Pollinators in Our Backyards

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Last year, a representative from the New York State Pollinator Protection Plan mailed a questionnaire to me asking for recommendations on how the greater Albany area could better maintain landscapes friendly to honeybees and other pollinators. Honeybees are critical to the State’s agricultural economy, of course. New York has more than seven million acres in agricultural production. Apples, cabbage, and berries, among other produce, rely heavily on pollination. However, over the past several years, bee colony loss has been dramatic – sometimes exceeding 50 percent – with an average winter loss of 40 percent throughout the country. The reasons for the losses are numerous: parasites, pathogens, pesticide exposure, nutrient deficiencies for foraging, migration practices, and habitat loss are all among the reasons for bee colony demise.

But the most harmful stressor is most likely a particular class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, which are used on crops and in urban landscapes, where they then make their way into plants’ pollen and bees’ nectar sources. No doubt, this is an unsustainable route for State agriculture and honeybee survival. Governor Cuomo understands this. And the Pollinator Task Force, convened as part of the Pollinator Protection Plan, is at least one way of addressing the problem.

I replied to the State’s questionnaire with what I thought was a reasonable suggestion.

The Loudonville Reservoir is less than a mile from our home on Albany Shaker Road. Our neighbor once mentioned that the Town Water Board partnered with a local farm to employ goats to chew through the overgrowth of grasses, sumac, and grapevines. I thought he was kidding, until I read this article. If the municipality could employ goats to mow the lawn, I thought, then surely the State Task Force could persuade the Water Board to let large swaths of grass give way to a meadow and wildflower terrain for bee foraging.

Now I think of that questionnaire every time I drive by the reservoir. It’s at least 10 acres, not including the actual reservoir tanks, and is completely fenced in. City employees cut every inch of the grass down to golf course level, and I wonder why this is necessary. On one hand, I get it. It’s the municipal water supply and it needs to be maintained as a work area. But how about seeding a small portion, even just one acre of it, with wildflowers?

Creating a Pollinator-Friendly Environment

Beekeepers take in the surrounding landscape differently than most. Knowing what helps bees thrive, we look around and ask: Why are highway median strips mowed? Or, closer to home, what about the obsession with the lawn on Sunday mornings, to maintain the neatly trimmed plot of grass? (I will save the leaf blower rant for a future article.) Why do beekeepers have to encourage the neighbors to stop spraying poison around the yard? You may not have the power or influence to enlighten a township’s Public Works division on a greener landscape, but there are plenty of strategies to consider implementing in your own backyard, to promote a pollinator-friendly environment. And this is not just for a honeybee’s welfare; hummingbirds and butterflies are pollinators who also thrive in the same environment.

Late May is typically the most opportune time to start planting in the backyard. But, here in the Northeast, mid-to-late June should afford enough time, especially if you are not starting from seed. First, steer clear of box stores when purchasing pollinator plants and flowers. Many home-garden plants promoted as “bee friendly” are actually pre-treated with a range of pesticides that are toxic to bees and other pollinating insects. Honest Weight’s Plants Department carries a range of organic plants and flowers, and the Plants staff is well-versed in home gardening (look for a follow-up article in our July issue from the Plant Department staff).

Consider planting at least three different types of flowers to ensure blooms through as many seasons as possible, and provide bees and other pollinator insects with a continuous source of food. For starters, Crocus, hyacinth, borage, calendula, and wild lilac offer fragrant and colorful spring blooms. Even though the first days of summer are just here, you can still plan ahead for this group with seeds or bulbs. Our previous homeowner planted hyacinth along the front entrance to our home. They didn’t blossom last year because of the cold snap in April, but this year they did, and my bees were all over them this past spring.

Summer planting offers a long list of choices. Bees love cosmos, bee balm, echinacea, and hyssop! Some gardeners have included hostas in this star line-up, but I can’t vouch for hostas yet. Our front driveway has two long rows of hostas on either side, and I have never noticed bees on their flowers. You can diversify summer planting with an herb garden, which is great for bees and for the summer kitchen menu. Lavender, thyme, mint, and rosemary top the list here.

For fall, zinnias, anything in the aster family, witch hazel, and goldenrod are late bloomers that attract pollen foragers. You will sow most of the above by late summer—I’ve also planted zinnias in June—but these make the fall list for their cold hardiness. And if you haven’t already noticed, goldenrod does well enough on its own all over this area, but it still provides a colorful addition to a home garden.

The crowning piece and, in some ways, the easiest method in this three-stage plan is wildflower seed. Advice varies on when to (literally) toss the seed into your garden soil. I threw a packet of seeds in our backyard two years ago in late May with minimal work on turning the soil. Most everything blossomed by very late summer, and this same batch of seeds has still provided a full bloom since the original planting.  I’ve also carried out the same process in late fall and early spring—after the last frost—with excellent results. Wildflower seed is resilient and reliable, and it puts a bright finishing touch on a backyard garden landscape.

Keep in mind these plants and flowers are a short list of suggestions. Depending on the region and climate, some plants will work better than others. I have followed this list of recommended plants for bees for several years now, with real success.

Finally, it is easy to forget that bees and other insects need water. I have seen this weird set up on too many websites. But bees will also thank you for an old-fashioned birdbath.