Because many bee species native to Oregon are solitary bees with small flying ranges, your backyard could become a haven away from harmful pesticides if you provide continuing floral resources, said Aimée Code, the pesticide program director at The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
“Recognizing there are hundreds of species out there, if you build a habitat, they will come. You will see an amazing diversity of pollinators in your yard if you start putting in native plants,” she said.
Plotting your garden
Lori Vollmer, owner of Garden Fever in Northeast Portland, said the key to having a pollinator-friendly garden is to stock it with plants that have overlapping blooms at different times of year, making sure you have something in bloom for pollinators to feed on throughout the seasons.
“The hardest part is late winter,” Vollmer said, “but there are a lot of native plants here in the Northwest that bloom during that time – all the Mahonias (such as the Oregon Grape), which are also a favorite of the hummingbird as an added bonus,” she said. Waterleaf will bloom in early spring, and it’s a species that bumblebees like, she said, “then you would go into the spring blooming bulbs and shrubs.”
She said snowdrops and flowering currants are good early spring choices, and then as you move into summer and fall, there are many colorful options to choose from.
Herbs can also be a good addition, as long as you allow a couple of them to flower, she said. Pollinators especially love dill, parsley and mustards.
Vollmer also recommends planting in clumps, with 3-foot wide patches of the same plant grouped together. This will help pollinators to see the flowers.
You will also want to leave some undisturbed areas of dirt because many native bees nest in the ground.
Vollmer said she usually leaves some space between her garden and her house, and the area along her fence, about 6 to 8 inches, unplanted and free of any mulch or other cover.
Bee educator Rebekah Golden suggests leaving an un-mowed, patchy area of yard with south or southeastern sun exposure in the morning, which “will help them get warm and flying in the mornings.”
Don’t compact or till the soil in these areas because there may be eggs that will develop into larvae and pupa over the winter and through the year, Code said. “They will only be adults for a couple of weeks.”
It’s also important to provide pollinators with a source of drinking water, which can be as easy as keeping a saucer that’s lost its teacup full of water, Vollmer said. Garden Fever also has pollinator baths made by a local potter that can be attached to the top of copper tubing.
Just make sure the water source is shallow and has an incline that pollinators can use to get close to the water without drowning, and maintain the water level throughout the week.
When selecting your plants, note these important guidelines:
• Choose plant species that are native to your region. Research shows that most native bees prefer native flowers. For a comprehensive list of native plants and their blooming schedule, visit Xerces.org.
• Also make sure you plant species that are right for the amount of sunlight your garden receives. A healthy plant won’t get infested, so keep an eye on your plants throughout the season, and make sure they’re getting what they need.
• Do not use pesticides. If you do resort to pest control, look for natural alternatives and make sure you aren’t spraying pollinators directly. Ask your local nursery about nontoxic alternatives. Vollmer successfully rid her plants of aphids by simply knocking them off with hose water – once they fall, they can’t get back up. Golden, an educator at Bee Thinking, warns, however, that some concentrated plant compound-based pest control products can be harmful to pollinators. She recommends sprinkling diatomaceous earth, a very fine sand, in areas where aphids and crawling insects are found. But again, avoid bees and their nesting areas when using it.
• If buying plants that have already started growing, check the label to make sure they have not been treated with neonicotinoids.
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• Choose a variety of bloom colors. This will attract a diversity of pollinators.
• If you want to build a habitat for butterflies, don’t forget about the plants that their larvae, caterpillars, need to survive. For example, Monarch butterflies will only lay eggs on milkweed.
• And remember: The key is to plant species that bloom at different times of year so that pollinators always have something to feed on.
• Visit xerces.org for a wealth of information on making nests for native bees, selecting the right plants and more.
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• And finally, register your garden with the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge at millionpollinatorgardens.org.
Keeping a pollinator garden means you will have visible insect activity in your garden.
“We really need to get away from seeing insect activity in our yard as a negative thing,” Code said. “Lots of our native bees actually use leaves from plants to line their nests, so you might see a plant that has a little hole cut out of it, and think you have a pest, when in reality you have a native bee that’s using your yard to create their nest. So taking a step back and appreciating the insects in our yard is really important.
“I know when I’m losing faith with the world, and at this time when the news can be so depressing, the best thing I can do is go out in my yard and know that I’m creating habitat in my own little area,” she said.