Build a pollinator-friendly garden

WASHINGTON Everything from the food you eat, to the wine you drink, and even the shirts you wear are all possible because of pollinators.

In fact, 80 to 85 percent of our food and clothing are the products of pollinators, says Mark Miller of the Franklin Park Conservatory and he isn’t just talking about bees. Pollinators include everything from butterflies, to bats, to birds and even humans.

But due to a variety of factors, including modern farming practices and climate change, the pollinator population is on the decline. The good news is, individuals can help revive these diminishing populations — starting with their own gardens.

Here’s how you can build a pollinator-friendly garden this summer:

Cape Cod birds taking a bath splashing in a garden birdbath in autumn.
Provide the basics

“What pollinators are looking for are what you and I are looking for food, water and shelter,” said Mark Miller of the Franklin Park Conservatory.

Set up a bird bath from which birds, butterflies and even bees can drink. And don’t be so quick to clear small piles of leaves, sticks and mud from your space.

“By leaving a little bit of inconspicuous leaf litter, etc., you are actually providing habitat or shelter for a number of different bees and other pollinators,” Miller said.

Kay Taub, an entomologist and the former director of the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo, leaves small shoots of dried bamboo in her yard and even places some in the ground to attract native bees, who use the tunnels to make nests.

Worried that attracting bees to your yard will welcome a summer of stings? Taub explains that many native bees are referred to as “solitary bees” because they don’t live in large colonies.

“And they don’t sting because of that; they don’t have a whole hive to protect,” she said. 

(Thinkstock)

Aimee Code and her 19-month-old daughter, Haylee Code, tend to their organic garden at their Eugene, Ore., home Wednesday, July 12, 2006. More than two years after a federal judge ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start protecting endangered salmon from pesticides, warning labels that are supposed to notify consumers of the dangers of lawn and garden chemicals are not making it into retail stores. (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)
Don’t use pesticides

WTOP garden editor Mike McGrath says there are three things you can do in your garden to make it more pollinator-friendly.

“Don’t use pesticides, don’t use pesticides and don’t use pesticides,” he said.

“Pesticides are totally ineffective against modern pests. It’s just a waste of time, money … and a lot of the modern pesticides in use today, the nicotine imitators, these are deadly to bees, both native and honeybees.”

McGrath added that pesticides often won’t harm the pest you’re after, but could do a number on your local pollinator population.

(AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

Laura Hughes moves the perennial plants at Leisure Lawn Service for sale for sale at the garden shop in Cranberry, Pa., Butler County, on Sunday, April 22, 2012. They heard the weather reports of heavy snow expected in the area and are trying to protect the inventory by moving them under roof. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Avoid pre-treated plants

Not only should you avoid spraying pesticides in your yard, but McGrath says consumers need to be careful when buying plants from garden centers and other retail locations. Often, big-box stores pre-treat their plants, even native plants, with pesticides, which will kill the bees and butterflies that try to feed on them.

McGrath says if you buy plants labeled “organic,” you are guaranteed that there are no insecticides and pesticides on the plant, “and it’s totally safe for pollinators.”

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

A Monarch butterfly enjoys the nectar of some blooming asters on a roadside in Streetsboro, Ohio., Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007.  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
Less lawn, more leaves

Taub says one way to make your yard more welcoming to pollinators is to have a smaller lawn and more native plants.

Not only is this setup perfect for those who want to encourage pollination, but it’s also ideal for homeowners who want to mow their lawn less and water their gardens more infrequently. (Native plants are used to the water the area gets and thus require fewer supplemented watering sessions.)

For gardens in the D.C. area, Taub recommends planting asters, butterfly weed, coreopsis, goldenrod, coneflower, joe-pye weed, black-eyed Susan, milkweed, thistle and phlox. For shrubs, try serviceberry, black gum trees and buttonbush.

“These are plants that live here, grow easily here and will attract the native bees,” Taub said.

