From the Hive with Alison Hodges

Helping Pollinators Thrive

Honeybees on purple aster. photo by Alison Hodges

Pollinators are in the news a lot, often in articles that describe challenges faced by honeybees and monarch butterflies. In Massachusetts, our native pollinators include many more species of bees and butterflies, plus moths, beetles, and hummingbirds.

When these beneficial animals visit flowers in search of food, they help spread the pollen that causes fruit, nuts, and seeds to form. Which means that if a plant doesn’t get a visit from a pollinator when it is blooming, it can’t produce the food that we harvest or the seeds that we need to plant again next year.

If we can help pollinators thrive by giving them a healthy environment to live in, we don’t just help them, we help ourselves.

What can I do?

Sometimes it feels like a problem is just too big for one person, or one family, to be able to make any difference. Not so with helping out pollinators! Everyone can make changes, small and large, that can help pollinators thrive. To get you started, here are three types of changes that any of us can make, with some specific suggestions to try.

1. Provide food

Honeybee on goldenrod, photo by Alison Hodges

Pollinators need flowers, and who couldn’t use a few more flowers in their life?

  • Those with limited outdoor space can still usually find a spot for a window box, hanging plant, or balcony container garden. Fresh herbs like basil and chives, and edible flowers like nasturtiums, can give you fresh flavors for your kitchen as well as irresistible nectar for pollinators.
  • If you have a more suburban home, consider adding flowering shrubs like Hydrangea paniculata (the kind with cone-shaped flowers) or hummingbird-favorite Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon), lining a walkway with fragrant bloomers like roses or lavender, or letting small flowering plants like white clover bloom in your lawn.
  • People in more rural areas could do any of the above, and might also consider whether it would be feasible to plant trees or put in vegetable or herb gardens.

There are many online resources to help you plan a pollinator friendly garden and choose native Massachusetts plants that can survive our crazy winters.

2. Provide water

Like all other living things, pollinators need water.

Summer days are the perfect time to get kids involved by making an oasis for bees and butterflies: set up a shallow dish or terracotta saucer with a few pebbles or marbles to act as safe perches for thirsty little creatures. Place it on the ground near where you’ve seen pollinators at work. Then you just need to provide clean, fresh water on a regular basis.

3. Tone down the chemicals

Bumblebees on dahlias, photo by Alison Hodges

Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.

Reconsider neonicotinoids. These are insecticides that are intended to kill pests, but they also kill beneficial insects. The European Union has banned the use of these chemicals on flowering outdoor crops largely because of how dangerous they are to bees. You can:

Choose alternatives: check the labels of the products you use for your lawn and garden (and even in your home: pet flea collars can also contain neonicotinoids).

Ask retailers of the plants, shrubs, and trees you buy whether neonicotinoids have already been applied.

Learn about pending Massachusetts House and Senate bills to protect pollinators. You might even ask your state rep and senator to sign on as petitioners!

Ease up on the broadleaf weed killer for your lawn. Try spot treatments instead of spraying the entire lawn to let a few more flowers bloom. Bees are most active in the morning through mid-afternoon, so if you apply as late in the day as possible you’ll also limit exposure. And please follow the instructions on the label!

How will you begin?

I hope you found at least one idea here that you’ll use in your environment to help our essential pollinators thrive, and maybe more than one! You can find many more ideas online by following the links in this post or by enjoying your own research.

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SLT is delighted to share From the Hive with Alison Hodges, a new, periodic blog on pollinators and their importance in the natural world. SLT supporter and garden enthusiast Alison Hodges hosts honeybee hives (managed by The Best Bees Company) in her Marion garden. Having bee hives got her interested in researching, and making many of these changes in her own yard.