buying plants at a nursery, ask whether they have been treated by systemic insecticides such as neonicotinoids during the previous year.

According to White, scientists are currently studying the effects of insecticides on pollinators and have found that systemic insecticides are absorbed in plant tissue and carried into the pollen and nectar which are passed along to pollinators in turn. High concentrations of these chemicals can be fatal to bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Smaller levels may jeopardize their health and well-being. Avoid any insecticide use in your own garden.

Pollinators need fresh water and will be attracted to birdbaths or other sources of water in your landscape.

How wonderful to enhance your landscape with hummingbirds, honeybees and butterflies and to know you have enhanced the quality of their lives as well!

Seedling germination

On Sunday, 10 a.m. to noon, Nasami Farm Nursery in Whately will host a hands-on workshop on small-scale propagation of native plants.

This workshop, led by Kate Stafford, is appropriate for beginners and propagators with some experience. You will be able to practice transplanting seedlings and take your work home. Cost: member, $26; nonmember, $32. For more information and to register, go to: www.newenglandwild.org/programs.

Science sprouts for kids

On the last Saturday of every month, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston offers programs that combine science, math, nature and art exploration for kids age 6 and under. The next session is May 27, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Children must be accompanied by an adult. Members, $12; Non-members, $22, includes admission for a child and adult and materials. Pre-registration is required.

For more information and to register, go to: towerhillbg.org.

Sogetsu Ikebana

Tower Hill Botanic Garden is offering sessions on Sogetsu Ikebana on May 25 and June 15, from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

Sogetsu Ikebana is an internationally recognized school of Japanese flower arranging. Instructor Kaye Vosburgh is a master judge and design instructor for the National Garden Club as well as a Sogetsu Ikebana teacher of the highest rank, Riji.

Members, $35, Non-members, $50, per class. Some materials included.

For more information and to register, go to: towerhillbg.org.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.