Consider Creating a Pollinator Habitat

Spring is considered the season that represents the rejuvenation of life, whether it be livestock, wildlife, or gardening. If you are a gardener, chances are good that seed catalogs have already arrived through the mail, lists have been created, and orders will go in soon, if they have not already. Many in agriculture consider themselves to be stewards of the land, not just in rangeland management, livestock production, or crop production.

While sometimes overlooked as lesser creatures, pollinators play a crucial role in ecosystems and agriculture for several reasons. First is the act of pollination itself, transferring pollen from one flower to another. This small act is essential for fruit, vegetable, nut, and seed production, as well as for genetic diversity. Most plants that produce edible products have evolved to rely on pollinators. In fact, when pollinators are present, producers often notice a better-quality product and a significant increase in yield.

Pollinators help maintain the structure and function of ecosystems by creating healthy plant populations, producing food for humans and animals alike. Pollinators also help increase biodiversity, which improves the ecosystem’s stability and resilience to disturbance.

Of course, pollinators add economic value through increased crop production and industry. Beekeeping has become very popular with backyard enthusiasts who want to increase pollinators locally.  However, commercial beekeeping is an important industry as well, producing honey and other products such as beeswax, bee propolis, bee powder, and royal jelly. Through attractions like butterfly pavilions and insectariums, ecotourism has also profited from pollinators.

With all this publicity, it is little wonder that pollinator habitats have gained popularity. When creating a pollinator habitat, whether in the garden or in the field, here are some recommendations to consider.

tall yellow and purple flowers behind a library building
Thriving pollinator habitat at the Laramie County Library. Photo by Jeff Geyer.

Site location & assessment

First, evaluate any available space in the garden or property. One factor to consider is sunlight exposure. Make sure to choose a spot that receives at least six or more hours of sunlight a day. It may be helpful to draw a diagram of how the sun moves through the space designated for the pollinators.

Soil type and moisture levels should also be considered. Investing in a professional soil test will give you a good idea of the soil’s moisture-holding capacity as well as what soil amendments may be necessary.

Before planting desirable plants, make sure to control or remove any unwanted vegetation. This can be achieved by mechanical or cultural methods, clear or black plastic, or with herbicides. Choose the method that works best for your situation.

Make sure to identify any potential obstacles or challenges. Shade from buildings, competition from invasive plants, moisture drainage, and septic systems are just a few obstacles that may be present.

Create a plan

This is where it may help to sketch a rough design of the area, including measurements of the available space and any existing features that will be retained. Flower beds, pathways, water features, seating areas, and any other permanent features should be included in the sketch as well.

Selection & placement of plants

When selecting plants, you’ll have to make a few decisions. A diverse selection of plants should include a variety of native and non-native plants. Native plants have evolved alongside native pollinators and therefore provide the most suitable habitat and food sources.

Make sure to include plants that provide nectar, pollen, and habitat throughout the growing season. Ideally, the selection should include a mixture of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees.  Also think about plants that have different flower shapes, sizes, and colors to attract as many pollinators as possible. Include plants that flower at night to attract night pollinators as well as daytime visitors.

When placing plants in the landscape, it is best to arrange them in clusters or drifts. This makes it easier for the pollinators to locate food sources. To create a more suitable microhabitat for both plants and pollinators, group plants with similar water and sunlight requirements together. It is most common to place the taller plants in the back of the bed or along fences and place the shorter plants in the front.

When selecting plants, please be aware of neighboring livestock. There are many plants, native and non-native, that are toxic to livestock. Lupines and delphiniums are just two species that are native and are highly toxic to sheep and cattle. It is wise research the plant species you want to include in the pollinator habitat before planting.

Provide water

Just like humans, insects need water; therefore, it is extremely important to include a water source in the pollinator habitat.  The water source can be made from any material, but must be shallow and have stones or floating platforms for the pollinators to stand on while accessing water.

Consider making the water source brightly colored. Pollinators are attracted to flowers because of their color, so it makes sense that water sources should be brightly colored as well. Place the water source near the flowering plants, in a location that is easily found by the pollinators but is also protected from predators.

Habitat features

When making a pollinator habitat, include shelter and nesting sites such as shrubs, trees, rocks, logs, and native grasses. It might be necessary to conduct a survey as to what native pollinators are present before providing habitat features, as most pollinators have specific needs and will not share nesting sites with other species.

Consider seasonal interest

When designing your garden, think about each season and what it offers to pollinators. What will the habitat look like in the winter, for instance? Provide a variety of bloom times for continuous nectar and pollen sources. Include plants with colorful foliage or interesting textures. Incorporate features that will provide visual interest throughout the year such as trees, shrubs, berry-producing plants, colorful branches or limbs, garden art, and more.

Pathways and access

Including pathways in a pollinator habitat is beneficial for a couple reasons. First, pathways allow easy access to all areas throughout the habitat for maintenance. Secondly, pathways offer a place to observe the pollinators themselves with little to no disturbance.

When designing the habitat pathways, make sure they are made from water-permeable sources, such as stepping stones, river rock, pebbles, or mulch. In addition, keep in mind that the pathways should be wide enough that they are easy to navigate with any garden tools that may be used during the year, including wheelbarrows or carts.

Maintenance plan

When creating a pollinator habitat, don’t forget to include a yearlong maintenance plan. When making a maintenance plan, consider the following questions: How will you get water to the plants and water sources? What type of weed control will be used? Will the habitat include mulch, and for what purpose? How often will mulch need to be added? What are the pruning needs of each plant, including trees and perennials? What about deadheading flowers to promote continuous flowering and therefore a continued source of nectar and pollen?

If nesting sites are included in the pollinator habitat, the plan should also include a cleaning schedule. Make sure to know which birds nest in the habitat; note that some birds may use a nest for more than one year. If bat houses are used, be aware that there may be bats in the belfry year-round.

The maintenance plan should also include regular monitoring for plant diseases, pests (including insects and others), and any invasive species of weed or insects. Taking a proactive approach and catching problems early makes it much easier to respond to diseases and pests.

Things to avoid

Tillage is one action to avoid in a pollinator habitat. Some native pollinators nest in the soil; therefore, minimizing soil disturbance is key. Tilling the soil also opens areas for weeds to invade and become established. Instead, consider using mulch to suppress weeds, or plant ground cover. Both of these methods reduce moisture loss from the soil surface and discourage weed germination.

The use of pesticides, including herbicides and chemical fertilizers, in the pollinator habitat should be avoided. When tackling insect pests, most insecticides are broad spectrum, meaning they kill all insects, including the pollinators. Other pesticides disrupt natural behavior, which should be avoided as well. Consider using alternative methods of control such as companion cropping or beneficial insects.

 Educate others

Even the smallest of spaces dedicated to pollinators provides food sources for many native pollinators and these spaces are especially important during droughty years when other nectar and pollen sources are limited. After completing each step of creating a pollinator habitat, it is time to help others learn. Share with neighbors the importance of pollinators and the benefits of creating pollinator habitats. Inspire others by hosting educational workshops or events.

A great way to get involved with pollinators is to challenge yourself or your kids to observe and document the different pollinator species you see over the course of one year. Happy observing!

This article was originally published in Wyoming Livestock Roundup.

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