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It’s Pollinator Week–How Can I Help?

Pollinator Week occurs every year this time.  You can find out more about the initiative at the website, pollinator.org.

It was designed to draw attention to our dwindling pollinators like the monarchs,  originally.  But then bats became affected by white nose syndrome and it became clear that honeybees were in trouble, and our native bees were becoming more scarce and so Pollinator Week has really expanded to include all sorts of pollinators and to bring awareness to ways of gardening and backyard living that can help them.

Another cool thing that Pollinator Week does is draw attention to all the other different types of pollinators besides the ones mentioned above. Birds, flies, beetles, my beloved ants and insects–all of those can be pollinators and some of these can be endangered as well.

So how can you help? First, check out the website.  It will have resources for your part of North America  (sorry if you aren’t in North America–perhaps you recognize some of the plants mentioned for a similar latitude?)

Next, even if you can’t add any plants to your garden, practice responsible pesticide use in the garden you have.  We use no pesticides–& a pesticide is defined as a fungicide,  a herbicide or an insecticide–on our property. We don’t even use algacides in our pond.

But if you do, please use them responsibility.  Read and follow the label directions.  If you are spot treating something,  try to do it at a time when no or few pollinators are present–dusk is often a good time. And that is usually better for the plants (& the gardener) as well since it is cooler and causes less stress.

Finally if you are adding plants, consider natives.  It is a proven fact that they feed all wildlife in all stages of their lives more often than ornamentals.  But don’t feel that you must go crazy.  I will show you why  ( I hope) on Friday.

Leave Them Bee!

There is an ever increasing awareness of bees and their role in our ecosystem. In fact, I saw one statement that said that if every bee were to disappear off the face of the earth, humans would only survive for 4 days. Gracious! Surely in these days of cloning and other advances in technology, we could manage to stretch our survival out slightly longer than that, no?

But let’s hope it never comes to that, particularly with all the other dire news on what ever your news channel of choice is these days.

Still in all this awareness of bees, what I want to call most people’s awareness to is the gentle nature of bees. I don’t want anyone with a true allergy to bees to take any risks, of course–no one should endanger his or her life over an insect.

But for the rest of us without true allergies–those with just a morbid fear of insects (which sadly, is just too much of the population as I can attest to from years of retail gardening)–I am here to say that bees do not want to sting you.

Let me repeat that: bees don’t want to sting. Bees want to pollinate plants. That’s why they’re out there flying around. I can tell you that I have handled an awful lot of plants with bees on them and I have photographed even more and bees will not sting you.

There are exceptions to this rule. Don’t get into the middle of a swarm of honeybees. Those are not in the middle of “doing their job.” Those bees have been displaced and are riled up.

Don’t generally mistake bees for hornets or wasps–although early in the season, unless you step into a nest, hornets and wasps generally are fine as well. It’s only later in the season that they get “ornery.”

And don’t start flailing your arms and legs as if you’re trying to signal some sort of alien fleet if something–bee, wasp, hummingbird, or whatever comes nearby. That generally doesn’t end well.

But if you remain calm and keep your arms at your sides (which is a good idea anyway–who wants to be stung under the arm?), bees, wasps and hornets will generally fly up to you, look at you, and just fly right away.

It’s the same with bats. But that’s a whole different animal–literally.

A Voice for the Unloved

My long-time readers know how much I love ants. I think they are they greatest insects. And while we don’t ever want to go overboard and say, “Oh heck, ants are just like us!,” it’s true that if you want to compare a bug to human beings, ants are not a bad bug to start with and here’s why: they live in communities (that’s what those anthills are all about); they have defined roles (did you know that there are such things as “nurse” ants, “forager” ants and “soldier” ants, for example? In other words, ants have jobs to do just like we do!

And ants are pollinators as my long time readers know. They pollinate all sorts of spring wild flowers. But many of you have probably reaped the benefits of ant pollination in a more practical sense–I know I have.

If you grow grape hyacinth (muscari species) ants actually pollinate those. Ever wonder how or why they suddenly show up in strange places you didn’t plant them? You can thank the ants.

Ant pollination occurs in a rather unusual way. Certain plants have a structure called an eliaosome attached to their seeds. This structure is rich in lipids and proteins and attracts the ants, who pick up the seeds for these eliaosomes.

Once they carry the seeds back to their nests, the seeds are dispersed and the plants are transported–and in the process, pollinated. Pretty fascinating stuff.

I am not going to ask you to put up with ants all over your kitchen. Even I don’t do that. But please, if the ants are outside and safely away from your home, please let them be. This very active ant hill is on the edge of my driveway,  bothering no one.

And speaking of that, on Monday, we’ll talk about bees!

Happy Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day.  Thank you to all who have served our country.

I honor this day in a bit of a strange way.  I always plant my tomatoes on Memorial Day. What on earth might that do with honoring the memory of veterans, you ask?

