As you’re planning your garden this spring, consider ways to make your garden a haven for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
Why plant for pollinators?
Nearly 1 in 3 bites of food we eat are directly attributable to pollinators! And pollinators are responsible for the reproduction of more than 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants.
But pollinators are in trouble. Commercial beekeepers report about a 33 percent loss in hives each of the last six years (nearly twice the “acceptable loss” of 15 percent). The U.S. is home to more than 3500 species of native bees, but many have experienced catastrophic decline, including four species of native bumble bees.
What can you do to help reverse the decline?
1. Stop using pesticides
Pesticides may kill bees directly or have a sub-lethal effect that reduces the number of offspring they can produce. Herbicides leave traces in the pollen that bees eat and knock out habitat as well. Even organic pesticides can have an adverse effect on bees, including wiping out the next generation of pollinators and beneficial insects.
Instead, focus on creating a healthy, organic garden that resists pests and disease by putting the right plant in the right place, planting a wide diversity of species, and using mechanical controls like picking and row covers to protect plants from pest insects.
2. Plant for pollinators
Pollinators need sources of both nectar and pollen. Aim to have at least three species in bloom from very early spring to very late fall. Plant a diverse mix of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals so that bloom times overlap.
Build your pollinator garden around native plants, which are four times as attractive to our native bees as exotic plants are. For a list of garden-worthy natives, check out the Indiana Native Plant Society. You can supplement these native plants with bee-friendly exotics like borage, cosmos, mint, and the Mediterranean herbs (rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, and oregano).
Bees exhibit “flower fidelity,” which means they prefer to forage one kind of flower at a time. Make it easy for them by planting in groups of single species. Mix swathes of different flower shapes (daisy-like composites, tube-like bells, etc.) in the same border.
3. Create habitat
The majority of our native bees are solitary bees rather than social ones like honey bees. These native bees make their nests in piles of sticks, rotted out stumps, and bits of bare earth.
To provide habitat, leave your garden a little bit messy. Leave a few bare spots of soil (with no mulch), to encourage ground-nesting bees. Plant hosts for butterfly larvae and leave plants standing over the winter. Leave a brush pile or a small bundle of sticks tucked in the back of the border.