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In the Garden: Avoid pesticides to help protect pollinators

Without garden pollinators like honeybees and native solitary bees, productive vegetable gardens and orchards wouldn't be possible. (Susan Mulvihill)
Without garden pollinators like honeybees and native solitary bees, productive vegetable gardens and orchards wouldn't be possible. (Susan Mulvihill)

If you sit quietly in the middle of your garden, you will witness an incredible amount of activity. I’m not talking about other people in your garden, but rather, the vital role that pollinating insects play in the cycle of life that takes place every day.

Without pollinators, we wouldn’t have tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, peas, melons, squash, berries or tree fruits.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Over 90 percent of all flowering plants and over three-quarters of the staple crop plants that feed humankind rely on pollinators.”

Chances are, you’ve heard of colony collapse disorder, which has had a serious impact on honeybees worldwide. To date, scientists have primarily attributed CCD to pesticide use. When you think of how important bees are for our gardens, orchards and farms, CCD is a frightening scenario.

In addition to honeybees, which are not native to North America, there are a lot of insects and birds that are garden pollinators.

Solitary nesting bees – which include leaf-cutter and orchard mason bees – are native to the U.S. and are responsible for pollinating crops such as alfalfa, blueberries, strawberries and apples. Most nest in the ground or in dead trees.

Bumblebees live in colonies, and their nests are typically located in the ground, although they will also nest in cavities found inside walls or dead trees. They visit a wide variety of plants for nectar and pollen.

Insects that don’t come to mind as being pollinators include thousands of types of flies and beetles. For example, we’ve probably all seen hover flies – also known as flower flies or Syrphid flies – cruising around our flower beds. While they easily could be mistaken for bees, they only have two wings and brown or black and yellow bands on their abdomens.

Appreciated for their beauty, butterflies are a welcome sight in the garden. They lay their eggs in host plants that serve as home to the caterpillar and pupae stages of their young. Examples of host plants include milkweed, fennel, parsley, dill and the coneflower.

Moths tend to be nocturnal and pollinate night-blooming flowers. I’ve frequently seen Sphinx or Hawk moths, which are the adult form of the hornworm, hovering around flowers like hummingbirds at dusk while harvesting nectar.

In addition to insects, hummingbirds are important pollinators. While foraging for nectar, their activities also pollinate the flowers.

What can we do to protect the pollinators around us and attract more to our gardens?

For starters, avoid using pesticides. In most instances, there are nonchemical solutions to insect or plant disease problems. The Master Gardener volunteers in your county can help you select from a number of effective, environmentally friendly options.

If you absolutely must use a pesticide, follow the label directions and apply it during the evening when most pollinators aren’t active. Even better, apply it when the plant’s flowers are not in bloom.

Plant a wide variety of plants, including native plants, that will be in bloom at different times throughout the growing season. This will provide good sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators.

Provide them with a water source and areas to nest in. Shrubs, small brush piles and tall grasses will attract them to your garden.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at Visit her blog at for more gardening tips, information and events.
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