Well,  for years, I used to plant tomatoes with my Dad, who was a World War II vet. Even after we gardened in different places, I still grew tomatoes for him and, if I had to,  I shipped them to him.

He will be gone 17 years this summer,  but the tomato planting always helps me to remember him–& all veterans.

As a bonus this year, my poppies opened this weekend too.  Very fitting.

Wordless Wednesday

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These are two bidens plants that I bought for my vegetable garden. Notice I said I bought them for my vegetable garden. It’s important to have lots of colorful, composite type flowers for pollinators in the vegetable garden.

Also notice the difference in the two types of plant tags. I don’t expect you to be able to read them. Just notice that the one on the bottom left is your standard plant tag. I’ll show you the one on the right in a moment.

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Sorry I didn’t think to clean the dirt off this one before I photo’d. I think you can still clearly see the marketing at work on this tag. It’s splashed all over with the words”bee” and “Pollinator Partnership.”

I didn’t pay anything extra for this plant–nor would I unless I were sure that the money were going to support habitat or something. But after my 5 post series on supporting merchants that support pollinators and shopping for pollinators, I thought this was a really interesting piece of marketing!

Pollinators and Pesticides Don’t Mix

I am sure that you don’t want to hear the story about why I became an organic gardener again. I re-hashed it just in the last two weeks.

So here’s a different story that I haven’t told in quite some time. Retail gardening was an eye-opener for me, particularly as an organic gardener. The idea that not only was I there to sell an arsenal of toxic products and to advise the consumers on how to use them was difficult, but worse yet, in the box store where I worked, half the customers were absolutely convinced that they knew far better than I did how to use the products and refused to take my suggestions.

This was extremely upsetting because I had customers coming in and saying things like that they were going to put down their crabgrass preventer in February because the bag said it could be applied then (mind you, it’s a national product, so the February recommendation is for the southern regions of the country!). Some of them even said that they were going to apply it over the snow! Sigh.

I don’t have enough time or patience to explain why that is a bad idea other to say that none of the product is going to reach your grass. It’s just going to wash away, into the streets and storm drains and contribute to pollution in our waterways. So for those of you that do that, you are wasting money and polluting our waters. Please re-think.

The other issue with this foolhardy way of using so-called “Step 1” programs is that the preventer in these bags is good for 4 months of crabgrass prevention. Now, crabgrass germinates at soil temperatures of 50 degrees or so (not under the snow!) So if you put the preventer down in mid-February, let’s count forward. Your preventer will be all used up by mid-June–just about the time crabgrass really gets going in my region.

But this is not a post about crabgrass. It’s a post about the many crazy things that folks do to harm our pollinators, our waterways and even ourselves.

Back when I was at that same box store, I had a lovely woman come to me and say that she wasn’t getting any zucchini on her plants. She had flowers on the plants, but the flowers were just falling off and not forming squashes.

So I asked her if she saw any bees in her yard. She had to think long and hard and finally said, no, that she didn’t. So I told her that her squashes weren’t getting pollinated so they couldn’t form the zucchini.

She wanted to know why, so I asked her about pesticide use. Normally, I knew better than to voluntarily bring this up. At first she said no, but then she said that yes, they did use the 4 step program on their lawns. They used a grub killer on the lawn. She also used a foundation spray that claimed to work for long periods of time to keep insects out. And she might even have used something in the garden–I don’t recall now–like a weed killing product.  But even if not, that’s still a pretty intensive pesticide load on the property and it was clearly taking a toll on the bees–there were none.

So you tell me whether pesticides and pollinators mix based on that story. Or, you can learn the hard way and try it on your own. But, quite frankly, I’d prefer that you didn’t. Our pollinators are too imperiled for that!

So What if I Don’t Include Flowers for My Pollinators?

What are the consequences of leaving flowers out of the edible garden? Well, it depends.

If you have neighboring gardens with lots of flowers, you may have no consequences. Bees are amazing fliers and their territories can be as wide as 4 miles.

Further, it’s been shown that they are somewhat specific. So if a colony of bees is pollinating apple blossoms, they’ll come to your apple trees too, even if you do nothing special to entice them there.

If a colony of bees is pollinating everyone else’s tomato gardens, chances are they’ll stop by yours as well–even if you don’t have anything around to entice them like bright yellow marigolds or nasturtiums.

What is going to really mess things up for you? Pesticides! Pollinators are highly sensitive to pesticides! And remember, no pollinators, no fruits or vegetables. (Well, not exactly–we’ll still have lettuce and leafy greens, radishes and root crops, herbs–but many of our favorite summertime vegetables won’t be possible without pollinators–or be woefully stunted!)

On Monday I’ll talk about a story from my retail gardening days about just how influential pesticides are on crop production–and lack of pollinators.