(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

This Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, photo shows cool wave pansies that tolerate several light frosts and go dormant after a hard frost, in Langley, Wash. Their colors intensify in the cold and they bloom even in the snow, and recover in early spring. (AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)
Have something in bloom all year long

To get pollinators in your garden, McGrath says you want to have plants blooming all year long.

“That means starting the season with pansies and small, early flowering spring bulbs, and ending with more pansies and fabulous fall-blooming plants,” he said.

“The more you have in bloom, and the longer the bloom time in your landscape, the more pollinators you’re going to attract.”

Planting the early-blooming and late-blooming plants are the most important, because they’re the ones feeding the native bees when the temperatures are cold and the pollinators are in need of calories, McGrath adds.

(AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)

This 2015 photo provided by Chronicle Books shows the farm truck at Erin Benzakein's Floret Farms loaded with a harvest of dahlias from the Floret field in Mount Vernon, Wash. The photo is featured in Benzakein's book, "Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden." (Michele M. Waite/Chronicle Books via AP)
Blocks of color

Another key to boosting your garden’s pollinator population is to plant big blocks of color — not one-off plants. (As McGrath puts it: Don’t go for the six-pack. If you see a flower you like, buy the whole flat.)

“The bigger the block of a single color flower, the more pollinators and butterflies you’ll attract,” said McGrath, who added that white, yellow and blue/violet are the optimal colors.

“Plant them tight together and you will see this amazing diversity coming in. Pull up a lawn chair and just be still. Over the course of maybe even 20 minutes, you’ll see a dozen different native bees of all shapes and sizes come in.”

(Michele M. Waite/Chronicle Books via AP)

A carpenter bee buzzes around the garden at the Bayer North American Bee Care Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2015.  (AP Photo/Ted Richardson)
Know your native bees

Honeybees may be the most well-known bees, but they are not native to North America, and McGrath says their pollination is largely artificial.

“They depend on beekeepers to keep them alive, and in many cases, they’re trucked around to different fields to kind of artificially pollinate crops,” he said.

However, every region in the U.S. is home to hundreds of species of native bees, which Taub says do a much better job of pollinating.

“What takes 100 honeybees to pollinate, Mason bees can do much more efficiently,” said Taub, who is also a beekeeper.

To draw Mason bees to your yard, Taub says you can build a structure similar in shape to a birdhouse and drill holes of various sizes into the wood. Mason bees will likely land there and lay their eggs.

McGrath adds that there are also kits you can buy to build “bee houses” to attract native bees to your yard.

“If you care about having the food that you want to eat and the melons and the apples and all of the summer vegetables, then you care about bees,” Taub said.

(AP/Ted Richardson)

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Cape Cod birds taking a bath splashing in a garden birdbath in autumn.
Aimee Code and her 19-month-old daughter, Haylee Code, tend to their organic garden at their Eugene, Ore., home Wednesday, July 12, 2006. More than two years after a federal judge ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start protecting endangered salmon from pesticides, warning labels that are supposed to notify consumers of the dangers of lawn and garden chemicals are not making it into retail stores. (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)
Laura Hughes moves the perennial plants at Leisure Lawn Service for sale for sale at the garden shop in Cranberry, Pa., Butler County, on Sunday, April 22, 2012. They heard the weather reports of heavy snow expected in the area and are trying to protect the inventory by moving them under roof. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
A Monarch butterfly enjoys the nectar of some blooming asters on a roadside in Streetsboro, Ohio., Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007.  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
This Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, photo shows cool wave pansies that tolerate several light frosts and go dormant after a hard frost, in Langley, Wash. Their colors intensify in the cold and they bloom even in the snow, and recover in early spring. (AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)
This 2015 photo provided by Chronicle Books shows the farm truck at Erin Benzakein's Floret Farms loaded with a harvest of dahlias from the Floret field in Mount Vernon, Wash. The photo is featured in Benzakein's book, "Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden." (Michele M. Waite/Chronicle Books via AP)
A carpenter bee buzzes around the garden at the Bayer North American Bee Care Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2015.  (AP Photo/Ted Richardson)

Want more information? Taub recommends checking out the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation for additional tips and resources.

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