Saturday, June 6, 2015

Native Pollinators

One of the goals in the organic garden is to attract native pollinators.  Bees, flies, wasps, butterflies, moths, and beetles play a crucial role in pollinating our garden plants, fruit trees, and berries.  Recognizing and attracting these pollinators into the garden ensures you have complete fertilization and a good crop. While busily drinking nectar and gathering nesting materials pollen clings to their bodies and they transfer this from flower to flower.  

Meet the Native Pollinators


Flies (diptera), thought mostly of as a pest which invades your house and makes life in the barn miserable for your livestock and yourself, are important and crucial pollinators..  The flower or Syrphid flies (Syrphidae) represent a large family of flies with two important roles in your garden. Just referring to them as flower flies seems to elevate and improve their status. They have hairy bodies and visit nectar producing flowers.  The pollen clings to their hairs and is transferred from flower to flower.  They are important pollinators of many garden plants.

Plants flower flies pollinate
Umbelliferae (carrots, celery/celeriac, parsnip, and parsley)
Brassicaceae (cole crops, Asian greens, and mustard)
Rosacea  (strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries)
Alliaceae  (onions, chives, and leeks)

They are also important pollinators in fruit trees and herbs such as fennel, coriander, and caraway.

The Syrphid fly's second important role in your garden is in pest control.  The larvae of these plants feed on aphid populations.  

The flower fly Chrysotoxum “intermedium (aggregate) pollinating the flowers of the tree spurge (Euphorbia dendroides) on the Maltese islands. © Axel Ssymank
Flower flies sometimes mimic bees but are harmless.

Syphrid Flies

Native Bees

There are 400 species of native bees in Utah.   There are 4000+ species of native bees in North America.  Most of these bees are solitary emerging during bloom time of their favorite floral hosts. Mother bees individually make their own nest. Some nest in the ground others in existing cavities or reeds.   Native bees seek out nectar to get the energy they need to power flight. Pollen which is high in protein and minerals is feed to the grub like larvae of bees.  Unlike social bees, many native bees have less venom and less of an inclination to sting.  While honeybees tend to focus on one flower species at a time, native bees visit a variety of species.

Blue Mason bees are important pollinators of fruit and nut crops.

Squash Bee

Most of your vegetables in the curcurbita family are pollinated by the native squash bee not honeybees.  These solitary bees are dependent on the pollen from curcurbites including summer and winter squash, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins.  They nest in the ground near these crops and emerge in the summer when these crops flower.  They are well equipped to carry the heavy pollen grains in the curcurbite family.  A behavior you may recognize, is the squash bee spends a lot of time in each flower and cawls deep into the flower doing a thorough job of gathering and distributing pollen. Another benefit is that they begin foraging earlier in the morning than honeybees.

Squash bees look similar to honeybees.  The hind legs of a squash bees are hairy and dry pollen clings to the legs.  Honeybees have flat hind legs and carry pollen in sacs on the hind legs.

Other Pollinators

Wasps, butterflies, moths, and beetles are also pollinators, but less effective than flies and bees.

Because butterflies and moths are covered in scales not hairs, pollen only clings to the body and legs.  Wasps and beetles are even less efficient pollinators but do play an important role.

Solitary wasps are predators of insects, rarely sting, and need pollen and nectar as adults.  They are beneficial insects you want in your garden.  Social wasps, on the other hand, may not be welcomed and cause some grief.
A predatory wasp attacking aphids.

How To Attract Native Pollinators

The solution to attracting beneficial insects and pollinators is simple and beautiful.  Incorporate in the garden and in your yard lots perennials, annuals, and native plants.  Always have something blooming in the garden to provide the sought after nectar.  I have one 4x4 bed in the garden with cat mint, lemon thyme, and saliva which are perennials.  I plant herbs such as basil, lemon basil and other flowers around these and let them flower and go to seed.  I also inter-plant herbs such as borage, dill, and basil in other garden beds.  Having an established perennial herb garden is also helpful.  The landscape around your garden and house can be carefully planned to include plants that attract these pollinators. Not only are you attracting native pollinators but establishing beautiful flower beds and landscape.  Below is a small list of plants that are in my yard that these pollinators are very attracted to.:

Ornamental Plants

Cat mint, lambs ear, salvia, cosmos, monardas or Bee Balm, lavender, sweet asylum, blanket flower, candy tuft, coreopis, cone flowers, anise hyssop (Agastache), and native perennials.  Plants with double flowers are not attractive to pollinators.

Purple salvia


Allow some of your herbs to flower including oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram, peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, cilantro, and of course lavender.




Native Plants

Here's a link to Utah's Native Plant Society.  Others states will have similar resources.

Utah Native Plant Society

Some things to consider when planting for pollinators:
  • Plant a variety of species
  • Provide blooming flowers throughout the season Foraging bees need nectar early, mid, and late season
  • Choose a variety of flower shapes to accommodate different tongue lengths.  Aster and composites are good for short tongues pollinators
  • Native pollinators depend on native plants for a reliable food source so include them in your plans
  • Be observant.  Watch and record what blooms when and what pollinators you see on the plant.
High Country Gardens is a good on-line resource to find native and water wise plants

Provide shelter and nesting areas

Another idea is to create structures for shelter and breeding grounds for pollinators.  Pollinators need shade, sun, shelter, and a source and place for nesting.

Native bees fall into one of two categories:  those that nest in the ground and those that seek a cavity to nest in.  Ground nesters seek open ground that is loosely packed.  Those that seek cavities will use naturally existing ones such as the pithy canes of raspberries, sumac, elderberry or iris flower stems.  You can also make shelters for native bees.  Drilling holes in a fence post or stump.  Bundles of hollow tubes placed inside a shelter about 5-6 off the ground also works.  Below is a link on various ideas

Stick Nests for Pollinators

Building Nesting Boxes for Pollinators


Avoid the  Use of Pesticides

Chemical broad spectrum pesticides will kill all beneficial insects.  There are organic pesticides you can use that are not harmful to beneficials such and neem and spinosad. It is important to spray when pollinators are not out and about doing their job.  Late evenings or early morning are a good time to spray if it is necessary.  There are other garden defenses.  Traps such as sticky traps are also a great alternative. There are deterrents such as kaolin clays and floating row covers. If you do need to spray always use organic soft sprays.  As you attract more predatory insects and pollinators you will see a decrease in pest problems.

Clean Water

Pollinators need a water source.  Bees in particular drink a lot of water.  Bird baths in the garden with rocks poking above the water level which allow pollinators to get to the water safely.  I find bees drinking out of my water lines when they are shut off. Be sure to provide clean water daily in the bird bath.

Butterflies, wasps, moths, and bees all appreciate a drippy faucet and a mud hole.  The mud is used to make nests and provide needed water.

Incorporating a diversity of flowering plants gives you the added enjoyment of a beautiful yard and garden and a haven for native pollinators and hummingbirds. This is one more step in creating and organic garden and landscape that provides beauty, food, pleasure, and enjoyment.

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