Farming for Pollinators part two

FOR THE LAST INSTALLMENT HONORING NATIONAL POLLINATORS WEEK, here are some tips that were intended for farmers who want to encourage native bees to pollinate their crops. (If you're wondering why this is important, see part one.) These tips are just as helpful for gardeners who just want to help our native pollinators, however. The following come from Farming for Pollinators: Native Bees and Your Crops, published by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Xerces Society; the comments in parentheses are from me:

Bees need lots of flowering plants throughout the flowering season. To help meet this need:
  • Plant flowers, especially "old-fashioned" varieties. (This is a great thing to do in the vegetable garden. Many annuals, such as marigolds, nasturtiums, and cosmos, coexist beautifully with vegetables.)
  • Plant an herb garden.
  • Let an area of your property "go wild," so that wildflowers can grow.
  • Let some of the leafy vegetables in your vegetable garden, such as lettuce, "bolt" (that is, make flowers and then set seed).
  • Mark the edges of your property or divide areas of your property with hedgerows composed of a mixture of shrubs or trees that bloom at different times. (A hedgerow is a wildlife-friendly version of a hedge.)
  • When planting windbreaks, use a variety of plants that bloom at different times.
  • Use cover crops in the vegetable garden, and allow them to bloom.

Bees also need places to nest. Solitary bees (bees that do not live in colonies as honeybees do) generally nest in tunnels. These tunnels may be constructed in bare ground, but some bees use tunnels made by beetles in trees. Social bees such as bumblebees, which do nest in colonies, often make use of small holes such as abandoned rodent nests. To help meet these needs:

  • Try to keep tilling to a minimum. Many native bees nest underground, sometimes at the base of plants they pollinate, and tilling would destroy their nests. Turn soil only when necessary. (I don't till at all--I use raised beds that I weed and mulch by hand. Of course, this might not be practical for someone trying to raise food commercially.)
  • Drill holes into pieces of wood to make artificial nests for bees that use tunnels in wood. (The National Wildlife Federation has instructions on how to make nest boxes for orchard mason bees. These can also be purchased.)
  • If possible, leave dead or dying trees standing so they can be used as nest sites by bees. (If a dying tree is a danger, consider cutting it to a safe height instead of removing it altogether. The stump will be good habitat for bees and other animals, and makes a great place to grow vines.)

Bees also need to be protected from pesticides. (Fortunately, most wildlife-friendly gardeners avoid using pesticides, and one of the advantages of buying from local farmers is that many of them are organic or moving in that direction. The booklet does give suggestions for how to minimize the impact on bees if pesticides must be used.)

Finally, it's important to try to protect good habitat areas for bees, both on the farm and in our gardens. These include:

  • Anywhere that native bees already seem to be nesting and/or foraging.
  • Areas near ponds, wetlands, and streams. Willows, which are often found growing in these areas, are especially good sources of pollen for bees.
  • Areas of fallow or "unproductive" land.
  • Patches of wildflowers.
  • Hedgerows and windbreaks.
  • Vegetable, flower, and herb gardens.
  • Piles of loose soil. (Many people have discovered bees nesting in their compost pile. This is only a one-year problem, however, as the colony will die come winter.)
  • Areas next to fields and roads.
  • Almost any natural or undeveloped area.

For additional information on farming for pollinators, see the Xerces Society's booklet Farming for Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms. This publication is quite detailed and contains interesting case studies.

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