“ The little things that run the world are disappearing.” — Doug Tallamy, Ecologist
Pollinators are in trouble and they need our help. Today 40% of insects and pollinators are at risk for extinction, primarily due to destruction of their natural habitat. Exposure to pesticides used in agriculture and residential areas is decimating populations of pollinators, a fact that is reverberating up the food chain, affecting all animals, including us humans.
Another notable fact: 86% of land east of the Mississippi River is privately owned, only 14% is public forest and park land. For a functioning, healthy ecosystem to exist we as individuals must do our part; we are the majority shareholders. The good news is that all of us have the ability to take simple actions that make a real difference.
Ecologists are learning that pollinator habitats need to be connected or near each other because many insects don’t travel far. Native bees such as bumblebees only travel ⅓ mile.This is where the idea of pollinator pathways comes in. Even a balcony or small area of the yard can serve as a valuable link if it provides food, water and nesting material for butterflies, bees and others. This is empowering for it means that each of us can take small steps that collectively have a huge impact. The best part is that we can see this transformation and celebrate our part in making it happen!
A visiting Monarch on sunflowers
5 Easy Steps to Help Pollinators this Year
1) Pledge to eliminate pesticide and herbicide use on your property
Make a commitment to avoid using chemicals on your lawn and garden. Did you know that chemically maintained lawns in the U.S. use more pesticides per acre than food crops? Chemical insecticides kill pollinators and put our families and pets at risk. Let’s do better this year and start using healthier alternatives for pest control. Here are some helpful links:
- Pick or wash bugs off plants
- Pull weeds by hand and mulch gardens to prevent weed growth
- Use biological controls – lady beetles, spiders and others are your soldiers that control damaging pests
- Make your own organic controls, lots of recipes on the web https://www.treehugger.com/natural-homemade-insecticides-save-your-garden-without-killing-earth-4858819
- NEVER USE BROAD SPECTRUM INSECTICIDES
- Never spray any pesticide (including organics) on plants where pollinators are feeding
2) Plant Native plants
Insects tend to be specialists, feeding on a narrow group of plants. Just think of monarchs, their caterpillars ONLY eat milkweed. Without this host plant they cannot survive. Native wildflowers, particularly perennials are usually the best source of pollen and nectar for pollinators. Insects and native plants have a long intertwined evolutionary history and native plants are crucial as host plants for caterpillars. Here are some sites that help in choosing native plants for your yard.
- https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder National Wildlife Foundation site: Clear info with photos based on zip code. Rates plants based on number of pollinators each attracts.
Xerces Society; website gives photos and characteristics of Northeast native plants, also great links to other sites
3) Create a Healthy Lawn
Many of us are in love with the idea of a lush green lawn, unfortunately traditional lawn care practices are an ecological nightmare. The great news is that we can have that lush lawn without the use of hazardous herbicides and highly polluting leaf blowers ruining another Sunday morning! Here is a link to Healthy Yards, an organization that gives a blueprint for healthy yard practices that benefit us and all the creatures who depend on us to provide a healthy ecosystem. https://www.healthyyards.org/homeowners/healthy-lawns/
- Keep it Alive. Don’t use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
- Leave Clippings. Leave clippings, after mowing, on the lawn.
- Leave the leaves wherever possible ( habitat for pollinators & free mulch}, if you use a blower, go electric
- Mow Leaves. Mow the leaves on the lawn.
- Mow High. Let grass grow up to 4 inches. Join the No Mow May movement. Delay spring mowing so that early pollinators have a chance to forage on early blooming plants like clover, violets and dandelions. Without food they will not survive. https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/no-mow-may-for-our-threatened-pollinators
- Plant low growing white clover in your lawn, it adds nitrogen to the soil and feeds early season bees emerging from hibernation
4) Plant or Maintain a Native Tree
Usually when we think of planting for pollinators we visualize a garden of wildflowers, but native trees are a crucial player, supporting an even greater diversity of butterflies and moths than herbaceous plants. Did you know that one native oak tree can support over 500 species of pollinators which in turn are a food source for over 96% of songbirds ( Natl. Wildlife Foundation) If you have a small yard, planting a tree is a great option for providing maximum pollinator value. Flowering trees provide lots of nectar at one time and leaves and bark serve to provide nurture and nesting for wildlife. Maples and willows are great early season sources of nectar for hungry bees coming out of hibernation. Some hybrid ornamental trees look pretty but provide little nectar for pollinators, when in doubt go native. Below are two wonderful local resources for direction.
- Connecticut Pollinator Pathways is a comprehensive link to native trees, shrubs and other native plant lists: https://www.pollinator-pathway.org/native-pollinator-
- This is a great list of pollinator tree ,shrubs, grasses and plants compiled by The Bedford Audubon Society. Also this notes what is deer resistant and the size of the trees! https://bedfordaudubon.org/habitat-gardening/plants-for-habitat-gardening
5) Design for Pollinators
When dreaming of our spring gardens it’s easy to get seduced by the beauty of dramatic blooms in the seed catalogs. I certainly plead guilty on this count. But when our goal is to help pollinators we need to ensure that those beautiful blooms serve them as well. And it’s not only blooms, pollinators need host plants for their young, nesting material ,shelter and water. All of these elements are easy to provide with a little forethought.
- Plant placement can be just as important as plant choice. When planting, plant in drifts (eg groups of 3 like plants together). Pollinators prefer adjacent groupings as this saves them valuable energy instead of flying all over to seek food.
- Within groupings mix caterpillar host plants with nectar plants.
- Do succession planting so that something is in bloom from spring through late fall thus providing a continual food source
- If possible include shrubs, trees and thicket areas to provide shelter and hiding places in your yard
Most of all, experiment with different plants and enjoy making your own discoveries as you observe the visitors to your garden. Browsing beautiful gardens is a great way to get through the January doldrums and now is also the time to cold stratify many native seeds for the garden. https://www.americanmeadows.com/blog/2018/03/07/how-to-cold-stratify-seeds
Below is a link to a good article that clearly outlines the steps and considerations for creating a pollinator garden, and the website has lots of great design ideas and suggested plant groupings. https://www.gardenista.com/posts/native-pollinator-garden-crash-course/
Whether you take one step or all five you will be helping pollinators this year. For me the best part of creating a pollinator friendly garden/ yard is that you see visible results almost immediately. For years I fretted over the “silent springs” when no bees could be seen in our yard. Once I planted pollinator plants such as hyssop, sunflowers and milkweed I began to see bumblebees again, followed by monarchs and swallowtails, all within one summer!
We at TEAC/Tarrytown Pollinator Pathways are here to help in any way that we can. Please reach out if you are interested in joining our efforts to create pollinator patches here in the Village or if you have any questions about healthy yard practices.
We will be distributing free pollinator seed mixes this spring. To reserve a packet please email us now with your name and email and note whether you would like a sun or shade mix. Also please contact us if you have native/pollinator plant seed to donate to this project!