Starting at a very young age, most of us are indoctrinated into a lifelong abhorrence to anything we consider creepy or crawly. Bugs are Bad! Goes the mantra, the only good bugs are dead ones, and so on. There is a great deal of propaganda aimed at eradicating pests, living in clean, sterile environments, and simply negative stereotypes that persist about them. Aisles of aerosol cans, pump sprayers, and concentrated bottles of poison line the shelves of garden centers in every big box store across the country, readily available to any consumer ready to blast bugs of every kind into oblivion.
We learn to aspire to have immaculate houses, surrounded by a perfectly manicured expanse of lawn, and a few bushes of ornamental value, free from unsightly debris or any places creepy crawlies might find a hiding spot. Entire neighborhoods have sprung up, each home and lawn aspiring to the same tidy principles. Hundreds of gallons of insecticide are sprayed by those same homeowners, each striving to appease their HOAs. These microscopic manors, lorded over by their sprayer-wielding masters are the Jones’ that everyone wants to keep up with, the new norm.
But it hasn’t always been this way. prior to the 1940’s, before the invention of commercially produced pesticides, suburban estates were abuzz with activity. The small, oft unnoticed tasks performed by these minute laborers went on as it had for millennia, unaided by, nor hindered by, human hands. Each year, the contract signed between the plant and animal kingdom was renewed, each doing their part, from worms and beetles converting fallen leaves and logs into soil, in which plants of all varieties take root, some of them becoming food for caterpillars and other insects. Each having a simple goal, to propagate their prospective species. Some plants grow to sexual maturity, and develop reproductive organs that we call flowers. It is the insects that evolved with the plant kingdom’s colorful, perfumed, sometimes even deadly displays that this publication is about, along with some of their furry and feathered friends- the pollinators.
While there are many noteworthy denizens in your yard, happily performing the labors mother nature tasked them with, few are as remarkable as the sect we call pollinators. A pollinator is not, by nature some lofty angel with pure intent. They are driven by animal instincts we might recognize within ourselves. Every being living on this planet must have certain needs met in order to sustain life.
- Air: Hopefully you have some of this around already. It’s free. You can’t see it, but you would definitely know if it was gone.
- Water: The common unifying theme in life as we know it on the blue planet is a need for water. Amounts vary drastically between species, but in no known species is a complete lack of water ever enough. Life as we know it can not exist without water.
- Food: Everything eats something. Even plants need nutrients found in soils. For pollinators, it’s what’s inside the pretty blossoms that are most important- the nectar, but in the larval stage of butterflies, those plants that caterpillars munch on are essential.
- Shelter: This one is not true for every member of the animal kingdom. Creatures from whales to fleas spend their entire lives as homeless vagabonds, but most pollinators need a home of some sort, even as simple as a hollow stick for some species.
- Reproduction: While not necessary for an individual’s life, reproduction is vital to carry on any given species. Without genetic reproduction, all species would go extinct, so this counts as criteria insofar as we are concerned.
Without satisfying those simple needs, you simply can not maintain a population of pollinators, or any other beneficial creatures. They will leave for greener pastures, somewhere that their needs are met, or perish. Simple.
Pollinators perform an essential role, serving as the carrier of genetic material between plants of the same species, and even others, producing hybrids and new varieties. Without them there is no sex happening between plants. No sex=no babies. Plant babies are seeds, often found in yummy fruits. It is for this reason alone that pollinators stand above the crowd of other insects, birds, and mammals.
Given that information, it is essential that we create pollinator friendly habitats wherever we can, because the natural meadows and hammocks these small animals once lived in is gone. None spared the bulldozer, acre after acre “developed” for human use. Rows of scorching shingle roofs, sterile, pesticide-laden lawns, are separated by serpentine ribbons of burning asphalt. Huge expanses of blacktop radiate from white, rubber rooftops, and are populated by metal behemoths that kill upon impact. This. This, friends, is the sad reality which our minute friends face. A true gauntlet of human activity. We wantonly destroy habitat without a second thought that we are destroying the homes of countless small beings who also deserve to live.
The way we can help replace habitat is to turn our suburban lots into pollinator friendly place. we must provide their needs, or they will go somewhere to die in a parking lot somewhere, or meet some other horrible fate. We need to provide what it is that they require to live. We need to meet their needs. Air is kind of a given. If you don’t already have that, you are likely feeling dizzy about now and will die soon, so we won’t go over that.
The next item on the checklist is water. It gets hot out there while one is busy as a bee. Many ponds you see suffer from runoff, and are often treated with aquatic herbicides. Not exactly a tasty brew. What we can do is use a dish, like a plate or shallow bowl that has gently sloping sides. Then place marbles or glass beads in the dish. Place the dish where you have seen pollinators, or near where you are going to install some nectar plants. Fill the dish to where the beads resemble little islands. Bees and butterflies can safely perch and drink their fill when temperatures rise.
