This week is National Pollinator Week, which aims to increase our awareness of the importance of pollinators in our lives, and to help more of us protect and support their populations by providing essential food sources and habitats for them.
One of the best ways we can do that is to create pollinator-friendly elements in our yards, gardens, and neighborhoods, which can help to enable and sustain healthy populations of these critters that are crucial to our own survival.
Insects get a bad rap from many of us, and while there are definitely some undesirables we don't want to encourage in our yards (such as mosquitoes, ticks, and venomous spiders), for the most part, we need as many of them as possible in our neighborhoods, as most of the flowering plants in the world (80%) rely on pollinators, and many of those are insects.
Pollination is one of those essential processes of nature that isn't as well-known as it should be, perhaps in part because it happens on a very small scale, with individual pollen grains, but without which we would be in dire straits. In order for the fruit and seeds of plants to develop, pollen has to be transferred between two flowers of the same species (or sometimes just within a single flower), which fertilizes it and enables the production of viable and healthy seeds on the plant.
At a very basic level, without sufficient numbers of pollinators, we couldn't grow the crops we need for food, as it's estimated that 1/3 of our food crops require pollination (including 3/4 of our staple crops), and pollinating those plants without the aid of insects, bats, and birds, would be virtually impossible, or at least financially unsustainable. According to this infographic, if we had to hand-pollinate food crops in the US, it would come with a $90 billion labor cost, and agriculture as we know it would have to radically change because of it.
Perhaps the most well-known pollinators are honeybees, which are responsible for the production of over $19 billion in food crops each year (just in the US), but there are a number of other pollinators that are important to plant reproduction, and in turn, our own survival. Bats, birds, ants, beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, wasps, and even small mammals all play important roles as pollinators, and due to the influence of our actions, habitat loss, irresponsible pesticide use, and diseases are all taking their toll on pollinator populations.
To foster better local environments for pollinators, we can take steps in our own yards, gardens, and neighborhoods, to create pollinator-friendly habitats, which can help support healthy ecosystems in both residential and agricultural areas.
How to create a pollinator-friendly habitat in your yard:
Plant more pollinator food sources: Planting a variety of flowering plants, especially native plants, is a great start for supporting pollinators, and when doing so, try to choose varieties that have overlapping flowering periods (for continuous blooms throughout the year) or that effectively extend the nectar and pollen season with early spring flowers or late fall flowers. Planting larger areas with flowers, and choosing to plant wildflowers and other low-maintenance flowering plants will be much more effective than small isolated areas. It's been said that old-fashioned varieties of flowers are better for pollinators than new hybrids or cultivars, and plants with simpler flowers are better than more complex flowers, but there is no hard and fast rule about it, other than that native pollinators often prefer local native plants. And yes, there is an app for that.
Provide a source of water: Water is as important to pollinators as it is to us, and by providing a source of water for them in your yard, they don't have to travel as far to get their needs met, which reduces their stress and increases the time available for pollination. A simple bird bath or dish of water in a shady area can do the trick, especially if you float corks on the surface so that insects have a place to land, and cleaning and refilling it regularly will help keep it from becoming a mosquito breeding ground.
Give them shelter: Keeping some areas of your yard as wild spaces, such as along a hedge row or other edge habitat that isn't heavily used, can enable pollinators to make their homes without being disturbed. If you're a bit crafty, building a pollinator habitat, such as this one, can help to support larger populations and increase the health of your local ecosystem. Sami's post about helping wild pollinators includes a great mini-documentary about propagating mason bees, which are some of the lesser-known (but still very effective) pollinators.
Skip the pesticides: Overzealous pesticide use, especially in yards in urban areas, contributes to the decline of pollinators, so applying any sort of pesticide (actually any of the -cides, including fungicides and herbicides) should be done sparingly, and only after researching what the least-harmful varieties are for your situation. If you live in a neighborhood where city workers or a property management company takes care of verges, public spaces, or common areas, you can request that they reduce or discontinue pesticide use, or recommend that they choose less-harmful products.
Educate your friends and neighbors: As important as one pollinator-friendly yard is, unless there are other connected areas that support pollinators (such as "bee roads" or other wildlife corridors), the positive effects are somewhat limited. Educating your neighbors, friends, and children about the importance of providing pollinator habitat, and teaching them how to create them, can help boost the impact of your own efforts.
To learn more about pollinators, see information about National Pollinator Week 2014, check out the live bee cam from the People's Garden Apiary on the roof of the USDA headquarters in Washington DC, use ideas from this curriculum or this one to teach kids about pollinators, and share these pollinator facts with your community.
If you're in the DC area, you can attend the fifth annual Pollinator Week Festival tomorrow (June 20) from 10 am to 2 pm at the USDA Farmers Market in Washington, DC (12th Street between Jefferson Drive and Independence Avenue).