Roots and Shoots: Praise the Pollinators

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Although National Pollinator Week ends on Sunday (June 26), efforts to support and conserve pollinators are a year-round endeavor and anyone with a yard or a patch of land to tend can be an important part of it. 

When I visit our veterinarian’s office, I always appreciate the traffic circle in the parking lot that is bursting with milkweed and other native plants. Someone took care and attention to create that habitat of bee and butterfly goodness and it reflects the values of the business, too. 

Gardening success as defined by losing your parsley to hungry swallowtail caterpillars

Gardening success as defined by losing your parsley to hungry swallowtail caterpillars (Photo by P. Doan)

My recent count is 11 native-plant garden beds in my yard. Most of it has happened through necessity, rather than planning. I removed something without ecological usefulness and had to put something else in its place. While I approach garden planning for other people from a comprehensive perspective, considering all the elements and step-by-step planting with all the details laid out, my own yard is more of an “Oh no! Now I’ve got to put something there!”  

Pull out the forsythia, replace it with any native plant I can get my hands on with a little bit of foresight to put taller plants in the back or something like that. Not super intentional, but it has made an impact. 

Tending to all these beds gets easier, though. As the plants grow in and seed themselves and move around, every year the ratio of desired plants to weeds gets lower. If there isn’t bare soil, there isn’t a place for a weed to move in. I’m also experimenting with cutting instead of pulling weeds. 

During a workshop on meadow design last fall, the landscape architect leading it mentioned that he has lived in his home for 30 years and built up the landscape with native plants, shrubs and trees. He cuts the weeds instead of hand-pulling, so now the seedbed is predominantly native plants, not weeds or invasive plants. As we seek to regenerate our landscapes, that method made a lot of sense to me. 

We need a national campaign like Pollinator Week to increase awareness of the threats our native pollinators face and how to help them. Eighty percent of plants need pollination and much of our food system relies on pollinators. Those are two big reasons to care. In the U.S., there are 4,000 species of native bees and more than 400 of those are found in New York state. Most people probably wouldn’t recognize one, so strong is our lack of insect knowledge. (The honeybee is European and doesn’t count in this survey.)

A pollinator is any insect that moves from flower to flower collecting pollen. For example, a bee stops by the flower on a tomato, and grains of pollen from the flower’s anther, or male part, stick to its body. When the bee stops by another tomato flower, the pollen will rub off on the stigma, or female part. Reproduction! Fruit and seeds are conceived. 

Bees are the pollinators most commonly considered but butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds and bats are also pollinators. Some plants are wind-pollinated. 

Each of these species has special ways to survive, and plants and pollinators depend on each other. Monarchs need milkweed to lay their eggs. The caterpillars feed on the leaves, then — voila! — metamorphosis and iconic butterflies. Every native plant has an insect that it supports as food or habitat or a pollen source. That is their ecosystem. 

The Pollinator Week program recommends community and public activities — great ideas for the Hudson Highlands for 2023 that can be implemented for people of all ages. The Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation organization that works on policy, public and private programs, recommends three steps that can be effective in any yard: 

  • Landscape with native plants that preserve and support those plant/pollinator relationships.
  • Allow space for bare ground for ground nesting bees, brush piles for places to spend the winter, or even put in a mason bee house or something similar. 
  • Use pesticides sparingly, if at all. Insecticides won’t just kill mosquitoes, they will kill anything that comes in contact with the poisonous chemicals. If pesticides can’t be avoided, be sure they are applied according to the label’s instructions to minimize consequences. 

Xerces also advocates for pollinators and has many useful resources that can be shared through workshops, social media and community groups. Locally, the Pollinator Pathway networks aim to create refugia or linked landscapes that support pollinators. More on those programs to come. 

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