Turners Falls landscape architect creates gardens to attract native pollinators

Last modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013

With the native plant movement gaining momentum, a new issue has arisen — native pollinators.

Honeybees — which came from Europe — so critical to pollinating crops and flowers, have been decimated by mites and diseases in recent years. So now native pollinators are gradually being acknowledged for their important roles.

Mason and orchard bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, bats and beetles all play a role in pollination. Nearly 90 percent of all crops and flowers are pollinated by insects, birds or bats.

If you want apples or tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, pumpkins or broccoli you need native pollinators. By flitting from blossom to blossom, bees pollinate flowers as they gather nectar and pollen for their young. Bees have hairy bodies to collect the pollen while wasps are smooth and poor pollinators.

However, wasps do play an important role as predators of insect pests.

Tom Sullivan of Turners Falls, a landscape architect and the owner of Pollinators Welcome, creates gardens to attract native pollinators. A graduate of the Conway School of Landscape Design, he also gives lectures on what flowers to plant as well as how to build nesting boxes for these native insects.

Sullivan grew up in Pennsylvania and came to western Massachusetts “by way of Boston” where he worked for the Boston Parks Department on the Olmsted Capital Crew, maintaining the ring of parks known as the Emerald Necklace, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

He credits his grandmother with his love of bees. When, as a small lad, he was stung by a bee, she explained the insect wasn’t mean, it was just defending its young. So he had respect for bees from any early age. For many years he kept a hive of honeybees until they were killed one winter.

He always wanted to return to beekeeping and at Conway he “made the link with the whole ecosystem.” Seeking a way to use his love of bees as a career he followed the advice of Dan Conlon of Warm Colors Apiary in South Deerfield to attend a conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on native pollinators. Pollinators Welcome company grew out of that conference.

Through a friend at Conway, Sullivan learned about Michael Katz of That’s a Plenty Farm in Hadley. Katz had gotten a grant from the NRCS to make a meadow with a hedge to deter pesticide drift from nearby fields. The following year he wanted to attract pollinators for his farm which specializes in heirloom cherry tomatoes. Katz raises 18 varieties of the small heirlooms in a wide range of colors — yellow, orange, pink, brown, purple, green and yes, red.

“They liked my idea to raise plants in a nursery,” Sullivan reported. The premise was to grow plants not only for the pollinators but to gather seed to sell. “We picked out about 20 plants to start with,” he said. “The Katzes made one stipulation, that the nursery not be in straight rows.” So Sullivan designed curved paths edged with beds of flowers. The design has an egg in the center with arched wings surrounding the oval form.”

Building the places polinators like

Unlike honeybees that are social insects congregating in a hive, 90 percent of native pollinator bees are solitary, Sullivan said in a recent interview. The bumblebee, an exception, is a social insect that nests in the ground, Sullivan said. About 70 percent of native bees are ground-nesting while 30 percent make nests in hollow stems of plants or pithy twigs.

There are two ways to attract native pollinators to a garden. One is to plant flowers; they prefer for nectar and pollen. The other is to provide them with nesting materials.

Bumblebee homes can be crafted from a large terra cotta pot with a saucer which can be located in the garden above ground. Upholstery stuffing is placed in the saucer for nesting material. Other ground-nesting bees will make tunnels in sandy soil that is bare without vegetation.

Wood-nesting bees prefer a hollow tube like bamboo or raspberry canes.

“Bamboo is a great plant. Most bees will readily inhabit hollow stems,” Sullivan said. However, he added, they will be satisfied with pithy twigs like staghorn sumac or elderberry. “They really like teasel but there isn’t a lot of that around.”

Sullivan creates nesting boxes by stuffing 6-inch-long twigs of sumac, elderberry or any of the brambles, in a large plastic cylinder like a big yogurt container. He also uses plastic coffee cans or glass bottles.

“Use a white container, if possible. It reflects the heat,” he said.

Stuff the twigs into the container and wrap plastic cord around it to hang it horizontally from a building like a garage, barn or shed, about 3 to 6 feet off the ground.

“East-facing is critical,” he said. “They wake up early in the morning and want to be up and about.”

Be sure to slant the container to shed rain.

“The female only lives to lay eggs, 30 eggs and then she dies,” Sullivan said. She lays one egg at a time in a separate cell, placing the egg on ball of pollen collected from flowers. This will feed the baby bee when it emerges from the egg. “For each egg the female makes 30 trips to gather pollen from 170 flowers,” he said. Rain and cold weather will slow her down for the flowers won’t open properly.

Sullivan said the female bee uses mud to seal off each egg cell and to close off the entire twig when she has laid all 30 eggs. The eggs overwinter and will hatch in the spring. So it is important to bring the nesting box into an unheated garage or shed for the winter. This prevents predation by woodpeckers.

A year ago at a master gardener symposium, Shelley Small of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, gave a presentation about native pollinators. She and an assistant demonstrated nesting blocks made of a slab of wood into which holes are drilled for nesting.

These are easy to make with a scrap of lumber and an electric drill. It is vital to stop drilling before the back of the slab so there is a solid wall at the rear. Ideally the twigs or the drilled holes will be 5/16 to 3/8 inch in diameter, Sullivan said. He says the twig boxes are more sanitary because the twigs can be discarded at the end of a single season once the eggs hatch. Diseases can be a problem with the drilled boxes, which should be used for only two seasons.

You can buy ready-made drilled boxes or containers with cardboard “twigs” with paper liners. Kinsman is one company that makes the tunnel nests in different sizes, from 20 tubes to 80 tubes, varying in price from $10 to $25. Replacement paper liners are 100 for $15.

Creating a flower garden to attract native pollinators can be a lot of fun.

Pollinators are attracted to flowers by scent and by shape. Have you ever noticed how many insects congregate on a globe thistle in bloom?

“Pussy willows, that’s what happening right now,” Sullivan said.

The fuzzy catkins were just beginning to show yellow pollen, which is one of the first sources of food for the bees.

“Start with willows and end with asters,” Sullivan suggested. “The willows prime the pump in the spring and at the end of the year the asters help the bees bulk up for the winter.” He said it is important to plant a variety of flower species for each season, preferably three kinds for each season. “Choose different colors and different shapes of flowers.”

According to the National Resources Conservation Service of the USDA, “Bees are most attracted to purple, blue and yellow flowers.” Birds and butterflies prefer tubular or bell-shaped flowers. Single flowers, especially daisy types, are preferable to doubles for ease of landing for butterflies and other insects.

Anise hyssop, which has blue-purple flowers, is especially important for honeybees and for bumblebees.

“Bumblebees are the strongest and can fly the farthest,” Sullivan noted. “They are the canary in the coal mine. When bumblebees are in trouble, then the whole ecosystem can be threatened,” Sullivan said. Unfortunately, bumblebees are in trouble in many areas.

Cheryl B. Wilson can be contacted at valleygardens@comcast.net.


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