5 Simple Tips to Turn Your Yard Into Pollinator Paradise

Bumble bee on New England Aster in Nebraska. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

When I stepped outside this morning, our yard was abuzz – literally – with activity. Bumble bees, wasps, butterflies and moths hovered over the plentiful flowers. Pollinator paradise.

Summer is the time of plenty for native pollinators. And they’re binging.

But creating pollinator habitat in your yard or garden means more than summer blooms.

Think of summer as the pollinator’s Thansksgiving dinner. There’s lots of food, easily accessible.

But also consider this: When you sit down to a holiday meal with all the fixings, you might be so stuffed you can’t think of food. You might even say “I’ll never eat again!”

The next day comes, though, and you do indeed eat again. Even multiple plates of turkey and the fixings are not enough to fuel you for a year. It’s the same with bumble bees and other pollinators: Summer flowers are great, but they are not enough to sustain healthy pollinator populations.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to create a pollinator paradise. This is a conservation initiative where you can create important habitat with just a small strip of plants in your backyard or garden or back porch (even one pot of flowering plants can create vital habitat).

How do you ensure that pollinators have healthy food, a place to nest and livable conditions?

Here are five tips to get you started, with thanks to The Xerces Society, an organization devoted to invertebrate conservation that has much more incredibly useful information on creating pollinator habitat in yards, farms, roadsides and even golf courses.

  1. Build it and they will come.

    A soldier beetle visits habitat restored by the Conservancy in Nebraska. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

    If you plant pollinator-friendly plants, the pollinators will find it. Really. It’s that simple.

    Conservationists often speak about small fragments of habitat as a bad thing. But a fragment of your backyard devoted to pollinator habitat can make a huge difference for conservation. That’s why the Xerces Society has a goal of one million pollinator-friendly yards across the United States – one million little bits of habitat add up to a lot of ecosystem services.

    OK, so you are on board with devoting a corner of your yard to pollinator-friendly plants. What do you plant?

  2. Create an all-season buffet.

    A pollinator garden. Photo © London Permaculture/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

    When you begin planting, the key is to plant a diversity of plants that flower at different times of year. You are creating a season-long feast rather than requiring insects to live on one Thanksgiving banquet.

    How do you know what to plant? The Xerces Society is your friend. Its web site has a guide to the best plants pollinators in your geographic region.

    Right now, the bumble bees and butterflies are easiest to notice, but don’t discount the importance of early-season flowers.

    My wife Jennifer, who works on pollinator conservation for the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, keeps close track of when of the pollinating insects that visit our Idaho yard. This year, she recorded the first bumble bee on March 12 – a hungry and eager visitor to our early-season blooms.

    In early March, food is hard to come by for a bumble bee. Having a variety of flowers ensures these creatures can make it through the year.

  3. Grin and bare it. (The soil, that is).

    A bee or wasp digs a burrow in loose soil. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

    You might think that bare ground has very low value as wildlife habitat. And you’d be wrong.

    We often associate bee nests with hives. About 70 percent of native bees, however, nest in the ground. They dig little burrows that are used for rearing their young. Leaving a bare spot of earth near your pollinator garden can take care of most of the bee’s life needs in a small area.

    This is important: Many native bee species do not move very far. Bumble bees can cover longer distances (up to two miles). Many species only travel a few hundred feet or less.

  4. Think beyond the honey bee.

    Melissodes bee on sunflower. There are more than 4,000 native bee species in North America. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

    In the popular media, pollinator conservation is all about honey bees. While the honey bee – and its sweet product – is easy to love, it is only one on a large list of pollinating insects.

    And it is not the most effective.

    Whoever coined the phrase “busy as a bee” may not have meant the honey bee. The honey bee is rather picky and inefficient compared to other species. It’s also not native.

    There are some 4,000 native bee species in North America – a veritable pollinating army. Add to that pollinating wasps, butterflies, moths, birds, bats and more. So when you’re thinking pollinator habitat, go beyond the honey bee.

  5. Lay off the spray.

    Photo © greensefa/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

    In 2013, a parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon was littered with 50,000 dead bumble bees.

    The cause? A pesticide known as a neonicotinoid, legal to use but deadly for insects – including native pollinators.

    The bumble bee die-offs have continued, including hundreds found dead in Portland in June.

    These uses of neonicotinoids are not protecting agricultural crops – they’re used purely for cosmetic purposes around yards and residential developments. Even if you spray your yard but not your pollinator habitat, the pesticides can drift and kill feeding or nesting bees.

    The Xerces Society believes this simple act – not spraying – is one of the biggest things you can do to help pollinators.

    These insects provide millions of dollars in ecosystem services each year by pollinating agricultural crops, and are a key component of wildlife ecosystems.

    Open up the season-long buffet line, and soon you’ll have a yard buzzing with bees and butterflies.

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

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