Attracting Pollinators

by Linda Peacock, Master Gardener, SCMG.

Ninety percent of plants depend on cross-pollination and it is essential in keeping the botanical gene pool healthy and varied. In Canada, $1.2 billion worth of produce a year depends on pollinators.

Habitat loss, fragmentation, pesticides, pollution, introduction of exotic species and human ignorance are putting pollinators in danger.  European Honeybees – the most commonly used pollinators for food crops – are in danger worldwide due to “colony collapse disorder” which scientists are still researching to find a cause. Tracheal & varroa mites are becoming resistant to chemicals such as Apistan that was once effective and tolerated by the environment.  Scientists and farmers are hoping that the efficient native pollinators can help out. Small native bees called Mason bees (Osmia lignaria) are one of the first to emerge in the spring and they are able to work in cool, wet spring weather when others can not.  A single bee can visit 2000 flowers per day. 250 mason bees can pollinate 1 acre of apple orchard – it would take 20,000 honeybees to pollinate the same area.Bumble Bees will also fly in bad weather making them more effective than some species.  They collect pollen by “buzz pollination”.  They grasp a flower with legs or mouth parts and vibrate their flight muscles without moving their wings.  This vibration shakes electrostatically charged pollen out of the flower’s anthers that then attach to oppositely charged body hairs on the bee. This method is essential to tomatoes and blueberries.  

Provide a pollinator habitat that contains: 

  • early, mid and late season blooms for continuing food source
  • crowded plant-repetitive groups for easy detection
  • diversity in plant material – especially wild meadow, prairie or native plants
  • plants that support complete life cycles of as many pollinators as possible
  • nesting sites
  • somewhere to over-winter, some bare soil, dead plant stalks, leaf litter, fallen logs or brush piles 
  • shelterfrom weather and predators
  • water source
  • reduced lawn grass area that offers very little food or shelter  

Create a Pollinator Patch – download your copy at http://conservation.gardenontario.org

Reduce chemical use

The Ontario Pesticide Ban has helped with this, but we still need to be aware of what we are using. Even some organic treatments such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can harm butterfly larvae.  

To attract bees to your garden:

  • single-flowered blue, yellow & purple plants with sweet scents
  • the scent molecule in flowers attract bees from over 1000 meters, pollution takes it down to 200 or less
  • leave some mulch free areas as many native bees nest in the soil
  • homemade bee nests can be placed in a protected spot 12-50” off the ground southern or south-eastern facing 
  • make hives from straws packed into coffee tins, or 5/16” holes drilled at 1” intervals, 4” – 12” deep into a 4×4 or a dead tree stump 

Learn more about mason bee houses http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=He3Nuy1FSqY

To attract butterflies and moths to your garden:

  • prefer blue, orange and red single flowers or trumpet and tube shapes
  • moths are attracted to pale or white flowers that flower after dark
  • food source for caterpillars, common host plants are:  Columbine, Milkweed, Indigo, Turtlehead, Meadow Sage, Sedum, Dill, Cleome, Fennel, Lantana, Parsley, Petunia
  • sunny areas and wind protection if temperature below 16°C they are unable to fly
  • shallow water source
  • clay or gravel for those who get their nutrients/minerals from muddy water

To attract birds to the garden:

  • prefer natural food, foraging is as natural to them as taking flight bird feeders will not change their migration habits or make them lazy
  • grow native plants and allow the flowers to go to seed
  • native trees invite insects to overwinter in them – a valuable food source  
  • a small patch of sand for grit to aid in their digestion  
  • keep feeders clean or use ones with a mesh base to avoid build-up of excrement from contaminating the food
  • birds need a lot of good quality food; they carefully choose each seed or grain based on the best available nutritional value.
  • black oiled sunflower seeds are preferred by most native species
  • provide fresh water, no deeper than 2” 

To attract Hummingbirds to the garden:

  • they drink nectar, eat insects and small spiders, they refuel every 10-15 minutes 
  • they are most attracted to red, orange, pink and yellow tubular blooms
  • have no sense of smell, they taste with their feet    
  • add ¼ cup white sugar to 1 cup water, bring to a boil and let cool before filling feeder
  • do not microwave the solution, it changes molecular structure of sugar and will lower its nutritional value do not use honey or artificial sweetener
  • keep the feeders clean and sterilized. 
  • a good water source preferably a fine mist – they drink 8 times their weight in water daily
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