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North Hills Monthly

Create a Pollinator Habitat to Attract Birds and Bees

Aug 31, 2015 11:36AM ● By Denise Schreiber
“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”
— Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

There are songs about the birds and the bees, and we talk to our children about the ‘birds and the bees,’ but did you ever think about actually doing something for them? Now is the time to start thinking about next year in the garden and planting a pollinator habitat.

Take a look around your yard, and see how many birds and bees are flying from plant to plant, inadvertently pollinating them. As honeybees gather pollen and nectar for their survival, they pollinate crops such as apples, cranberries, melons and broccoli. Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90 percent dependent on honeybee pollination; one crop, almonds, depends entirely on the honeybee for pollination at bloom time.

For other crops, the yield and quality can be greatly reduced without honeybee pollination. In fact, a 1999 Cornell University study documented the contribution made by managed honeybees hired by U.S. crop growers to pollinate crops—it amounted to just over $14.6 billion.

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower of the same species, which results in fertilization of plant ovaries and the production of seeds. The main insect pollinators, by far, are bees, and while European honeybees are the best-known and widely managed pollinators, there are also hundreds of other species of bees.

Bees help produce an abundance of safe, nutritious food. Honeybees are very much a part of modern agriculture. It’s estimated that there are about 2.4 million colonies in the U.S. today, two-thirds of which travel the country with beekeepers each year, pollinating crops and producing honey and beeswax. More than one million bee colonies are used each year in California just to pollinate the state’s almond crop!

Pollinating insects also play a critical role in maintaining natural plant communities and ensuring production of seeds in most flowering plants. Not only are European honeybees pollinators, but wasps, flies, bumblebees, carpenter bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and bats are also part of the pollination world.

There has been a lot of talk in the news about neonicotinoids killing bees; the insecticide did a major bee kill in the Northwest because the applicators didn’t read the label which said, ‘Do not apply when bees are foraging.’ They sprayed while the bees were visiting the flowers. The insecticide is a powerful tool in agriculture, and banning it could be more costly since it is normally safer than most other insecticides.

So how to you help protect and encourage pollinators? Plant flowers—annuals and perennials that are attractive to them. Some favorites include asters, butterfly weed, clover, coneflowers, daylilies, lantana, lavender, Russian sage and zinnias. Don’t forget native plants, too, as well as flowering trees and shrubs.

Fruit trees and vegetables are also important for pollinators as they provide food and shelter. Fennel and dill are great plants for swallowtail butterfly larvae to feast upon before becoming adults.

If you’d like to do more, consider becoming a beekeeper with a couple of hives at your home. (Check with local ordinances first because sometimes there are limits on how many hives are permitted at a residence.) Classes in introductory and advanced beekeeping are offered by Burgh Bees in the fall and winter (http://burghbees.com). There are also community apiaries where you can ‘rent’ the hive and bees if you can’t have them at your home. Beekeeping equipment can be as simple or as complicated as you need it to be for your project.

Hummingbirds, another pollinator, love flowers, especially tubular flowers such as salvia, fuchsia, petunias, anise hyssop, morning glory, honeysuckle and trumpet vine. These flying jewels are fond of the color red, but will feed on yellow, orange and purple flowers as well.

And I need to mention the hummingbird moth. Many times it is mistaken for a big bee, when in fact it is a moth. It is very large and usually tan in color with a long proboscis like a hummingbird. They are totally harmless and great pollinators, and if you are lucky, they will even hover long enough for a photo.

Remember to provide some water for the birds and the bees. A shallow dish filled with water is great for bees and butterflies, whereas a regular birdbath is ideal for the birds. Just remember to clean out leaves and other debris.