The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 17, 2013

County Extension: When it comes to pollinators -- if you build it, they will come

When it comes to pollinators -- if you build it, they will come

By Julie Battern
Blue Earth County Master Gardener intern

---- — I recently walked past a perennial garden, in which nearly every plant was occupied by a bee, wasp, or fly, hovering and then plunging into the flowers for nectar. As I observed this beautiful interaction, a famous line from the movie "Field of Dreams" ran through my head:

“If you build it, he will come.”

Just as a fictional baseball park in the middle of a cornfield brought back baseball stars from the past, a pollinator-focused landscape can attract a variety of organisms where diversity is currently lacking.

This issue has become even more important now that more than 99 percent of Minnesota’s native prairies have been converted to cropland, roads and expanding human developments, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

When we replace prairies with a single-crop field or asphalt, we destroy the homes of hundreds of species of living organisms. These organisms are then forced to the remaining 1 percent of prairie -- primarily public parks, private land, ditches and small fragments of land unsuitable for farming.

I am grateful for the food that farmers work hard to provide. I travel on the highways. My house sits on a plot that was once forest. My lifestyle is made possible because of the sacrifice of natural ecosystems. I am responsible, we are responsible for that 99 percent. Guilty as one may feel, this isn’t just a moral issue, because as much as the wildlife depend on native plants, we also depend on the wildlife.

Take pollinators, for example. Pollinators, which range from bees and butterflies to hummingbirds and bats, serve as both predators and prey in the complex food web to which humans also belong. Just as importantly, more than one-third of our crops and 90 percent of flowering plants depend on cross-fertilization by pollinators to produce a mature fruit. Soybeans, apples, and tomatoes are just three of many crops that rely on strong pollinator populations.

Unfortunately, the well-being of pollinators is on the downslide. Elizabeth Howard, founder and director of Monarch research group Journey North, recently reported to Minnesota Public Radio that last winter, the number of Monarch’s overwintering in Mexico was 60 million, down from 350 million the previous winter.

On a similar note, since 2006, beekeepers and other research organizations have reported the disappearance of over one-third of the nation’s honeybee population. This disappearance has since been named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Despite claims by the media, scientists have not yet pinpointed a single cause, but rather, suggest that this loss is due to a multitude of environmental factors -- including loss of habitat.

At the end of June of this year, our federal government, in collaboration with the Pollinator Partnership, recognized the importance of this issue by amending a farm bill to include a pollinator support component.

How can you help?

Designate an area of your yard to provide food, water, and shelter for pollinators. Here are some things to consider as you take on this challenge:

- Diversity: Variation is essential for a healthy, resilient ecosystem. A plant community varying in height, color, and bloom time creates niches to be filled by an increasingly diverse animal community. In addition, studies have found that the number of plants lost to disease, insect infestations, or drought dramatically decreases when diversity increases.

Birdbaths and feeders, as well as larger rocks, grasses, trees, and shrubs can also diversify your landscaping to meet the needs of these organisms.

- Continuous blooms: A goal for pollinator landscapes is to always have a plant in bloom. Annuals typically flower for the duration of the growing season, providing and excellent food source for pollinators. This comes with a cost, as annuals only live for one growing season, and typically require more watering and care. Therefore, many gardeners recommend focusing on native perennials.

Perennials are plants that can survive our winters year after year and typically require less maintenance than annual flowers. Below is a brief list of zone 4 perennials, categorized by bloom time:

Spring blooms: creeping phlox, trout lily, astilbes;

Early-summer blooms: black-eyed susan, bee balm, common milkweed, iris, spiderwort;

Mid-summer blooms: tall phlox, purple coneflower, sedum, joe-pye weed;

Late-summer blooms: sunflowers, blazing star, turtle head, chrysanthemum.

Before planting, research and check that your plants meet sun, soil, and hardiness requirements for yard. Whether your project is as large as an acre of wildflowers, or as small as a flower box, just remember: If you plant it, they will come.

On the web For more information on these topics, check out the following websites: - pollinator.org - http://www.extension.umn.edu/.