pollinator-friendly gardening, with kelly gill (win a how-to guide)

bumblebee detailOUR GARDENS AND FARMS—and lives—depend on pollinators such as bees, but these critical creatures are under grave pressure. Can gardeners help? Entomologist and pollinator-conservation specialist Kelly Gill says yes: by learning more about the life cycles of bees, particularly our native species, and acting more hospitably. Two copies of “Attracting Native Pollinators” from the Xerces Society are up for grabs in the latest giveaway.

Kelly is a Pollinator Conservation Specialist for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. In her dual role, she is also a partner biologist, based in New Jersey, with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Kelly, who took her Masters in Entomology at Iowa State, provides technical support for planning, installing, and managing pollinator habitat across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States. She also conducts research aimed at the development of best practices for conserving beneficial insects in agricultural landscapes.

Our Q&A follows, from the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program (details on how to subscribe to the podcast are at the bottom of the page):

pollinators on garlic chives

my q&a on pollinator conservation and gardening

Q. Before we get started, Kelly: Xerces.org–it’s one of those words I hear pronounced in two ways, as if the C in the middle is a K, and as if it’s an S. Which is right? And how did the society take that name—originally the name of an ancient Persian king, spelled Xerxes, I think?

A.  We say it as if it’s an S, and it’s named after the Xerces blue butterfly. When the society began, we were focused on butterfly conservation, before our programs widened, and the Xerces blue is the first butterfly thought to go extinct due to human activity. [It lived in the San Francisco Bay Area].

Squash blossom with beeQ. It may seem obvious that pollinators are important to our food supply and our environment, but what key plants do they interact with, and to what extent?

A. About 35 percent of our crop production worldwide can be traced back to some kind of insect pollinator. And that pollinator is usually a bee. That’s worth billions of dollars to U.S. crops annually. About $18 billion to $27 billion worth of crops here depend on pollinators—hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide.

One in every three mouthfuls of food we eat and drink can be traced back to a pollinator, including most of most vitamin-rich and nutritious foods.

apple blossomsQ. Some examples of insect-pollinated crops?

A. Some of our favorite fruits are insect-pollinated (including apples [blossoms above in Margaret’s garden], peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries) and some of our favorite vegetables, such as the cucurbits (squash and melons and pumpkin).

And then you also think about it beyond the obvious—of crops like alfalfa, that are grown for seed to feed our livestock. To get that seed, those plants need to be pollinated.

Q. In the East and elsewhere, many or maybe even most of our wildflowers, for instance, also rely on insect pollinators to reproduce and thrive.

A. You hit on one of the big ecosystem services that pollinators not only provide to humans, but to wildlife as well. Pollinator-produced fruit and seeds provide about one-quarter of mammal and bird diets.  The creatures we love to watch in our gardens–they’re likely benefiting from a pollinator as well.

Q. So who are the key pollinators?

A. A pollinator is loosely defined as a flower-visiting insect, and a lot of insects visit flowers for different reasons. But bees really depend on pollen and nectar as adults—the form you see flying around visiting flowers—and also as a developing, grub-like larva.

The other insects may take pollen and nectar from flowers as adults, but during their other life stages they don’t always depend on it like a bee does.

So these bees are purposely collecting pollen as they move from plant to plant, and they really co-evolved with these plants—in their body structures and their biology—to be the ones transferring the majority of this pollen.

[More about key pollinator species from Xerces.org.]

clematis roguchi with beeQ. Which makes me think of how fuzzy many bees’ bodies are—good for gathering pollen.

A. They’re like little dust mops—they really are made to get the pollen all over them. And they have structures on their legs where they can accumulate and transfer the pollen, and transport it without it falling off.

Q. Do butterflies, flies, or wasps pollinate?

A. There are certain plants that are butterfly- or moth- or fly-pollinated, and some of those are very specialized plants. But sometimes just incidentally as they gather pollen for themselves, they will transfer pollen from one plant to another with their bodies—but they don’t collect it purposely to feed their young, and they don’t have these co-evolved structures on their bodies.

Q. Can you take us through a basic mini-course on pollinator biology, and the types of bees?

A. A lot of times when we picture bees, we picture a hive of honeybees—a big box overflowing with worker bees, and a big colony. That’s actually atypical of bee biology, and of the bees that are native here.

The honeybee was introduced about 1620, and for awhile was managed for honey production. With the growth of agriculture, it became one of our most important crop pollinators.

But there are also 4,000 species of native bees in North America, and they vary greatly in appearance. Some are green and shiny and metallic, more like a fly, and some may be more recognizable, like the bumblebees (which are native).

