Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hug a Bee! Protect Our Pollinators.

Who said summer is stress-free and relaxing? Good grief, we've been on the go more in the past three weeks of summer vacation than during the school year! Last week, I tallied 159.3 miles driven in ONE DAY, taking the kids to zoo camp and horseback riding lessons. 

Thank goodness I drive a Prius.

Still, I've felt a little stressed this summer for another reason, and it has nothing to do with spending hours in a car.

Our garden is curiously bare.

The pollinators are missing.

Granted, I've seen a few. But in our organic garden, we normally find dozens of caterpillars, happily munching on fennel, dill, and parsley. We watch hummingbirds chase one another around the lantana and the feeders. Butterfly photos crowd my camera, as I try to capture just one. more. shot.

And the bees? Normally, I'm making certain my Epi-pen is within easy grasp.

But this year, the garden is disturbingly quiet.

We've always planted for the pollinators. Whether it's including host plants for larva, like fennel and parsley, or ensuring we have many blooming nectar sources, pollinators typically party in our gardens.

We don't spray--not even organic pesticides, as we know those "safe" sprays can also kill beneficial insects.

Sadly, though, we can't control our neighbors' actions. 

Of course, we worry about colony collapse disorder, but did you hear about the travesty in Oregon, with pesticides killing more than 25,000 bumblebees? Even if we practice organic growing and invite pollinators to our gardens, a mass destruction of pollinators by one irresponsible landscaping company dramatically impacts the ecosystem.

And then, on the heels of the Oregon disaster, 37 million honeybees died in Elmwood, Ontario. The cause? Experts point to insecticides called neonicotinoids, used in planting corn and other crops, as the likely culprit.

It's heartbreaking. Obviously, our garden is not alone in pollinator decline.

Have you seen the photos from Whole Foods Market making the rounds on Facebook? Without pollinators, our selections for dinner look rather bleak.

Ironically, this spring I added two small pollinator gardens near our large kitchen garden, hoping to showcase the importance of planting for pollinators. Granted, I installed the gardens quickly prior to the CFSA Farm Tour so that we could jump-start conversations about the need to protect pollinators. (We already have many host plants in the herb garden and forest surrounding the raised beds.)

It worked well--at least, in launching conversations. But to my dismay, many of the host plants remain pristine, while in previous years we joked about the decimated dill and holey parsley. We WANT these plants to look ratty and tattered, because it means that lovely little caterpillars are getting the nutrition they need to become beautiful butterflies.

Bees and butterflies aren't alone in needing protection. Pesticides affect birds, too, killing off their food sources and impacting their health. Other pollinators, like bats, are succumbing to disease. White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease, is responsible for killing millions of bats. While bats are known to eat mosquitoes, we often overlook their contribution to agriculture. Not only do they feast on crop-damaging caterpillars, but they also pollinate certain plants, like agaves. Along with the disease, pesticides also contribute to population decline.

With the bleak news, what can we do to protect our pollinators?

Plant a pollinator garden--You Can Grow That!

First, though, take a pledge to eliminate pesticides in your garden--and encourage your neighbors and homeowners' associations to ban pesticides, too. Honestly? Even "natural" pesticides wreck havoc on beneficial insects. Hand picking pests is much healthier for the environment than spraying poison.

Next, familiarize yourself with the species that live in your area and plant larval host plants, as well as nectar sources, suitable for those pollinators. You can find a list of butterflies in your area by entering your zip code here.

When planning your pollinator garden, choose a variety of plant materials that will provide nectar sources throughout the season. Mix early blooming, mid- and late-blooming annuals and perennials to ensure an adequate supply of food and energy for the pollinators. 

Water, too, is important for attracting pollinators. Birds, bees, and butterflies all benefit from water sources in your garden, from a bird bath or pond to a shallow dish of water. Also necessary is shelter for pollinators. Add a bat box to your garden. Plant trees to encourage nesting. Learn the pollinator species common to your area, and encourage them to make your garden their home.

For instance, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies reside in my area in South Carolina. When planning our pollinator garden, I looked here to find their host plants, as well as their favorite nectar sources. The caterpillars consume leaves on many of the trees in our forest, such as wild cherry, sweetbay, tulip tree, birch, ash, cottonwood, and willow. For this butterfly, I didn't need to add a host plant, as we already have numerous trees on our property to provide food for the caterpillars. However, I did add some nectar sources. While they enjoy lilac, the bloom time is short in SC, so I added milkweed and Joe-Pye weed to the mix.

