June 16, 2013

Gardening must be pollinator friendly

Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — When I mention pollen, most people think about allergies. And it’s true that pollen released from trees, weeds and grasses may trigger them, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, sometimes referred to as hay fever.

There are two types of pollen, however, lighter pollen carried by the wind over long distances and heavier, tackier pollen, which is not. It’s the lighter pollen that is responsible for most allergies.

The vast majority of seed-bearing plants produce the latter, which needs to be carried from flower to flower, mostly by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. While foraging for nectar, a pollinator, such as a bee, will rub up against the pollen within a flower. The pollen sticks to the insect’s body and is then transferred to other flowers.

There’s been a lot of concern lately about pollinators, especially honeybees mysteriously dying off, and about habitat for pollinators becoming reduced by urban development, pesticides, disease and climate change.

According to USDA, three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators. Some scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat couldn’t exist without bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, beetles and other insects.

Pollinators play a beneficial role in the production of apples, alfalfa, beans, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, cucumbers, melons, pears, plums, onions, raspberries, soybeans, squash, strawberries and numerous other food crops. When healthy populations of pollinators are present, yields and quality are increased both in agriculture, where they are also important in production of many of the plants that we rely on for dietary fats and oils (i.e. canola), fibers (i.e. cotton) and for medicines (i.e. goldenseal), and in the wild where they play a vital role in maintaining natural communities.

By adopting pollinator-friendly practices, gardeners can take proactive roles in promoting pollinator populations.

Consider when the plants in your garden will be in bloom and introduce additional, preferably native, plants that will bloom when those already in your landscape do not. The objective is to provide a continuous food source from early spring through late fall for as wide a variety of pollinators as possible. This can be accomplished by selecting an assortment of plants that produce flowers of varied color and fragrance and that achieve different heights, which also provides shelter.

By grouping your plantings, you can enhance pollination effectiveness. When only a few scattered flowers are available, pollinators are more likely to be unsuccessful, transferring pollen to dissimilar types of plants.

Consider planting herbs and annuals that can be extremely inviting to pollinators. Bees are particularly attracted to herbs including basil, bee balm (which also draws hummingbirds), catnip, chives, garlic, lavender, lemon balm, oregano, parsley, rosemary, mint, thyme and others. Annuals that attract pollinators include cosmos, impatiens, petunias, salvia, sunflowers, sweet alyssum, verbena and zinnias. Remember, however, that many hybrid varieties are bred to be attractive to humans but may lack accessible pollen.

Also, many of the flowers we consider weeds are actually excellent food sources for pollinators. Dandelions are an important source of nectar in early spring, a time when other food sources are often limited. On the other hand, learning to recognize and eliminate invasive species can safeguard important pollinator plants.

You may also want to protect native plants that provide food and shelter for butterfly and beetle larvae. Milkweed hosts the larvae of migrating monarch butterflies.

You may also wish to become more familiar with Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM promotes practices that minimize the use of pesticides. Monitoring pest populations and plant development are fundamental to discovering pest problems.

If controls are needed, natural management is used first, picking off insects by hand, for example, or removing them by using a strong spray of water. Should pesticide become necessary, the least toxic pesticides, insecticidal soap for example, are used first. Since the primary focus of IPM is prevention, maintaining healthy soil, watering properly and controlling unwelcome weeds are fundamental practices.

National Pollinator Week is June 17 to 23. Why not celebrate by planting a small garden for pollinators at your home or by embracing pollinator conservation in already established home landscape gardens?

For more information, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office or email me at

Richard L. Gast, extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Phone 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email