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How to support pollinators in your garden

Pollinators are some of the most important species on Earth. Since plants are the foundation of ecosystems, it is vital that plants have access to pollination services, and thus it is vital that pollinators are supported. By conserving pollinators, and in turn plants, we will also conserve our foods (fruits, vegetables, and nuts), prevent soil erosion (roots hold soil together!), and protect important carbon sequestration sites (in which carbon is stored in plant life instead of in the atmosphere). Unfortunately, pollinators are presently facing threats including habitat loss, habitat degradation, and habitat fragmentation via native vegetation being replaced by manicured lawns, crops and non-native gardens, roadways, and other human activities. Pollinator populations are also threatened by diseases, pesticides, invasive species, and climate change. Luckily, there are many ways to support pollinator species!

Know how to spot pollinators. Simply educating oneself on the recognition of pollinators species and their nesting sites is the first step to protecting these species. Generally, when people think of pollinators, bees are the first thing to come to mind. Bees are great, but there is also a plethora of many other pollinators that need to be conserved such as birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, and even small mammals.

If you spot a bee, bird, bat, or other type of nest in your yard – leave it! These species are generally not aggressive and only attack if threatened or disturbed, so simply leaving them as is will protect them and yourself. 

Surprisingly, most bee colonies actually nest underground! Most bee species prefer dry, dark places such as compost piles, abandoned mouse holes, holes in sheds, thick grass, and tree cavities. If you feel as though the bee nesting entrance (a hole that will observe lots of bee activity) is in an unsafe spot for small children or pets (i.e., at the doorway of a shed), you can simply create a new nest entrance by creating a new hole to the nest elsewhere and blocking the previous entrance – the bees will happily use this new route. Take note that bee nests do not last long, and the nest will naturally die in a few months, so if you can live peacefully with them for a few months, do so! If you come across a bee nest, record your sighting at Bumble Bee Watch – this will help scientists in their data collection for the protection of endangered bee species. Bat and bird nesting and roosting sites, however, should not be tampered with (unless by a professional) to avoid zoonotic diseases and attack. 

Make your garden a pollinator paradise. Keep areas of your lawn and/or garden untidy. This means leaving piles of leaves and twigs, letting the weeds grow wild, letting vegetables bolt and flower, leaving fallen logs and dead trees, mowing your lawn less often, and offering a source of water with a perch. Take pride in imperfections in your yard such as leaves chewed up by caterpillars – this just means that the insects are loving your yard! And of course, avoid herbicides and pesticides! 

Ditching the mainstream lawn in not only great for pollinators, but also for water conservation (you will not have to water your lawn as often) and will likely require less fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. There exists many different types of lawns that are not boring green grass, such as food forests, xeriscapes, Hügelkultur, meadowscapes, and hedgerows – you can read more about these unique landscaping techniques here

If you want to get your children involved in your endeavors to help pollinators, build a bug hotel! Collect natural materials like twigs, pinecones, bark, and leaves and place them in a wooden structure, a repurposed cardboard box, or old pallets. Bugs love nooks and crannies so create many compartments within your bug hotel. The best time to set up your bug hotel is during autumn so that insects can move in for the winter.  

Feed the butterflies, birds, and bees. Planting native flowers, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs is the best way to feed these species! Pollinators require blooming wildflowers, trees, and shrubs for nectar and pollen. Preferably, plants should blossom over seasons from early spring to late fall and should include a diversity of native plants of all shapes and sizes. Plant large patches of these plants instead of distributing them (this will prevent pollinators from tiring out by having them travel further distances). To learn more about plant species native to Southern Alberta, check out this link

Hummingbirds in particular are attracted to red-colored flowers like cosmos, petunias, hollyhock, bee balm, and more. Bees have great color vision and are attracted to blue, violet, white, and yellow. Milkweeds and crab-apples are a favorite for butterflies (though, be cautious when planting milkweed in your yard, as it is toxic to humans and animals in large amounts, so keep it fenced off from children and pets). Also, many different pollinators (from butterflies to honeybees) like sunflowers since they are rich in nectar and pollen. 

Inform, inspire, and support. Share your pollinator knowledge with friends, family, neighbours, and other gardeners. If you are super passionate about pollinators, you can even certify your garden as a place of wildlife protection through Certified Wildlife Habitat and receive an official yard sign to spread the message. 

Tell government officials that you care about pollinator health – which will entail strong climate policy and protection of natural habitats. 

Support the work of groups promoting science-based and practical efforts for conserving pollinators via donations, volunteering, sharing their mission, and more. 

As pollinator populations are threatened, so too are the foods and plant products we enjoy – dyes, essences, fibres, medicines, and spices – as well as the wild ecosystems that depend on these pollinators for food and pollination services. Whether it be the prairie, forest, crop fields, or your backyard, pollinators create many key linkages in food webs and help keep ecosystems functioning properly, and thus must be protected. Have fun gardening!