A plea for pollinators

Image: Gracia Lam

Joyce shared a wonderful slide presentation with a focus on pollinators, how they interact with the environment, what a pollinator friendly garden may look like and ways to create one of your own. She made a plea on behalf of pollinators using this quote to give context to her stance :

“From the very beginning of the world, the other species were a lifeboat for the people. Now, we must be theirs.”

~Robin Wall Kimmerer

Why should we care?

Did you know that ¾ of our food crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers rely on insect pollination? So, if we want to continue to benefit from the bountiful harvest, we need to take some time to think about how we interact with the natural world.

Creating a pollinator friendly garden requires a shift in perspective. This may begin with you, then your neighbours and perhaps even the City of Kingston. Joyce finished her presentation encouraging us to become advocates for pollinators by “walking the walk” and then sharing our approach with others. She also left us with an extensive list of references to help us embark on this journey.

Shifting our perspective – Polycultures vs Monocultures

To begin with, how we think about pollinators is important. While most of us know about honeybees and monarchs, few of us know much about the hundreds of other pollinators we share our gardens with. We see them as individuals (sometimes as pests) vs part of a dynamic, complex interrelated web of life.

Each insect has a specific role to play in its environment and in turn specific food it likes to eat and places to nest. This means that if we want diversity and resilience, we need to shift from monocultures (lawns!) to layered polycultures. We need to shift our perspective of what a “healthy” yard is. This means allowing stumps and loose bark, wood piles, dead stems and leaves as well as some “weeds”, like mullein and dandelions, into our yard to provide both food and shelter for a more diverse range of pollinators. Even bare patches of ground provide homes for some bees. Perhaps we could start looking at “holey” leaves not as a problem to be dealt with but as an indication that a caterpillar is being nurtured. The caterpillar, in turn, will go on to become food for a bird or a pollinator for plants. Growing plants native to our area will, of course, go a long way to supporting our local pollinators. Perhaps we need to come up with a local pollinator mascot 😉 to give insects and bees a little more prominence.


Professor wants public to 'Bee informed' about pollinators ...
Image: Professor Joseph Wilson

Bees are often most prominent in our conversation about pollinators, and we often think about the bumble bee, but there is so much more. Joyce shared that Canada has over 850 species of native bees; 8 of them are at risk. Each bee also has a specific role in the ecosystem.  For example, 

  • Squash bees collect only cucurbit pollen grains; 
  • Bumblebees pollinate legumes and early flowering plants like haskaps; 
  • Sweat bees prefer strawberries & blueberries; 
  • Mason bees help to assure a good harvest of many fruit trees and are “the new frontier” for crop pollination;
  • Tiny sweat bees pollinate smaller flowered native plants;
  • Blue orchard mason bees pollinate many fruits (plums cherries, pears, apples, blueberries).

Of course, each bee species has its own preferred foods and accommodation, and they need to drink. 

Other important pollinators include butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, flies, birds, bats, the wind and even you!

So what can you do?

Offer food, water and homes

Provide accommodation: Rocks, dead wood, old twigs, leaves, bare soil or hollow stems. You could also add a bee house or shells. Some bees like to live in tree snags. 

Provide food. Solidago (goldenrods), Helianthus (sunflowers), Symphyotrichum (asters) and Rudbeckia (coneflowers) are a great start.

Provide water. A shallow dish filled with stones, branches or a place for them to perch on as they drink. 

Let you lawn grow wild

A typical lawn is a green desert. Pollinators need a variety of plant heights and flower sizes, bare soil for nests and diverse native flowers, grasses, shrubs & flowering trees. 

Perhaps think of making the change gradually. Actually, it’s less work, less money and less polluting. Here I’m thinking lawn mowers and fertilizers.

If you have a lawn, keep it on the taller side; mow less, fertilize less and water less. This will encourage native plants to move into your lawn like wild strawberries, wild blue violets and trout lilies. A longer lawn will allow plants to flower, and, remember, there are many beneficial “weeds”. What seeds are lying dormant? Try making space to see if the native seed bank will recover.

If you want to go further, sow flower seeds into your lawn like clover, wild strawberry, barren strawberry, self-heal, birdsfood trefoil, dwarf cinquefoil, daisies, bugleweed and ground plum.

Replace your lawn with a layered plant community

Less Weeds, More Wow, Nebraska State Arboretum

If you plan to substantially alter your yard, some careful planning will be needed. You can begin to think of your yard in layers: a structural layer, a seasonal theme layer (for flowering through the growing season) and a functional ground cover layer (to replace the mulch). 

