Pollinator Habitat

By: David Donnelly

Feed The Critters That Sustain Us

As livestock managers, we beekeepers do one thing that is uniquely different from all others. We let our livestock forage over the fence line without repercussions. Could you imagine a cattle rancher willfully allowing his livestock to run roughshod over his neighbors’ fields, pastures, gardens, and yards, as well as eating all his feed? He could be shot!

Yet not only are we and our bees not shot, they are welcomed onto our neighbors’ properties with open arms. And what’s more, free roaming cattle could destroy a neighbor’s crops or garden faster than they could chew their cud. Not so with our bees. After they finish foraging, everyone is better off, especially the neighbors whose crops or flowers have been pollinated.

Honey bees and other pollinators have been free-ranging foragers since the dawn of time. As a consequence, we have gotten used to the idea that we don’t have to provide their foraging feed. We don’t always know what they will find within a three-mile radius, but they obviously find something since they keep coming back with pollen and nectar.

The Time for Change

Don’t expect things to continue this way forever. The old guys will tell you that feral hives were commonplace in their youth. But not so any more. Today, we are experiencing an unprecedented loss of pollinator habitat, which will only get worse unless we act. This forces us to rethink our passive mindset that bloom will always be out there, somewhere. There are many reasons for this, which are supported by a new study from the University of California San Diego. They find, “The health of managed honey bee colonies is threatened by a host of factors including habitat loss, pesticides, pathogens, parasites and climate change.”

Rural and commercial beeks each face their own set of issues, and I am speaking here mostly from the position of a suburban/urban bee groupie. We think that the only good weed is a dead weed, and that anyone whose grass lawn is not freshly mown must have a few screws loose.

Now is the time for change. As bee keepers and managers, we need to start taking an active approach to pollinator habitat, no longer satisfied with our old passive ways. It is not good enough that we just let our bees forage willy nilly, without regard to where the bloom is. Like the other livestock managers, we need to provide feed. 

Institutional Change

Ground cover. Photo by Diane Jones

This viewpoint is beginning to gain traction as federal, state, and local governments recognize the important role that pollinators play in our lives. In fact, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum in 2014, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” The memorandum directs federal agencies to take additional steps to improve habitat for pollinators including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies. They work with state departments of transportation to accomplish these goals.

The Idaho Department of Transportation, for example, promotes awareness of their partnership with birds, bees, and bugs, and of the plight of pollinators and pollinator habitat. They are involved in “several activities that promote pollinators/pollinator habitats, most notably the Operation Wildflower Program, where districts distribute native forbs to volunteer groups to seed along selected roadsides, rights of way, or slopes.” You can check on-line to see what your state is doing.

The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service is also involved. They provide guidance and implementation to enhance habitat for pollinators: “Despite their importance, pollinators are threatened world-wide by habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, improper pesticide use, disease and parasites. This has serious economic implications for humans and for maintaining ecosystem diversity and stability.”

Private Non-Profit Support

A wild flower mix should last all season. Photo by Diane Jones

It is also encouraging to see the private, non-profit organizations that are working to protect our pollinators, largely by promoting the importance of providing more habitat. These include: 

  • The Xerces Society —https://xerces.org/  They are committed to helping all pollinators, including monarchs and bumble bees, and their habitat. They say, “Take the pollinator pledge to bring back the pollinators.” They also publish books and support research on the subject.
  • National Pollinator Garden Network —http://millionpollinatorgardens.org/ They remind us that, “Pollinators are responsible for one out of three bites of food we take each day, and yet pollinators are at a critical point in their own survival. Increasing the number of pollinator-friendly gardens and landscapes will help revive the health of bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and other pollinators across the country.” They promote pollinator gardens through their Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.
  • Pollinator Stewardship Council —http://pollinatorstewardship.org/ They raise awareness about the plight of pollinators and how toxic pesticides contribute to their decline. They encourage us to plant local pollinator gardens, since their research shows that pollen collected contained an average of nine different pesticides.

We all have different reasons for supporting pollinators. For some of us, it may be for the honey or pollinating services. For others, it may be to enhance and protect our food source. Still others just appreciate these living creatures.

Feed the Bees, a book published by the Xerces Society, states that pollinators are responsible for, “. . . 90 percent of the plant species found on earth . . . a process more than 250 million years in the making.”

Types of Pollinator Habitat – Tall or Short

Short habitat includes flowers, wildflowers, weeds, clover, and many row crops. Feed the Bees also states, “Providing wildflower rich habit is the most significant action you can take to support pollinators. Native plants, which are adapted to local soils and climates, are usually the best sources of nectar and pollen for native pollinators.”

Tall habitat includes tress and bushes. To many of us, the value of flowering trees may not seem to click. But did you realize that just one flowering tulip poplar tree can provide as much bloom as an entire acre of clover? Who’d a thunk? This kind of information may be valuable to farmers, who can’t afford to “waste” land for pollinators, but who can plant trees at the edges of fields and along fence lines. Another important one is the Korean Bee Bee Tree, which blooms in mid to late Summer, when most other plants are taking the Summer off. Bees love this tree. Rock Bridge Trees – http://rockbridgetrees.com – is a Tennessee nursery whose mission includes Trees for Bees. They write, “The role of trees in honey bee health cannot be underestimated. Trees provide a bridge of flowers between Spring and Fall. This bridge is the pathway available to everyone who wishes to strengthen and improve the health of our cherished honey bees.” Without elaborating on the hundreds of beautiful blooming trees, a few important ones for bees include vitex, sourwood, Japanese pagoda, catalpa, and American linden. None of these are household names. Maybe we can change that.

Bloom from Frost to Frost

Imagine just how cool it would be to have a six-eight month honey flow! No Summer dearth! No fall off in the Fall! In theory at least, this is possible when we take an active role in providing pollinator habitat.

The sources cited above show how we can do this. They also provide links to nurseries and seed companies that will help us fill in our gaps. Here are some tips for pollinator gardens:

  • Select different plants to cover the entire growing season;
  • Consider native seeds appropriate to your growing area;
  • Include milkweed in your garden. This plant is critical for the survival of monarch butterflies.

Wildflower Garden Tips

Here are some wildflower planting tips, offered by Sierra Laverty, Assistant Horticulture Director, at the Idaho Botanical Garden:

  • Try to select plants that are native to your area. Seeds that grew from plants adjusted to the local climate and soil are “programmed” to grow in your area;
  • Check your soil and texture it according to your plant’s needs. For example, you may have a clay soil, whereas the plants prefer a sandy soil.
  • Most wildflowers require full sunlight, perhaps six hours per day;
  • Be careful in selecting your seed company. Many large national companies will not have native plants for your area, or they could contain weedy plants.

To protect our bees, their other pollinator friends, and to maximize our harvest for now and the future, we need to take advantage of every resource available.

We need to get beyond the passive foraging mindset, and take an active role in our girls’ foraging opportunities. We need to feed the bees and save the pollinators.


David Donnelly holds a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree, and is a backyard beekeeper.

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