Additionally, some plants attract more than one type of pollinator. Passion flower, for instance, serves as a host plant for gulf fritillary caterpillars, while attracting hummingbirds and butterflies with its stunning purple flower for nectar.

Also in my area, black swallowtails use dill as a host plant, with caterpillars consuming the herb. Dill is another good dual purpose plant in a pollinator garden, though, because its flowers also attract lady bugs, predatory and parasitic wasps.

For a list of perennials and annuals to plant in your pollinator garden, check here

Planning and planting a pollinator garden is a perfect family activity. Many of the plants are easily grown from seed, such as zinnias and sunflowers, and the garden provides an excellent learning opportunity to teach our next generation of gardeners the importance of growing sustainably to protect our pollinators. There are many stories to tell and lessons to learn in growing a pollinator garden.

Besides, who doesn't get a thrill when Ms. Monarch pays a visit?

I know I do!

Here's hoping that perhaps our lack of pollinator activity is due to our very wet spring--crossing fingers and toes that with a little more sunshine, we'll find a pollinator party in the gardens.



You Can Grow That! is hosted on the 4th of each month, with garden writers sharing the joys of growing gardens.

Shared with From the Farm Blog Hop and The Backyard Farming Connection.


  1. I am missing pollinators too. Last year we had a lot of honeybees and bumblebees. Hardly any this year. I haven't seen a hummingbird either. So sad.

    1. I'm finally seeing a few more butterflies and hummingbirds, but the caterpillars are scarce this year...which doesn't bode well for our gardens.

  2. The bumblebee die off that happened in OR has me thinking about pollinators as well. I live about a half hour away from where it happened and it was sad that so many bees died from visiting sprayed trees in a target parking lot. That was all it took to kill so many bees. I hope this state becomes more strict in the use of pesticides. I like the bees and the produce we grow here! I still see lots of honeybees and bumblebees in my garden. They love this bush I am dying to take out and I probably will take it out but I will plant some alternatives for the bees.

    Another great post, Julie!

    1. Thanks, Stacy. The pollinators seem to be picking up a bit as the summer progresses, and I wonder if all of our incredibly wet weather impacted their arrival? Still--the caterpillars are scarce. We saw lots of ladybug larva in the spring, but I'm not seeing many ladybugs now--and we even ordered extra for our gardens. Just so disconcerting--but I'm glad you're seeing pollinators in your garden!

  3. Good info Julie. We sure have a lot of bumbles in my garden, very few honey bees.
    Love the hummingbird picture, great capture. (great bee pics too!)

    1. Thanks, Janet. We definitely saw plenty of pollinators when we toured your garden, thank goodness!

  4. What a valuable post. We plant for pollinators and have friends in the neighborhood who host caterpillars too. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Thanks, Daisy--I'm so glad you encourage pollinators in your garden! I hope our garden has more guests soon! :-)

  5. Great post! As a local beekeeper and president of the local beekeepers' group, I can't tell you how many times this year I've heard people tell me that they're just not seeing the number of bees they used to.

    I think the final mortality rate there in Oregon actually ended up at 50,000--what a tragedy! And one that could have been prevented if folks were only more tolerant of nature and it's natural processes.

    You've provided a very good guide here, I hope it encourages more home-owners to take action to help their local pollinators. They need every friend they can get!!!

    1. Samantha, congratulations to you for all of your efforts in helping our pollinators! I hadn't heard the updated count in Oregon--just horrifying. Ironically, I'm extremely allergic to bees and keep an Epi-pen always close by, but I sincerely hope we see an upswing of pollinators in our garden as the summer progresses. Right now, we're spotting a few more, but I still have completely intact dill, parsley, and fennel....which NEVER happens. Crossing my fingers that we're soon feeding some caterpillars and seeing more bees among the nectar plants. Thanks for the work you do!

  6. I live in a rather isolated neighborhood so my bee population seems to be as usual. It is scary what is going on in other areas, especially scary the treated seeds that affect bees. I plant lots of greens like kale, collards, turnips, and radishes every year that overwinter then go to seed the next year so they make a big block of yellow blooms in the spring that bees really love. I also have big blocks of mints that make lots of bees happy.

    1. Hannah, I'm glad your area doesn't seem to be affected. The bees love when the brassicas flower, don't they? I left ours for quite awhile past their prime. We just moved our lavender to a new location, and it seems the bees have found it. (It was along the front path, and since I'm allergic to bees--it was becoming a little too risky to leave it hanging over the walkway. It's now relocated to the kitchen garden.) Here's hoping that the pollinator population finds our organic gardens!