Most of these native bees live a solitary life, and don’t have a colony, or a queen—except for the bumblebees. The bumblebees are social, but have a little bit different kind of colony than the non-native honeybees.

Honeybee colonies are perennial—meaning the queen can live several years, and the colony overwinters, and persists that long.

With a bumblebee colony, it’s more annual. A mated queen starts a new nest. Right now, the mated queens are hibernating under leaf litter or underground, and they’ll come out and start a new colony in spring by themselves.

Most bees don’t have thousands of worker bees helping them like the honeybees.

Q. What is causing the decline in pollinators?  Which are under most pressure and why?

A. We haven’t found one specific reason. Many things are affecting the health of honeybees, ranging from diseases and pathogens, parasites to honey prices—many people think the stress of moving the colonies around [in commercial agriculture, from farm to farm as crops bloom] is part of it.

All of these factors are compounded by the fact that all pollinators are experiencing a poor diet from habitat loss. As we develop land, and expand farming—larger areas that once provided habitat are being lost, with a reduced diversity of diet resulting.

Q. What about chemical pressure?

A.  We know a lot more about the effects of pesticides on honeybees than about our native bees, though research on them is growing by leaps and bounds. As far as we can tell, it can affect any type of bees.

If you have a honeybee nest that’s compromised by a pest such as a mite, and also experiencing habitat loss, then you pile exposure to something poisonous on top of that–it just gets harder and harder for a bee to fight this off.

Not just insecticides, but also herbicides have an impact—the “weeds” they kill might not be a crop, but might be providing pollen and nectar nearby when a crop’s not blooming.

[More on chemicals and their effects on pollinators from the Xerces Society.]

bumblebee on zinniaQ. How can individuals contribute, then, with whatever patch of ground they manage—park, backyard, town square?

A. Everyone can do something in their own yard or community to help bees, by taking the pledge to bring back pollinators. It includes four steps:

1. Plant a diversity of flowers in your yard that produce abundant nectar and pollen. [Region-specific lists of pollinator plants can be accessed from this page on the Xerces website, or by using their interactive map, from which you can dig deeper and get pdf’s of plant recommendations for your area. Emphasizing natives is recommended.]

2. Protect nest sites. These can be in the ground, or in pithy, hollow plant stems, or in woody material. Protect nests that you see, and try to plant some of these hollow-stemmed plants (such as elderberry, or brambles, or even some native bunchgrasses like little bluestem, which they like to nest under). If you have a corner of your yard where you can have a brushpile or leave thatch on the ground—an area where you don’t clean up as carefully—you can put your pollinator habitat sign there. Less disturbance means more habitat for pollinators. [Links to more on bee nests and how to build them from Xerces.org.]

3. Avoid using pesticides. [More on pesticide effects, from Xerces.]

4. Spread the word to others in your community, and make it a joint effort. [The Xerces Society has various citizen-science programs under way; start at their pollinator conservation homepage. or the Bring Back the Pollinators program.]

pollinator insects on angelica gigasprefer the podcast?

KELLY GILL and I talked pollinator conservation on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The March 10, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

how to win the pollinator guide

pollinator guide from xercesI’LL PURCHASE TWO COPIES of “Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies” (Amazon affiliate link), the Xerces Society guide, for the latest giveaway. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below.

Is there an area of your garden that’s particularly abuzz in spring and summer? What’s the source of the pollinator excitement?

Me? I’ve stopped mowing a swath above the house that includes native little bluestem grass and other goodies, and I also include many pollen- and nectar-rich plants in my gardens—both natives and non-natives. I include extra flowering things even in my vegetable garden (calendula, zinnia, sunflowers, etc.), where I also let a small amount of each crop (lettuce, arugula, chervil, dill, carrots, broccoli…) flower and go to seed as attractions.

Feeling shy, or have no specific answer? Just say, “Count me in” or some such, and I will.

Two winners will be chosen randomly after entries close at midnight Sunday, March 16. Good luck to all.

(Photos from my garden of insect pollinators, top of page to bottom, on Corylopsis, garlic chives, squash, apple blossoms [shown without insects], Clematis, zinnia, and Angelica gigas.)

more on being wildlife-friendly

  1. Laura says:

    I have two native plant gardens that I put in for the wildlife. They are quite the jumble of plants and are allowed to spread as they see fit! The iron weed is my favorite.

  2. Karen Stelzer says:

    I love to watch bees gather on my bee balm. Often I’ll have several buzzing around my flowers, and friends and family get anxious about getting stung. It’s a good time to discuss bees and educate people on the growing problem.

