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Pollinator support tips for gardeners and homeowners

URBANA, Ill. – Pollinators have been in the news a lot the last few years due to their population declines. About 75% of all plant species are pollinated by animals and 90% of flowering plants, so pollinators are important parts of our ecosystems, says Ken Johnson, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

Bumblebee collecting pollen from blooming coneflower.

“While we tend to focus on bees, particularly honeybees, other insects such as butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps as well as some birds and bats will also pollinate plants,” Johnson says. “Without pollinators, our world would look a lot different.”

When we talk about the importance of pollinators, we tend to focus on their role in our food supply. About a third of the food and beverages we consume depend on pollinators.

“Pollinators’ impact on agriculture is worth around $29 billion in the U.S. alone and between $235 billion and $577 billion worldwide,” Johnson says.

Apples, broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, herbs, peaches, raspberries, and watermelons not to mention chocolate and coffee need animals to pollinate them. “Without pollinators our grocery stores would look much different,” Johnson adds.

Pollinators are also important in nature. “Pollinators are a keystone species, or a species on which other species of the ecosystem depend,” Johnson explains. “The plants they pollinate are food for other animals – birds, mammals, and insects – and the pollinators themselves are also food sources. Without pollinators, there would be far less plant and animal diversity in our natural areas.”

Pollinator populations are declining. A variety of factors contribute to the decline: habitat loss, pests and diseases, climate change, invasive species, and misuse and overuse of pesticides.

Johnson offers a few tips on homeowners and gardeners can do to help support pollinators:

  • Get rid of some of your lawn. Lawns don’t have a lot to offer pollinators. Remove some of your lawn and plant it with flowers.
  • Choose heavy pollen and nectar-producing plants. Pollinators feed on pollen and nectar, so the more you can provide the better.
  • Plant a variety of flower, for multiple season blooming and blossom shapes. Different pollinators are attracted to different types of flowers and different pollinators are active at different times of the year. However, avoid heavily modified flowers such as double blooms.
  • Plant in clumps rather than single plants. Groupings of plants are more attractive to pollinators than solitary plants.
  • Be more accepting of weeds. Many of the weeds we try to eliminate from our landscapes can be good sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators.
  • Provide habitat for nesting and egg-laying. Provide layers in the landscape such as trees, shrubs, tall grasses, low growing plants as well as bare patches of ground.
  • Allow for an untidy garden and accept some plant damage. Don’t be in a hurry to clean up the garden in the fall and spring. Many bees nest above ground in cavities such as hollow flower stems, while dead tree trunks provide habitat for wood-nesting bees and beetles. Allow some plant damage: beetles will often eat flower petals; leafcutter bees cut up leaves, and caterpillars will eat foliage. Getting rid of caterpillars gets rid of moths and butterflies.
  • Rethink the use of pesticides. Follow Integrated Pest Management practices by using pesticides only when necessary and don’t apply to plants that are in bloom.

For more information on pollinators and ways you can support them check out Illinois Extension’s pollinator fact sheets.

News Source: Ken Johnson, Horticulture Educator, Illinois Extension