Another framework to use is to think of anchors, seasonal stars (seasonal blooms for pollinators), place holders (fill gaps that emerge by self-seeding like Rudbeckia) and ground huggers ( a diverse group of low spreading plants, not a monoculture). You can use discarded plant pots of various sizes and colours laid out as markers on the site to help you envision your scheme.

Think of developing compatible plant communities rather than planting masses of a single species. Think in terms of matrixes. This is a complex process, but there are many resources out there to help (see suggested reading list at the end of this blog).

Again, you can choose how radical a change you want to make. One option is to develop a shorter mix of 5 to 7 plants including sedges and grasses. This creates a “tidier” more designed look, but there is less diversity and, thus, fewer varieties of pollinators.  A second option is to create a larger diversity of taller plants which will create a wilder “messier” look but will attract a greater diversity of pollinators.

Talking to neighbours

As you alter your suburban landscape, others will notice. People’s notion of the “ideal” yard is slowly changing, but the traditional look of the front yard with the neatly mowed lawn cleared from leaves and “debris” still very much pervades, so much so that it is embedded in our local city bylaws. So, when you make the change, you will have to become an ambassador for pollinators. There are many ways to do this, and you will find what works for you. Joyce has some examples of what others have done across the world, in her slide show. Yes this is an international “awakening”. Wouldn’t it be nice to be a small part of this?

Imagine your yard becoming a pollinator paradise. The bees, butterflies, birds and many other wild beings will thank you!

“That gifts that being offered was evident in the general hum and flutter of insect life. The meadow was audible with bees and crickets; the mowed grass was silent. The meadow waved and nodded in the wind; crowds of leafhoppers leapt to the brush of a hand. The lawn was deadly still.”

Sara Stein, Noah’s Garden

Recommended reading 

Your Questions

My friend says that pink bee balm doesn’t attract insects. Is it possible that some hybrids don’t attract insects, when the colour is important for attracting them?

Many hybrids don’t support pollinators. Some hybrids may have less scent, the color may not attract local insects or the shapes of the flowers don’t support pollinators entering. It is always better to go to native species.

Is the City of Kingston reviewing their lawn by-laws?

Joyce made a presentation to them last fall, but plans to follow up at the next bylaw review. The city has a bylaw review cycle. There is still a perception that low mowed lawn is best. The city did not buy into the “No Mow May” as some residents got bylaw infractions during this time for the appearance of their lawn. 

If you are creating a more pollinator friendly yard and attract the attention of your bylaw officer, it is a good idea to explain what you are doing. Know which plants are beneficial and why. Also, let Joyce at Rideau 1000 Islands Master Gardeners know so that she can use this as she continues to lobby.

Sandra Jass has also sent information to the manager of By-law enforcement and wants to start a coalition for amending the by-law. Currently, their stance is that they will allow flowers, but grass should be not higher than 8 inches.

Are bylaw officials concerned with appearance of property or tick issues?

Officials main concern is with appearance of property. Neighbours, however, may worry about ticks. Ticks thrive best on the edges of forests where there are deer, so a meadow should not cause extra problems with ticks.

If you are concerned about ticks, plant alliums. Ticks don’t like them.  

If ticks dislike alliums, is the same true of onions?

Yes. Onions are part of the allium family. Other members include onions, garlic, chives (bloom in spring) and garlic chives (bloom late fall, white flowers). There are also many ornamental alliums. It is possible to have alliums blooming all season in your garden.

Egyptian walking onion is a great perennial onion. It spreads like wildfire and is edible and tasty. You can eat the greens as well as the whole bulb, although this is small. It is called walking because as the top bends to touch the ground it roots. This plant is also beneficial as it deters predators that will interfere with apple trees. It is all around a very beneficial plant that is easy to share once it gets going.  

Where can you get alliums?

Allium bulbs are available at many Kingston stores in the fall when bulbs are sold. You may also find garlic chives and chives locally from Burt’s Greenhouses, for example. Check our Nurseries, Seeds, Soil page page for more local suppliers. Another option is to order bulbs online from bulb houses where you may find specialty alliums. 

I have a few bee houses, but no bees after 2 years. Do I persevere?

When planning a bee house, some things to consider are positioning, size and depth of the holes. Many prefer their home to be south-east or south facing with a roof for shade and 5-6 feet above the ground. Consider repositioning the house. If you have many bees in your yard and they are not occupying the house, it may also be because they already have places to nest. 

Plans are evolving for a “creature tower workshop” in the future. 

Will keeping standing water be a problem with mosquitoes?

Standing water could attract mosquitos, so it’s best to empty your dish every few days. 

Can you share the plant matrix?

The plant matrix is from Green Abundance by Design.

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Happy gardening!

Reporting by Colette McKinnon, Master Gardener in Training, Rideau 1000 Island Master Gardeners