  3. minerva says:

    I always leave corners in my garden that are not very “manicured”. I also tolerate some beautiful weeds – in fact, my level of tolerance in increasing every year: probably, my garden will soon become a meadow! Stachys lanata, Coreopsis, Papaver somniferum, Fennel, Phacelia are some of the most visited plants in my garden.

  4. Jan says:

    I have a large sunny protected meadow patch of lupine and milkweed and have ordered some butterfly weed plants to plant there this spring. Also I have noticed my flowering garlic chives, bee balm, and yarrow bring a rich diversity of pollinators, many solitary bees as well as bumblebees. Love the sunflowers I grow. Anxious to know what I can do to foster greater populations of natural pollinators since my remote location away from suburban lawn insecticides and industrial AG provides safe sanctuary for them. Count me in and thank you for drawing attention to this important topic!

  5. Helga G says:

    Count me in too.
    I bought some Cerinthe and Phacelia Tancetifolia seeds specially for my Bees. I love to watch how “busy” they always are.

  6. Linda K says:

    Bees seem to like the obedient plant at the end of the summer.

    I have a large pasture next to a lake where I’d like to encourage pollinators.

  7. Stephanie Kaplan says:

    This podcast was really interesting, especially about the many different species of bees other than honeybees. The squash, melon, and cucumber flowers in my veggie garden are always full of bees.

  8. Jan says:

    A large patch of garlic chives has taken over a corner of the ‘wild’ area in my back yard. When flowering, it is abuzz with hundreds of tiny insects.

  9. Irena says:

    I have planted a couple of echinaceas and rudbeckia hirta on a strip of land by the parking lot. They multiplied profusely and keep on feeding pollinators year after year. A couple of climbing roses invite some kind of wasp (quite big in size, and it takes away cabbage worms from my kale!). Every early spring, when I finish cleaning up last year’s leaf litter in one of the sandy spots, I find honeycombs about an in inch in diameter – I have no idea whom they belong to. I also let the dandelions flower for a day and remove the flowers in the evening so that they don’t go to seed – bees come for them all the time. I read that dandelions are – though not native – an important early source of nectar and pollen.

  10. Denise B says:

    I grew a pollinators garden at our last home for 8 years. We had to move and all was new. Not much of what I brought survived. No clay, just sand with really fast drainage, no life at all. I learned more last year than all years before. Buckwheat is fast, easy to turn in and brought life from no where. “Good Bug Blend” is in triangular beds on 2 sides of my 900 sq/ft. I have seen pollinators and even WORMS after a long very hot summer. I like coco coir in raised beds and have more plans this season. I need a soaker system and more energy. I am stimulated by the learning and will continue on; I seem to need plants and animals to take care of. Dogs, Lizards and Bugs? Why not?

  11. Kathleen Peppard says:

    I have a parking strip (aka “hell strip”) on the south side of my house. No parking on that side so I have planted along the entire narrow strip. The major bee attractors include oregano, sage, lavender, coreopsis, echinacea. That’s the area with the most bee activity when in bloom (and it needs very little water in the summer).

  12. Kathy says:

    Just ordered another Seven Sons tree which is a great attractor of native pollinators as well as our honeybees. I know the Latin name is more desirable but I know I would botch the spelling!
    Have always been an organic gardener and am glad to see the increase in interest in our native bees and wasps who are really important to our food production now with all the problems facing honeybees. I hope it is not to late.

  13. dirtgirl says:

    From a barren block of land 4 yrs ago we have created a garden that is alive with both Native and European Bees. Our Salvias and Buddleia, flower most of the year and the bees just zoom in on these plants in particular. All the gardens are full of either fruit trees, veg or flowering plants.
    We are in Autumn here in the Southern Hemisphere, (Sydney) but due to our warm climate, the bees visit us all year round and we are so delighted to have done our bit to keep the bees ( as well as the parrots, birds and blue tongue lizards) very happy.
    And definitely NO chemical sprays allowed in my garden!
    Happy gardening all.

  14. Celia says:


    Thanks for your program on this important topic — one all gardeners should know and care about!

    Please add my name to the drawing. I’d love to use the book to help me make my yard more pollinator-friendly.

  15. Kristen says:

    I unintentionally created the perfect triangle of bee-attracting plants with purple coneflower, monarda, and joe pye weed. It is amazing how many bumblebees I get since having these three near each other in my garden.

    In the spring, the wisteria is alive with the constant hum of bees.

    I checked out the xerces.org website and it’s excellent. I will definitely be reading more on there!

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