Hummingbirds benefit from homeowners hanging their special feeders in a safe location away from where they might be preyed upon while drinking. They, and every bird, enjoy a splash or two in a bird bath, so having one of those is also a thoughtful addition. Creating a water feature with a sloping, muddy shore would also serve as a source of building material for some native bees. Water features are dragonfly nurseries, too. These colorful creatures are skilled flyers and can consume 100 mosquitoes per hour. Water is truly the catalyst for life, and by bringing some of the precious fluid into your landscape, you can help improve the lives of many small beings.
After hydrating, the quest for nourishment takes center stage. just as children ask their parents what’s for dinner, the small stomachs of these frequent fliers is often in need of replenishment. What’s for dinner? Nectar. Also lunch, and breakfast. Not really, but it is a hefty portion of their diet. Hummingbirds eat insects as well, plucking friends and foes alike, upon spying them as they forage for nectar. Butterflies love nectar more than anything, but sometimes butterflies are into blood, sweat, tears, and rotting corpses. Butterflies are hard core!
Bees stick mostly to nectar, but they also collect pollen in special saddle bag like divots on their back legs with stiff hairs that hold it like a basket. They store pollen cakes that they make with the bee larvae to eat when they first emerge as baby bees. Mud dauber wasps leave their babies a snack of paralyzed spiders, so they are like the Addams family of the vespid world, and being born a bee sounds a bit tastier, at least. Most pollinators, especially native Florida bees are tiny, so a journey from flower bed to flower bed is a really long commute, so the best thing we can do to help our pollinator friends is plant more plants.
(That is the part you show to your significant other to convince them the trip to a nursery is really necessary) But really, planting more plants, and those with overlapping blooming times keeps the little travelers fed well and makes the yard more beautiful. Everyone wins with that strategy! But let us not forget the larval stages of butterflies and moths. Caterpillars need a good deal of plant material to munch on, and also gardeners who not only accept it when it happens, but also expect it to happen, and plant with that in mind. Milkweeds native to your area are the primary food source for monarchs, and the means by which they achieve their unpleasant taste. Planting the right mixture of plants for both flowers and edible foliage. Pollinators will be thrilled to learn about the posh, new dining district that just opened in downtown your yard.
Shelter takes many forms, as species evolved ways to avoid dying from exposure. Some dug underground, others took to the trees, and still others crafted little bungalows to their liking with bits of nesting material they discovered while on the wing. They also need somewhere to hide from predators while out foraging. Consider a hedge with some different trees mixed in. it is akin to a coral reef, in the way the residents duck out of sight when they see a shark. In their world, the sharks are cats, and predatory birds the barracuda. Pollinators need cover that is close enough to their food source so that they might use them when danger is nearby.
Mason bees have special houses made of stacked reeds or hollow wood tubes no bigger than 1/2″ diameter. Alternatively, holes can be drilled into stumps or ends of logs, using an appropriately sized drill bit. Bumblebees make nests in log cavities or the interior of perennial grass clumps, except the males, that is. They have been observed sleeping inside of bell shaped flowers, under leaves, or just clinging to twigs on trees. They are like the bachelors of the bee world, crashing wherever they can find a cozy spot. Other types of bees make tunnels in bare dirt, so try to leave a patch near the flowerbeds.
By now you may have seen “Bee hotels” and “butterfly houses” on Pinterest or social media, but research seems to indicate less desirable residents may call these home, and actually ambushing visitors. A better option may be to leave building materials undisturbed, where pollinators can access them at their discretion. Bat houses, when built of the appropriate materials and placed somewhere they will actually use. While bats may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of pollinators, many species of plants which bloom at night depend on them and moths for successful fruiting. The single most important choice any homeowner can make is to avoid spraying pesticides, using integrated pest management methods instead. There are new types of systemic pesticides out now that make the whole plant able to deliver a deadly dose of poison to any bug unlucky enough to ingest any of it, even the nectar and pollen, long after application. By avoiding these products in particular, anyone can make their homestead a safer place for pollinators to raise a family.
Which brings up the next item: reproduction. It’s all about the birds and the bees, we’re taught, when it comes to sexual relations. We don’t need to interfere in the love lives of these little creatures. What we need to do is ensure that hummingbirds have a safe place to build a tiny nest, away from cats and other predators. We need to let the insects build their love shacks and bungalows, and not focus so much on having spotless outdoor spaces like the home and garden magazines showcase on their covers. If butterflies are your thing, make sure to grow species for them to lay eggs on, or they will leave to go find them elsewhere.
In essence, attracting and keeping pollinators is as simple as making your yard the trending new spot in downtown Gardenville. Just as people seek out real estate listings featuring great amenities nearby, so do the small, but important community of birds, insects, and mammals. Pack garden beds with annuals, herbs, and flowering perennials. This jumble of plants confuses bad bugs and provides prime hunting ground for lady bugs, arachnids, and other predators, as well as provide a never ending nectar buffet. Attracting and keeping pollinators in our yards is one of the most noble ambitions we as gardeners and stewards of the land we should aspire to. With the right pest management in plan, and the right plants and other elements in the landscape, it is a goal within easy reach.
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